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Family Life, 19th-Century Families

breadwinner husband, fewer Americans, pin money, barrooms, religious tracts

Only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries did ideas of affectionate marriages and loving, sentimental relations with children become dominant in American family life. These attitudes first took hold among the urban, educated wealthy and middle classes, and later spread to rural and poorer Americans. This change was due to the growth and increasing sophistication of the economy, which meant that economic issues became less pressing for families and production moved outside the home to specialized shops and factories. With more leisure time and greater physical comfort, people felt that happiness, rather than simple survival, was possible. English philosopher John Locke’s theory that human beings are born good, with their minds as blank slates, contrasted with traditional Christian beliefs that children were sinful by nature. If this blank-slate theory is correct, then goodness can be instilled in children by showering them with kindness and love and by shielding them from the bad things in this world.

Additionally, the psychological theory of sensibility, another 18th-century idea, argued that positive feelings such as friendship, happiness, sympathy, and empathy should be cultivated for a civil life of reason. By the 19th century, romanticism and sentimentality put even more emphasis on emotional attachment and the cultivation of feeling. New ideas about human equality and liberty undermined older notions of hierarchy and order. Americans applied the political ideal of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” espoused in the Declaration of Independence to family life. Husbands were to rule, but with affection and with their wives’ interests at heart. Wives obeyed, not out of force, but out of love. Parents sought the affection of their children, not their economic contributions. This was the new ideal, but old habits died slowly. Authority, inequality, and violence declined but never entirely disappeared.

By the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, marriage was undertaken for affection, not for economic reasons. Courtship became more elaborate and couples had more freedom. They attended dances, church socials, picnics, and concerts, and got to know one another well. After the wedding, couples went on honeymoons to have a romantic interlude before settling down to daily life. Raising children became the most important job a wife performed, and children were to be loved and sheltered. Physical punishment of children did not disappear, but it became more moderate and was combined with encouragement and rewards.

Servants, apprentices, and others gradually dropped out of the definition of family. Servants no longer slept within the same house as the family, and apprentices rented rooms elsewhere. By the 19th century, the nuclear family, consisting of a father and mother and their dependent children, had become the model. The ideal, loving family could be found in magazines, poems, and religious tracts. Novels promoted romantic courtship and warned readers of insincere fortune hunters or seducers when seeking a husband or wife. Love and sincerity were advocated. Still, economic considerations did not entirely disappear. Wealthy women married wealthy men; poorer men married poorer women.

The economic transformations of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century brought about further changes in men’s and women's roles. Work was less likely to be done in the home, as fewer and fewer Americans lived on farms, and men left the home to work in offices and factories. Men assumed sole responsibility for the financial support of the family, becoming the breadwinners, a term coined in the early 19th century. Married women were not supposed to work for wages, and were considered too pure and innocent to be out in the working world. Women were supposed to devote themselves to domestic duties, and children were seen as young innocents who needed a mother's protection. Fathers had less and less to do with raising their children.

Although the 19th-century ideal held that married women were not supposed to work, women did contribute to the family’s well-being. Wealthy women planned formal dinners, balls, and other social gatherings that were crucial to their husbands’ political and business success. Middle-class women sewed for what they called pin money, small amounts that frequently balanced the family budget. Married women in the middle and working classes took in boarders, sold hot lunches or pastries to neighbors, and saved money by doing their own baking, brewing, gardening, and other chores. It was also common in middle- and working-class families for sons to be sent to school, while their teenage sisters supported this schooling by working in a factory, teaching in elementary schools, or taking in sewing. Such work was considered acceptable as long as it was either done in the house or by unmarried young women.

Many 19th-century American families did not fit into this nuclear family ideal, as it was expensive. High housing costs meant more people than just the nuclear family often lived under one roof. Extended families, including grandparents and other relatives, were most numerous in the mid-19th century. Immigrants clung to traditional extended-family forms, and poorer families often included grandparents, grandchildren, and sometimes aunts and uncles in order to maximize sources of income and save on rent. Men, women, and children worked long hours for low wages in dirty, cramped surroundings in the sweatshops of major cities. Although the ideal woman was supposed to be pure, innocent, and domestic, most poor women had to work. Taking in boarders, such as young men and women working in local factories, was another way that families earned money, although they gave up family privacy.

