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1 Childhood and Play in Early America, 1600–1800 LOOKING B ACK ON his own childhood in the late eighteenth century , Silas Felton harbored regrets that he wished to convey to parents of his generation. The son of a Marlborough, Massachusetts, farmer and later a common (public) school teacher, Felton spent most of his youth under the strict auspices of his father and his schoolmaster. Though he occasionally enjoyed some free time, he so chafed under the restrictions placed on him that once he became an adult he wanted his contemporaries to appreciate a child’s need for autonomous activity . “People do not pay attention enough to the Inclinations of their children,” he complained in his autobiography, “but commonly put them to the same kind of business, which they themselves follow, and when they find them [children] not attentive to those particular occupations accuse them of being idle.” Such chastisement, Felton continued , “often damps [children’s] spirits, which . . . sometimes leads to looseness of manners, whereas if the leading inclinations of the children were sought after, and when found, permitted to follow them, [such inclinations] might prove highly advantageous to themselves, their parents and society.”1 Felton’s advice for his fellow adults, voiced at a time when general attitudes about childhood were beginning to shift, reflected a rarely recognized appreciation for the natural play instincts—“inclinations”—of early American children. The view of children varied across regions of the American colonies . The belief of New England Puritans—that children were born evil, the products of Adam’s sin—has tinged common assumptions about the childhood of European colonists with hues of austerity and piety. According to this exaggerated perspective, any kind of frivolity, play or otherwise, took place in the devil’s workshop. An American child’s life certainly brimmed with such qualities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But, in fact, different groups of early Ameri19 cans—the Quakers of the mid-Atlantic states, for example—tolerated youthful indulgences, and virtually all groups, including the Puritans, lavished affection on their children, disciplined them gently, and rationally tried to shield them from the adult world’s corruptions. When it came to playful pursuits, many groups openly accepted at least a limited measure of childhood precocity while also expecting youngsters to control their passions. For most colonists regardless of region, play was to have a purpose , whether it served God, the community, or the family; otherwise, it was considered to be “idleness.” To children, however, what their elders considered idleness meant amusement and recreation—in a word, their own brand of play. Limited in the time that they could devote exclusively to diversions and short on formal objects to play with, colonial youngsters nevertheless contested with adults over what was “idleness” and what was not. And in defining their play, they created spaces and activities in which to amuse themselves independent of the domestic and social worlds created by parents and other adults. The Colonial Context of Childhood American society in the colonial era was triracial—consisting of white, African, and Indian peoples—and in each racial society, children were numerous and valued. White children were especially abundant. Indeed , at no time in American history were there more white children, relative to the number of white adults, than in the colonial era. But also, at no time in American history were white children more seriously involved in adult society than in that same period. Variations existed across regions and classes, but high birthrates, the result of young marriage age2 and generally healthier environmental conditions than in Europe, meant that in spite of widespread and frequent infant mortality, most free families had numerous offspring. Families of white indentured servants, residing mainly in Pennsylvania , Maryland, and Virginia, tended to be smaller than free families because indentured parents were less healthy and more transient than free parents. But, generally, white women’s fertility in the colonies was greater than it was in those areas of the colonists’ origins in England and the European continent. In New England, for example, 20 Childhood and Play in Early America women typically gave birth to seven to nine children; further south, by the eighteenth century women were having five or more children. Often, only about two-thirds or fewer survived to age twenty-one, compared with 99 percent reaching that age today. Most revealing, though regional differences were significant, the median age of the white American population in 1700 was under sixteen years, meaning that over half of...


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