Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

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Necessity Is the Mother of Invention


By: Anonymous

Date: c.1890

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.

About the Artist: Otto Bettmann (1903–1998), a librarian and curator in Berlin in the 1930s, began collecting photographs to preserve as a historical archive. Fleeing Germany with several trunks of photographs in his possession, he settled in the United States. By 1995, when Corbis acquired the Bettmann archive, his collection included more than eleven million items. This cartoon is part of the collection. The artist is not known.


Fathers participated directly in the raising of children in the nineteenth century to a much greater extent than is commonly believed; the concept of "paternal manhood" urges fathers to take an active role in helping their wives raise and nurture the children. In rural families, the mother and father share farm chores and household chores; though gender roles were distinct in daily life, under duress and crises women performed standard "male" labor, while men performed household, cooking, and sewing work if their wives were sick, away, or otherwise unable to perform such work.

With industrialization and urbanization, the role of the father, like that of all family members, changed. Moving from small towns with strong community and kinship ties into the city meant a loss of personal context; the patriarchal rule, reinforced by community and standing, lessened for many families, giving rise to a host of social changes including higher rates of illegitimacy, increased women's rights, greater spread of venereal disease, and an increased reliance of women's and children's wages in poorer families. The balance of power shifted.

While men had always been involved in childbirth to some extent—either as the direct support for wives birthing at home, or waiting outside the room on call to seek help or provide assistance—the increasing use of family planning information and devices in the late 1800s and early 1900s gave men an insight into reproduction and women's health that men had previously lacked. The father's involvement in infant and toddler care varied with each family; the family's class or status also played a part in father involvement. Historical evidence gleaned from diaries, letters, literature and nonfiction books shows that many middle class fathers were involved in their children's emotional lives, achievements, and academic progress, while fathers in working class families engaged in day-to-day feeding, toileting, and play with their children.

This cartoon, drawn and published around 1890, demonstrates one father's solution to his need to care for his baby and his desire to watch a baseball game.



See primary source image.


The tongue-in-cheek illustration reflects the playful tone this father sets—he can fill his fatherly duties, please his wife, and see the New York-Brooklyn game all at once, with some ingenuity and invention. The cartoon pokes fun at the lengths to which this father will go to watch the game, but at the same time offers a glimpse into urban fatherhood; that this father is expected to attend to his child's needs at all demonstrates social expectations placed on fathers in this sector of society.

Class played a large role in the degree to which fathers were involved in the daily lives and emotional development of their children. Upper class fathers tended to have a fairly small role in their children's lives, as did mothers in the same class; the fathers were the ultimate authority in deciding academic issues, marriage matches, and career paths. Poor and working class fathers were often, by necessity, involved in child care or arranging apprenticeships and jobs for their older children, though most working class fathers worked fourteen hours per day, six days per week; the paucity of extra time meant that the father was not available to his children for many hours each week. In addition, mothers in poor and working class families experienced frequent pregnancies and births; the weight of gestating, birthing, nursing, and raising a child took its toll on the mother's health. Fathers in the poor and working classes faced the greater likelihood of becoming a widower with many children, in need of a partner for help. While maternal deaths were common in the late 1800s—four to five per 1000 births—the poor and working class experienced maternal mortality at higher rates.

The middle class father was often engaged and involved, actively interested in infant and toddler growth, working with children on academic development, and easing into an adult relationship with his children as they grew. While child care of the nature depicted in this cartoon would have been less common for middle class fathers, the caricature symbolizes the changing expectations on fathers at the turn of the century, as social reformers and women's rights proponents argued for changes in gender roles and ideals of childhood and innocence.



La Rossa, Ralph. The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Frank, Stephen M. Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Johansen, Shawn. Family Men: Middle-Class Fatherhood in Early Industrializing America. London: Routledge, 2001.

Peters, H. Elizabeth, and Gary W. Peterson, eds. Fatherhood: Research, Interventions, and Policies. Bingamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 2000.


Atkinson, Maxine, and Stephen Blackwelder. "Fathering in the 20th Century." Journal of Marriage and the Family. 55 (1993): 975-986.