Low wages during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, in the first half of the 19th centurymeant that even young children sometimes had to work instead of being sheltered at home. In the poorest families, and particularly among newer immigrants, children younger than 12 often worked in factories or sold newspapers and trinkets on the streets. School was a luxury for some poor families because they needed the children’s income. Because of this, illiteracy rates actually rose during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, even though public schools were more widely available.

When husbands died or abandoned their families, women had no choice but to work, opening a shop if they had the capital or working in a sweatshop if they did not. Wages for women’s work were low, and prostitution, which offered more money, flourished in towns big and small. It was very difficult for a single mother or father to work and raise children, and children of single parents were often left at orphanages or simply abandoned to the streets. This was before Social Security, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, retirement funds, health insurance, and other private and public programs existed to aid families in times of crisis.

American families made a variety of compromises in the face of economic hardship. In many southern and eastern European immigrant families, where it was more important for married women to stay at home, children were withdrawn from school and sent to work so their mother could run the household. Among African Americans living in the North, educating their children was the most important family goal, so wives joined their husbands in the workforce to enable children to stay in school. In some families, men had total control over finances; in others, wives handled the husband’s paycheck. In some families, resources went to the eldest son, so he could make money and later support his parents and siblings. In other families, all boys were treated equally or all boys and girls were equal. Some families valued close ties and insisted that older children settle near their parents, while others sent their sons out West, to the cities, or simply on the road in hopes of a better future.

During the 19th century, the majority of Americans continued to live on farms where everyone in the family worked, even if it was in and around the house. Women on farms still worked as they had during colonial times, although by the 19th century, they were producing butter, eggs, cheese, and other goods to sell in the nearest city rather than to trade to neighbors. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers worked long and hard for only a fraction of their produce. School was out of the question for poor children in these circumstances. In the West, the difficulties of pioneering often meant that all members of the family worked. For most Americans, these alternate family arrangements were less than desirable. Most Americans sought the private, affectionate, comfortable family life with domestic wives, breadwinning husbands, and well-educated children.

The dominance of the family ideal is only one aspect of life in the 19th century. The constant emphasis on family, domesticity, and children could be confining, so men and women developed interests outside of the home. The 19th century was a great age of organizations only for men, and fraternal groups thrived. Taverns and barrooms provided a space for men to make political deals, secure jobs, and be entertained. Men formed literary and scientific societies, labor organizations, reform groups, Bible study groups, and sports leagues.

The 19th century was also a period of change for women. Married women in the 19th century, who had more education and fewer children than their predecessors, founded reform groups, debating societies, and literary associations. They involved themselves in school reform, health issues, women’s rights, temperance, child labor, and other public-policy issues. A few states in the West granted women full political rights. A women’s movement demanding equal rights, including the vote, gained strength after 1848. In the first half of the century, public education extended basic literacy to many poorer Americans, and in the second half of the century women's high schools and colleges were founded, along with coeducational colleges in the Midwest and West. Women’s occupational choices began to expand into the new fields of nursing, secretarial work, department store clerking, and more, although work was something a young woman did only until she married. Women who wanted a career had to forgo marriage.

By the middle of the 19th century, many states had passed laws allowing women control over their possessions and wages. A few states allowed divorce on the grounds of physical abuse. New stereotypes appeared at the same time. In child custody cases, women, rather than fathers, were now given control of their children because women were considered natural child rearers. This practice would persist until the late 20th century, when shared custody arrangements became common.

The rise of labor unions during the 19th century was instrumental in changing the nature of work and the shape of families in America. By the end of the century unions were demanding higher wages for men, so that they could provide the sole support for their families. The unions argued that women and children should refrain from paid labor rather than become unionized and press for higher wages. Behind these demands was the ideal of the breadwinner husband and the domestic wife. Unions also sought shorter workweeks to allow men to spend more time with their families.

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