"Nocturnal Habits and Dark Wisdom": The American Response to Children in the Streets at Night, 1880-1930

From the 1880s through the 1920s, American cities created a new legal and institutional framework to control children's access to the nighttime city. The development of boys' clubs, child labor laws and juvenile curfews all aimed to limit the presence of children in city streets after dark. Such reforms were motivated in part by the moral uncertainty of modern urban night, at a time when the increase in nocturnal work and leisure activities brought more people into contact with the dubious activities that had long characterized hours of darkness. Many urban Americans worried about the presence of corruptible children in the public spaces of the new nocturnal city. Middle-class social reformers and government officials feared that premature exposure to sexual knowledge would disrupt proper child development. The boys' clubs, child labor laws, and juvenile curfews did not succeed in forcing children off the streets in the period before 1930. Their significance was primarily educational and symbolic. Further, by attempting to bring order to the use of urban time, these reforms echoed simultaneous attempts to bring order to the use of urban space.