The Elusive Traditional Family

Whenever people propose that we go back to the traditional family, I always suggest that they pick a ballpark date for the family they have in mind. Once pinned down, they are invariably unwilling to accept the package deal that comes with their chosen model. Some people, for example, admire the discipline of colonial families, which were certainly not much troubled by divorce or fragmenting individualism. But colonial families were hardly stable: High mortality rates meant that the average length of marriage was less than a dozen years. One-third to one-half of all children lost at least one parent before the age of twenty-one; in the South, more than half of all children aged thirteen or under had lost at least one parent.[1]

Image result for colonial family
Picture of a colonial family

While there are a few modern Americans who would like to return to the strict patriarchal authority of colonial days, in which disobedience by women and children were considered a small form of treason, these individuals would doubtless be horrified by other aspects of colonial families, such as their failure to protect children from knowledge of sexuality. Eighteenth-century spelling and grammar books routinely used fornication as an example of a four-syllable word [“love”], and preachers detailed sexual offenses in astonishingly explicit terms. Sexual conversations between men and women, even in front of children, were remarkably frank. It is worth contrasting this colonial candor to the climate in 1991, when the Department of Health and Human Services was forced to cancel a proposed survey of teenagers’ sexual practices after some groups charged that such knowledge might “inadvertently” encourage more sex.[2]


Other people searching for an ideal traditional family might pick the more sentimental and gentle Victorian family, which arose in the 1830s and 1940s as household production gave way to wage work and professional occupations outside the home. A new division of labor by age and sex emerged among the middle class. Women’s roles were redefined in terms of domesticity rather than production, men were labeled “breadwinners” (a masculine identity unheard of in colonial days), children were said to need time to play, and gentle maternal guidance supplanted the patriarchal authoritarianism of the past.

Image result for victorian family
Picture of a Victorian family

But the middle-class Victorian family depended for its existence on the multiplication of other families who were too poor and powerless to retreat into their own little oases and who therefore had to provision the oases of others. Childhood was prolonged for the nineteenth-century middle class only because it was drastically foreshortened for other sectors of the population. The spread of textile mills, for example, freed middle-class women from the most time-consuming of their former chores, making cloth. But the raw materials for these mills were produced by slave labor. Slave children were not exempt from field labor unless they were infants, and even then their mothers were not allowed time off to nurture them. Frederick Douglass could not remember seeing his mother until he was seven.[3]

Domesticity was also not an option for the white families who worked twelve hours a day in Northern factories and workshops transforming slave-picked cotton into ready-made clothing. By 1820, “half the workers in many factories were boys and girls who had not reached their eleventh birthday.” Rhode Island investigators found “little half-clothed children” making their way to the textile mills before dawn. In 1845, shoemaking families and makers of artificial flowers worked fifteen to eighteen hours a day, according to the New York Daily Tribune.[4]

Within the home, prior to the diffusion of household technology at the end of the century, house cleaning and food preparation remained mammoth tasks. Middle-class women were able to shift more time into child-rearing in this period only by hiring domestic help. Between 1800 and 1850, the proportion of servants to white households doubled, to about one in nine. Some servants were poverty-stricken mothers who had to board or bind out their own children. Employers found such workers to be “distracted,” however; they usually preferred young girls. In his study of Buffalo, New York, in the 1850s, historian Lawrence Glasco found that Irish and German girls often went into service at the age of eleven or twelve.[5]

For every nineteenth-century middle-class family that protected its wife and child within the family circle, then, there was an Irish or a German girl scrubbing floors in that middle-class home, a Welsh boy mining coal to keep the home-baked goodies warm, a black girl doing the family laundry, a black mother and child picking cotton to be made into clothes for the family, and a Jewish or an Italian daughter in a sweatshop making “ladies”’ dresses or artificial flowers for the family to purchase.

