American Childhoods by Joseph E. Illick

By Joseph E. Illick

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The evangelical method was most typical of isolated rural areas and the ever-expanding frontier where poorer people lived in nuclear families dominated by the only two adults present. Recent immigrants from Germany and Northern Ireland can be placed in this category, though not in every instance. The children of the Moravians who settled Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for example, spent 15 to 20 months being nursed by mothers (who lived separately from fathers), after which time they lived in nurseries with other toddlers and were supervised by single women.

Quite literally, since moderate youth was most apt to be mobile and, therefore, well served by autonomy. Examples would include Franklin’s break from his family in Boston and subsequent journey to Philadelphia, as well as John Adams’ leave-taking of the farm in Quincy, his residence at Harvard, and his training in law at Worcester. Josiah Franklin, described by his son as a man whose “great excellence lay in a sound understanding and solid judgment,” employed Benjamin to assist him as a tallow chandler but, noticing that the boy was unhappy, escorted him through Boston to observe various tradesmen at work until father and son settled on printing as a career.

Among the Puritans, reading was considered a necessary complement of childhood, since it provided access to the Scriptures. Families were expected to carry the burden of education in early New England, although as early as 1645 a grammar school was founded in the town of Dorchester. 44 Such issues as spirituality, leaving the home, and education, focused as they were on youth, raise the question as to whether, as separate as childhood was from adulthood, there may have been a transitional stage between them.

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