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2 The Attempt to Domesticate Childhood and Play, 1800–1850 AS THE NEWLY independent American people launched their republic , and as important demographic, economic, and social changes accelerated , children encountered somewhat different circumstances than in the previous era. The transition in the way adults perceived children that had begun shortly before the Revolution now resulted in a society characterized by diverging generations and by a campaign to “domesticate” children: to nurture and educate them, in other words, so that they would become virtuous citizens. As in the past, the majority of youngsters, black and white, lived on farms, where chores and family obligations limited opportunities for free play. In addition, the rise of child labor in incipient industrial workshops and the expansion of plantation slavery filled the waking hours of preadolescent working -class and enslaved youngsters with toil that limited the amount of time they had for amusement. Yet, there is broad evidence that children did play, in the rural countryside and in cities, and that some of their play activities pleased adults while others distressed the older generation. As in the colonial period, free white children grew up attentive to parental authority and to the devil’s temptations, a consciousness that shaped and even curtailed their play. Maine native Fanny Newell, for example, recalled that in her late-eighteenth-century childhood she was haunted by fears for her soul and disdained playing with other children lest she fall “deeper into sin.” Her parents encouraged her instead to prefer “joys on high.” Her contemporary, New Jersey Quaker Joshua Evans, was made to believe that play was folly and equivalent to revolt against the social order. Children’s amusement, especially in rural communities, still often took place with grownups watching and participating. Branson Harris, raised on the Indiana frontier in the early nineteenth century, spent most of his boyhood helping out on his 39 family’s subsistence farm. But he also recalled joining with married people at farm-related entertainments such as wood choppings, flax pullings, apple cuttings, and quiltings.1 More than previously, however, adults, particularly of the white middle class, looked at children as keys to, even guarantors of, not just the family’s survival but also the nation’s future. Influenced by ideas inherited from John Locke and by new attitudes derived from romantic thought, some parents now accepted a view that children had an innocent wholesomeness and should therefore delay their assimilation into adulthood so that they could complete a sheltered training, mostly under a mother’s guidance, to become moral and productive adults. In this regard, the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau were particularly influential. In his famous novel, Emile, or On Education (1762), Rousseau argued that children were not innately corrupted by original sin but, rather, were receptacles of the human virtue found in the state of nature. As such, they needed to be appreciated and cared for so that they might develop reason in their own way. This attitude generated a new tolerance for play and toys as inherent to the special qualities of childhood. Though the family economy model of child rearing that had characterized the previous era still prevailed, more of the older generation now acknowledged the separate existence of youngsters and their independent play. Such recognition, however, rarely was free of consternation and disapproval. Caroline Clapp Briggs, born in Northampton, Massachusetts, the daughter of a local tailor and public official, wrote that her father never attempted to govern her when she was a child and that her parents rewarded her with toys for good behavior. At the same time, however, she grew up “wild as a deer” with such “a strange mixture of bravery and timidity” that she gave her mother “much trouble.” Slave children had similar experiences, even when managed in harsher ways. Thus, Ebenezer Brown, who spent his childhood on a plantation in Amite County, Mississippi, told a WPA interviewer, “As a child, I played in de yard wid another black boy named Tom Hardin; but dey [his white masters] didn’t ’low us to play much. We shot china berries frum er pop-gun, an’ we made de shots hit de udder chaps an’ wud git whup’ed fur it. We done dat all de time.”2 Though they gave their elders “much trouble,” children of the early nineteenth century nevertheless played, perhaps not “all de 40 The Attempt to Domesticate Childhood and Play time,” but in ways that symbolized the evolution of their own culture. As play...


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