Furthermore, people who lived in these periods were seldom as enamored of their family arrangements as modern nostalgia might suggest. Colonial Americans lamented “the great neglect in many parents and masters in training up their children” and expressed the “greatest trouble and grief about the rising generation.” No sooner did Victorian middle-class families begin to withdraw their children from the work world than observers began to worry that children were becoming too sheltered. By 1851, the Reverend Horace Bushnell spoke for many in bemoaning the passing of the traditional days of household production, when the whole family was “harnessed, all together, into the producing process, young and old, male and female, from the boy who rode the plough-horse to the grandmother knitting under her spectacles.”[6]

“Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana.” From a series of photographs of child labor at glass and bottle factories in the United States by Lewis W. Hine, for the National Child Labor Committee, New York.

The late nineteenth century saw a modest but significant growth of extended families and a substantial increase in the number of families who were “harnessed” together in household production. Extended families have never been the norm in America; the highest figure for extended-family households ever recorded in American history is 20 percent. Contrary to the popular myth that industrialization destroyed “traditional” extended families, this high point occurred between 1850 and 1885, during the most intensive period of early industrialization. Many of these extended families, and most “producing” families of the time, depended on the labor of children; they were held together by dire necessity and sometimes by brute force.[7]

There was a significant increase in child labor during the last third of the nineteenth century. Some children worked at home in crowded tenement sweatshops that produced cigars or women’s clothing. Reformer Helen Campbell found one house where “nearly thirty children of all ages and sizes, babies predominating, rolled in the tobacco which covered the floor and was piled in every direction.”[8] Many producing households resembled the one described by Mary Van Kleeck of the Russell Sage Foundation in 1913:

In a tenement on MacDougal Street lives a family of seven–grandmother, father, mother and four children aged four years, three years, two years and one month respectively. All excepting the father and the two babies make violets. The three year old girl picks apart the petals; her sister, aged four years, separates the stems, dipping an end of each into paste spread on a piece of board on the kitchen table; and the mother and grandmother slip the petals up the stems.[9]

Where children worked outside the home, conditions were no better. In 1900, 120,000 children worked in Pennsylvania mines and factories; most of them had started work by age eleven. In Scranton, a third of the girls between the ages of thirteen and sixteen worked in the silk mills in 1904. In New York, Boston, and Chicago, teenagers worked long hours in textile factories and frequently died in fires or industrial accidents. Children made up 23.7 percent of the 36,415 workers in southern textile mills around the turn of the century. When reformer Marie Van Vorse took a job at one in 1903, she found children as young as six or seven working twelve-hour shifts. At the end of the day, she reported: “They are usually beyond speech. They fall asleep at the tables, on the stairs; they are carried to bed and there laid down as they are, unwashed, undressed; and the inanimate bundles of rags so lie until the mill summons them with its imperious cry before sunrise.”[10]

By the end of the nineteenth century, shocked by the conditions in urban tenements and by the sight of young children working full-time at home or earning money out on the streets, middle-class reformers put aside nostalgia for “harnessed” family production and elevated the antebellum model once more, blaming immigrants for introducing such “un-American” family values as child labor. Reformers advocated adoption of a “true American” family–a restricted, exclusive nuclear unit in which women and children were divorced from the world of work.

In the late 1920 and early 1930s, however, the wheel turned yet again, as social theorists noted the independence and isolation of the nuclear family with renewed anxiety. The influential Chicago School of sociology believed that immigration and urbanization had weakened the traditional family by destroying kinship and community networks. Although sociologists welcomed the increased democracy of “companionate marriage,” they worried about the rootlessness of nuclear families and the breakdown of older solidarities. By the time of the Great Depression, some observers saw a silver lining in economic hardship, since it revived the economic functions and social importance of kin and family ties. With housing starts down by more than 90 percent, approximately one-sixth of urban families had to “double up” in apartments. The incidence of three-generation households increased, while recreational interactions outside the home were cut back or confined to a kinship network. One newspaper opined: “Many a family that has lost its car has found its soul.”[11]

