• May 2011
  • Vol. 12, No. 4

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Centennial Series: An Evolving View of Childhood

Five-year-old boy picks cotton in Oklahoma.
(Photo by Lewis W. Hine. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Five-year-old boy picks cotton in Oklahoma.

This is the first article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary next year. These articles address some of the social issues, practices, and policies at the turn of the last century that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

By the time the Children's Bureau was created in 1912, America's idea of childhood had undergone a fundamental change. In fact, the idea of "childhood" as a time for children to play, learn, and develop was a relatively new concept in the early 1900s—and far removed from the views and practices of America's early colonists and settlers.

In the pre-industrial United States, children were often an economic necessity. The home was also the family farm or small business, and the children were expected to contribute to the economic well-being of their family through their chores and labor. Everyone worked, and if life was hard for children, it was also hard for adults. In many ways, children were viewed as miniature adults, and the hardships of life were just part of the human condition.

Family structure reflected this reality. Children were considered the property of their fathers, and children without fathers were often treated as orphans (Fass & Mason, 2000). Fathers were responsible for both the economic well-being of their family and the moral development of their children. In a society where most families lived and worked together, fathers were readily available to oversee their children's upbringing.

The Industrial Revolution brought about enormous changes to the family. By the late 1800s, many families had moved to cities, the average family size had shrunk, and a large middle class had grown up. As fathers found work outside the home, mothers took full responsibility for childrearing (Fass & Mason, 2000). Children in middle- and upper-class families—freed from working—were viewed less as miniature adults and more as innocent human beings who could be molded by the proper experiences and education. The concept of "childhood" as a time for play and learning became popular, and children's clothes and toys, as well as books on childrearing for mothers, were produced by the factories for consumption by the middle class (Reef, 2002).

Yet childhood as an idyllic time of play and innocence was predominantly a privilege of the middle class (Sanchez-Eppler, 2003). For children in poor families and many immigrant families, the Industrial Revolution had a different impact. By the late 1800s, many of these children were working in factories or doing piecework or other types of labor outside the home and family. They received lower wages than adults and often had little time or opportunity for education. While the 1900 U.S. Census showed that one in six youth between the ages of 10 and 15 was employed, researchers have suggested this was a vast undercount that omitted the many children under 10 who worked and those who worked with their parents in sweatshops and on farms (Zelizer, 1985/2000).

A number of social movements gained momentum around the turn of the century, including a movement toward mandatory education and a complementary one restricting child labor. The photographs of Lewis Hine, hired by the National Child Labor Committee to take pictures of working children between 1910 and 1914, fueled these movements (Lowry, 2003). The contrast between society's new vision of "childhood" as a carefree time and Hine's photographs of ragged children standing in front of cotton mills and factory machinery made the impact all the more poignant.

This evolving view of childhood in America, with its contradictions and inequalities, was fertile ground for the establishment of a government agency that would work to protect children. With the creation of the Children's Bureau in 1912, the United States took an official stance on the importance of children and childhood.


Fass, P. S., & Mason, M. A. (Eds.). (2000). Childhood in America. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Lowry, R. S. (2003). Lewis Hine's family romance. In C. F. Levander & C. J. Singley (Eds.), The American child: A cultural studies reader (pp. 184-207). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Reef, C. (2002). Childhood in America: An eyewitness history. New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc.

Sanchez-Eppler, K. (2003). Playing at class. In C. F. Levander & C. J. Singley (Eds.), The American child: A cultural studies reader (pp. 40-62). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Zelizer, V. A. (2000). The changing social value of children. In P. S. Fass & M. A. Mason (Eds.), Childhood in America (pp. 260-262). New York, NY: New York University Press. (Reprinted from Pricing the priceless child: The changing social value of children, pp. 56-60, by V. A. Zelizer, 1985, New York, NY: Basic Books).

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Access all of the Centennial Series articles here: http://cbexpress.acf.hhs.gov/index.cfm?event=website.viewArticles&issueid=125&sectionid=1&articleid=3131

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