Family Life: New Roles for Wives and Children

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Family Life: New Roles for Wives and Children


The Ideal Family. One of the most popular songs of mid-nineteenth-century America was the sentimental ballad Home, Sweet Home, written by American expatriate John Howard Payne in 1823. It was sung in soldiers camps on both sides of the Civil War, as well as in parlors for the rest of the century. Like their European counterparts, Americans envisioned an ideal family life in which a strong, authoritative father figure was the main breadwinner and a loving mother ran the household and provided its moral center. This angel of the house tried to create a refuge from a corrupt modern world, a quiet, clean, and comfortable place of repose for the weary father at the end of his working day.

New Roles for Women. Most Americans still lived and worked on independent farms, where the mother and children played a crucial role in earning the familys living. For farm women the new domestic ideal had little relationship to reality. In towns and cities, however, the Industrial Revolution was transforming the way business was conducted, which in turn changed the fathers relationship to the family. While once a merchant or craftsman typically worked in a shop in or connected to his home, by the mid nineteenth century he was more likely to be spending his days away from home, working in a mill, an office, or a shop. As a result women gained more authority over their children and a larger role in running the household. While the father had once exercised control over the way children were raised, once he was absent from the household for most of the day, women began making the important child-rearing decisions, meting out punishments and controlling their offsprings daily lives. At the same time, however, the woman became divorced from the outside world, in part because of the widespread belief that, as the moral center of the family, she needed to be protected from its temptations and evils. Gradually, nineteenth-century women were relegated to life in a small domestic circle. Women carried on their daily activities in their homes and neighborhoods and did not often venture into business or politics. Nevertheless, after about 1820 there was a steadily growing trend toward considering womens and mens roles as roughly equal, though separate and distinct. The changes in a womans role were the result not only of shifting work patterns, but also of lower fertility rates, new attitudes toward children, the greater availability of consumer goods, and high mobility, which eroded community ties. This shift had just begun in the middle of the nineteenth century and did not become entrenched until the end of the century. Yet most American familieswhether rich or poor, free or slave, native-born or immigrantattempted to approach the new domestic ideal in some fashion.


In her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave, described her former masters sexual advances:

During the first years of my service in Dr. Flints family, I was accustomed to share some indulgences with the children of my mistress. Though this seemed to me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and tried to merit the kindness by the faithful discharge of my duties. But now I entered on my fifteenth year a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. My masters age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made me bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. . . He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think o£ I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. . . . He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. . .. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage.

Source: Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Lydia Maria Child (Boston: Privately printed, 1861).

Children. Traditionally children had been considered important contributors to the family economy and were later expected to support their parents in old age. As American society began to change, children became more of an expense than a source of income. Although children could help out around the house and farm or in a home-based business, once fathers began working away from the home, they did not bring their children into the workplace unless compelled by economic necessity. Many parents realized that to succeed in an industrial society their children needed more education than children of earlier generations. (Poor children, immigrants, and slaves, of course, either did not attend school or left it to work at an early age.) A few years in a high school or an academy cost much more than a grammar-school education. As raising children became more expensive, families began to limit the number of their offspring, and as children stayed in school longer and no longer contributed to the family income, Americans developed a new attitude toward childhood itself. While earlier children

had been viewed as simply small adults, Americans began to think of childhood and adolescence as important and distinct life phases that should be protected and cherished. Childhood was viewed as a time of irresponsible enjoyment. Since mothers had fewer children to worry about, they could lavish more time and attention on each son and daughter, and the age at which a child took on adult responsibilities grew later. Advice books for young mothers stressed the womans nurturing and emotional qualities. Mothers were advised to correct their children with gentle admonitions, not by applying physical punishment. In fact, many European visitors to the United States were appalled by the undisciplined, rude behavior of American brats.

Household Structure. Another important change that took place during the first half of the nineteenth century was in the size and extent of households. Before the 1820s and 1830s American households included many non-family members. For example, a master craftsman was responsible for the apprentices working under him. They lived in his house, where he supervised not only their work but their moral and religious education. Servants, farm help, live-in distant relatives, and long-term visitors were also considered part of the family unit. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the American family became smaller and much more private. Now the ideal was the nuclear family: the biological parents and their own children. This change took place in the Northeast first and did not reach the South until later in the century.

Antebellum Southern Plantation Life. In upper-class plantation families the father had primary authority over

a large extended household that included not only family members but also various servants and slaves. He exerted greater control over his wife and children, including grown children, than in other parts of the country. One of the most complex relationships was the one between plantation mistresses and slaves. Because there were often close physical and emotional ties between the white family and domestic slaves, plantation life held a particular danger for black women. Some owners and owners sons expected them to be sexually available. Resistance was usually not possible because there were no laws to prevent these men from resorting to violence to get their way. This situation enraged and frustrated the planters wives, who had to acquiesce and often visited their anger and revenge on the slave women.

