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American Childhoods

By Joseph E. Illick

Publication Year: 2011

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title

The experiences of children in America have long been a source of scholarly fascination and general interest. In American Childhoods, Joseph Illick brings together his own extensive research and a synthesis of literature from a range of disciplines to present the first comprehensive cross-cultural history of childhood in America.

Beginning with American Indians, European settlers, and African slaves and their differing perceptions of how children should be raised, American Childhoods moves to the nineteenth century and the rise of industrialization to introduce the offspring of the emerging urban middle and working classes. Illick reveals that while rural and working-class children continued to toil from an early age, as they had in the colonial period, childhood among the urban middle class became recognized as a distinct phase of life, with a continuing emphasis on gender differences.

Illick then discusses how the public school system was created in the nineteenth century to assimilate immigrants and discipline all children, and observes its major role in age-grouping children as well as drawing working-class youngsters from factories to classrooms. At the same time, such social problems as juvenile delinquency were confronted by private charities and, ultimately, by the state. Concluding his sweeping study, the author presents the progeny of suburban, inner-city, and rural Americans in the twentieth century, highlighting the growing disparity of opportunities available to children of decaying cities and the booming suburbs.

Consistently making connections between economics, psychology, commerce, sociology, and anthropology, American Childhoods is rich with insight into the elusive world of children. Grounded firmly in social and cultural history and written in lucid, accessible prose, the book demonstrates how children's experiences have varied dramatically through time and across space, and how the idea of childhood has meant vastly different things to different groups in American society.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

There is no single comprehensive text on American childhood. While materials exist for writing such a history, the matter of structuring the grand narrative remains challenging. The term “American” suggests unity, and surely at any point in time the national environment has confronted all children with common issues. But ethnic, racial, class, and...

I. Early America

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1. American Indian Childhood

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pp. 3-17

Chuka was born in Oraibi, reportedly the oldest continuously inhabited town in North America, in 1890, just before the Anglos descended on his isolated Hopi mesa. While his mother was pregnant—originally with twins, melded into one child by the medicine man—she took all precautions, such as avoiding serpent images so as not to turn her fetus into...

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2. European American Childhood

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pp. 18-35

Richard Mather was born in the village of Lowton, England, in 1596, the son of a yeoman who, though not wealthy, assigned his son to a schoolmaster rather than putting him directly to work. Young Richard studied Latin and Greek, the latter through reading the New Testament, and at 15 became a schoolmaster himself. Three years later he underwent...

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3. African American Childhood

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pp. 36-52

Frederick Douglass was born in 1818 in Talbot County, Eastern Shore, Maryland, and there he spent his early years in the cabin of his grandparents, Betsy (slave) and Isaac Baily (free), along with cousins and an infant uncle. His mother lived nearby, though he did not see her during those years (later they were together several times) and was never deeply...

II. Industrial America

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4. Urban Middle-Class Childhood

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pp. 55-75

Thomas Mellon was born in northern Ireland in 1813 and, Wve years later, accompanied his parents to America, where they settled in western Pennsylvania and began tilling the land. Young Thomas was farming full-time by the age of 12, but reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography two years later turned him in another direction: “Here was Franklin, ...

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5. Urban Working-Class Childhood

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pp. 76-100

Johanna Marie Carle was born during the autumn of 1798 to Hannah and Peter Carle, Dutch immigrants who had settled in Philadelphia three years previous. Peter was a day laborer who walked a mile every morning to the wharves along the Delaware River, his first place to seek work. Hannah remained in their small rented home, cooking for boarders...

Part III. Modern America

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Chapter 6. Suburban Childhood

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pp. 103-130

I was born in 1934 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and spent my first four years in a city apartment with my stay-at-home mother. My father, an erstwhile college instructor, draftsman/estimator, and employee of the WPA., despite having been a lifelong inhabitant of the steel city, longed to return to his Pennsylvania German rural roots. His dreams were realized...

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Chapter 7. Inner-City and Rural Childhoods

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pp. 131-159

Brent Staples grew up, the seventh of nine children, during the 1950s in the industrial town of Chester, Pennsylvania, poor but not on welfare— just as urban African Americans began to be identified with both poverty and handouts, not to mention violence. His parents had migrated to Chester from rural Virginia during World War II, lured by the economy...

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pp. 160-164

There are many books about the plight of American children at the onset of the twenty-first century. Some take a long-range view, observing, for example, that the child shaped by biological evolution cannot easily integrate into a society constantly reformed by technological change. Others focus on such topics as health, parental neglect, or poverty and...

A Note on Sources

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pp. 165-168


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pp. 169-208


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pp. 209-216


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pp. 217-218

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202328
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812218077

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 26 illus.
Publication Year: 2011