American children are typically expected to focus, laser-like, on doing well in school so that they can do well in college so that they can do well when they eventually start working. Moreover, parents enroll their daughters and sons in extracurricular activities also in part to give them practical skills. Given such a schedule, the proportion of teens, especially young teens, who work for pay has dropped considerably in recent generations; it also appears that rates of doing household chores have dropped. Our image of childhoods past, in contrast, depicts even young children working hard on the farm or in part-time city jobs. When did American childhood change to become so education-focused?



Noted USC historian Carole Shammas contributed to the discussion this summer. (Shammas has produced central studies on, for example, the history of the family and of consumption.) Writing in the William & Mary Quarterly, Shammas analyzes an unusual pre-revolutionary diary – a 12-year-old boy’s a detailed accounting, started in 1774, of all his daily activities. It tells of a quite different adolescence.

Quincy Thaxter

Quincy was the second son of John Thaxter, Sr., a Harvard College graduate, an affluent farmer and shopkeeper in Hingham, Massachusetts, near Boston. Thaxter ancestors helped found the town and Shammas describes the family as among the “top 1 percent” in wealth of Hingham and among the top 10 percent of all colonial families. Quincy was born to privilege.

While Quincy’s older brother, John, Jr., had been sent off to Harvard and ended up an aide to John Adams, John, Sr. had other plans for Quincy. (The boys had six sisters; they make no appearance in the diary.) Quincy received schooling sufficient to write a comprehensive diary at age 12, but was guided to farming. Diary entries allow Shammas to calculate how much time Quincy spent in various activities each day, especially how much time he, as well as two family servants, Jacob (white, age 16) and Cato (probably a free black), and other boys in the neighborhood spent doing farm work.

Keeping tabs

Quincy attended school “the equivalent of 132 full days … about three-fourths of the schooling required of twelve-year-olds in most states today.” However, Quincy’s schooling was repeatedly broken up. He rarely attended all day or all week. He fit in his schooling around his farm work. And it was not casual farm work; it was some of the same heavy lifting that servants Jacob and Cato, who did not go to school, did. Quincy took on some home chores, as well.

Shammas asks, If Quincy, a son of the top ten percent, was spending over a third of his time doing serious farm work, as his diary indicates, what could we assume about other Hingham youth? Quincy kept track of who else, of what age, worked with him on the Thaxter farm and when. Shammas estimates from those entries that about three-fourths of 10-to-15 year-old free boys in town worked and that they comprised about one-fifth of all male workers. (The percentages of workers among the girls, she says, were probably at least as high.)



Valuing school or not

Eighteenth-century parents may have put their adolescents (although that term did not exist then) out to work for starkly economic reasons and also to train them for the work they would do as adults. Shammas points out that in the Thaxter case, and in cases of other well-off families as well, something else was involved. John, Sr., could have easily afforded to hire someone to do Quincy’s farm work and he could have pressed Quincy to use his spare time – and he had some – for more schooling. However, advancing Quincy’s education was simply not, Shammas surmises, that important to John, Sr., once John, Jr., had gone off to represent the family at Harvard. Quincy spent his adult life in the same house as a farmer.

If Shammas’s description is right, that even in elite families of the 18th century educating most of the children beyond basic literacy was just not that important, that attitude started to change about two generations later. In her masterful study Cradle of the Middle Class, historian Mary Ryan describes how a growing middle-class in upstate New York increasingly valued education, at least for boys, increasingly kept them at home longer rather than apprenticing them out, and kept them focused on school rather than on work until they were ready for white-collar jobs.

Many a parent wonders today whether the weight of schooling, para-schooling, and scheduled enrichments are just too high a burden on children. Perhaps they are. It is a middle-class way of life that seems to have started in the mid-19th century and spread widely by the 21st. How do we compare that burden to the “plowing, spreading dung, removing stones, building fences, reaping, pulling flax, [and] husking corn” that even privileged Quincy Thaxter shouldered?

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.