Slave Families. American slaves could not legally marry, nor could they exercise any control over the destinies of their children. Frequently separated by sale, slave families had to make painful compromises and adjustments. One historian has calculated that during his or her lifetime the average American slave experienced the loss by sale of eleven family members. Most slaves, however, attempted to create and maintain the traditional family structure. In 1851 a slave owner advertised for a runaway slave, stating that he was most likely lurking in the neighborhood of E. D. Walkers at Moores Creek, who owns most of his relatives, or Nathan Bonhams who owns his mother, or perhaps, near Fletcher Bells, at Long Creek, who owns his father.

Slave Marriages. Though such unions had no legal standing, slaves did marry, and many marriages lasted twenty years or more. Slave marriages could be ended by the sale of a spouse. Ministers who officiated at slave weddings pronounced the couple husband and wife until death or distance do you part. Some slave marriages took place between men and women who lived on different plantations and had different owners. In such cases, a husband who wanted to visit his wife had to obtain a written pass from his owner and often had to walk for many miles to see her.

Kinship Networks. Slave families could rarely attain the privacy so prized among nineteenth-century Americans. Gang labor, communal eating, and inadequate living accommodations that forced many people to live together in a single small cabin all tended to break down privacy and individuality. Yet historians have found that most black families, whether enslaved or free, lived in two-parent households. In 1850 approximately 64 percent of all slaves lived in two-parent families, and 25 percent were in single-parent families. Around their fragile nuclear families slaves built extensive kinship networks that did not depend on blood ties. Older people, whether related or not, watched their friends children and cared for them when parents were working or when one or both parents were sold away. Younger slaves addressed these older slaves using the honorific titles aunt and uncle.

Free Black Families. After emancipation freed slaves attempted to shape their family life according to the nineteenth-century ideal. For the first few years after the end of the Civil War, there was a significant drop in the labor performed outside the home by black women, who tried to create a home life similar to that of other American families. In the South two-parent families were the norm, while in other parts of the country there were more female-headed black households. This difference has been attributed in part to the high mortality rate among black males, which made black women widows at an earlier age than their white counterparts and in part to the disruptive influence of the urban environment on individuals reared in rural surroundings.

Immigrant and Working-Class Households. Nearly all Americans lived in some kind of family unit. About 85 percent of all American households followed the traditional pattern of two parents and their children. Another 10 or 12 percent included distant relatives or unrelated people, and only 1 to 3 percent of Americans lived alone. Unlike the middle-class American family, the working-class or immigrant family needed financial contributions from every family member. Women often did laundry and sewing for more-affluent families. Nearly one third of all working-class families took boarders into their already crowded households. In most immigrant families, attitudes toward children followed the older tradition of expecting children to contribute financially to the family and later to care for elderly parents. Immigrant children usually left school and went to work at an earlier age than native-born white children. Child labor was not recognized as a major social problem until later in the century, but in 1870 nearly 13 percent of all American children were working. Among the poorest Americans, family structures broke down completely. Their children took to streets, where they picked pockets or stole from fruit and vegetable sellers. Daughters left home to find work and often fell into prostitution. Alcoholism and spousal or child abuse were rampant, prompting many middle-class women to join the temperance crusade.

Alternative Families. Several religious groups experimented with alternative family arrangements. The United Society of Believers in Christs Second Coming, or Shakers, believed in complete celibacy. They established their first American community at Watervliet, New York, near Albany in 1776 and had eighteen communities in the United States by 1826. They lived communally with men and women, often living in unconnected halves of the same building, and became wellknown for their simple but well-made furniture and handicrafts. By 1860 Shakerism had gone into decline, but some communities lasted into the twentieth century. Almost from the time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, its members were attacked and persecuted for their unconventional beliefs. In 1847 they settled in Utah hoping to practice their religion in peace. During the 1850s, however, they became the subject of a nationwide rash of scandalous newspaper stories, after their leader, Brigham Young, made public their doctrine of plural marriage, or polygamy, which allowed men to have more than one wife. Fewer than one-fifth of the Mormons actually practiced polygamy, and in two-thirds of those cases the husband had two wives. The Mormons polygamy brought them into conflict with the federal government during the 1850s and stood in the way of Utah statehood. Their leader formally renounced plural marriage in 1890, and Utah became a state six years later.


Robert H. Bremner, ed., Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, 3 volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970-?974);

Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: Womans Sphere in New England, 1780-1834 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977);

Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Woman and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980);

Joseph M. Hawes, Children in Urban Society: Juvenile Delinquency in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971);

Daniel E. Sutherland, The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

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Family Life: New Roles for Wives and Children

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