Depression families evoke nostalgia in some contemporary observers, because they tended to create “dependability and domestic inclination” among girls and “maturity in the management of money” among boys. But, in many cases, such responsibility was inseparable from a “corrosive and disabling poverty that shattered the hopes and dreams of…young parents and twisted the lives of those who were ‘stuck together’ in it.” Men withdrew from family life or turned violent; women exhausted themselves trying to “take up the slack” both financially and emotionally, or they belittle their husbands as failures; and children gave up their dreams of education to work at dead-end jobs.[12]

From the hardships of the Great Depression and the Second World War and the euphoria of the postwar economic recovery came a new kind of family ideal that still enters our homes in “Leave it to Beaver” and “Donna Reed” reruns. In the next chapter, I will show that the 1950s were no more a “golden age” of the family than any other period in American history. For now, I will argue that our recurring search for a traditional family model denies the diversity of family life, both past and present, and leads to false generalizations about the past as well as wildly exaggerated claims about the present and the future.”

Image result for leave it to beaver
Still from Leave it to Beaver

Excerpt from Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books. [From Chapter 1, “The Way We Wish We Were: Defining the Family Crisis,” pp. 8-22, section, “The Elusive Traditional Family,” pp. 10-14. References in original. Hyperlinks and pictures added.]

[1] Philip Greven, Four Generation: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970); Vivian Fox and Martin Quit, Loving, Parenting, and Dying: The Family Cycle in England and America, Past and Present (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1980), p. 401.

[2] John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 108; Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 33, 38-39; Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 24.

[3] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Dover, 1968), p. 48.

[4] David Roediger and Philip Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (London: Greenwood, 1989), p. 9; Norman Ware, The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860 (New York: Quadrangle, 1964), p. 5; Barbara Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America (New York: Pantheon, 1977), p. 91; Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 126.

[5] Faye Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), p. 206; Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon, 1982); Lawrence Glasco, “The Life Cycles and Household Structure of American Ethnic Groups,” in A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women, ed. Nancy Cott and Elizabeth Pleck (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), pp. 281, 285.

[6] Robert Bremner et al., eds., Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), vol. 1, p. 39; Barbara Cross, Horace Bushnell: Minister to a Changing America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 52.

[7] Peter Laslett, “Characteristics of the Western Family Over Time,” in Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977); William Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns (New York: Free Press, 1963); Michael Anderson, Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971); Tamara Hareven, ed., Transitions: The Family and the Life Course in Historical Perspective (New York: Academic Press, 1978); Tamara Hareven, “The Dynamics of Kin in an Industrial Community,” in Turning Points: Historical and Sociological Essays on the Family, ed. John Demos and S. S. Boocock (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, 1880-1960 (New York: Viking, 1988).

[8] Helen Campbell, Prisoners of Poverty: Women Wage Workers, Their Trades and Their Lives (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970), p. 206.

[9] Rosalyn Baxandall, Linda Gordon, and Susan Reverby, eds., America’s Working Women (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 162.

[10] Rose Schneiderman, All For One (New York: P. S. Eriksson, 1967); John Bodnar, “Socialization and Adaption: Immigrant Families in Scranton,” in Growing Up in America: Historical Experiences, ed. Harvey Graff (Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1987), pp. 391-92; Robert and Helen Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956), p. 31; Barbara Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America (New York: Pantheon, 1977), pp. 336-43; Francesco Cordasco, Jacob Riis Revisited: Poverty and the Slum in Another Era (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968); Campbell, Prisoners of Poverty and Women Wage-Earners (Boston: Arnoff, 1893); Lynn Weiner, From Working Girl to Working Mother: The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1829-1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), p. 92.

[11] For examples of the analysis of the Chicago School, see Ernest Burgess and Harvey Locke, The Family: From Institution to Companionship (New York: American Book Company, 1945); Ernest Mowrer, The Family: Its Organization and Disorganization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932); W. I. Thomas and F. Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 5 vols. (Boston: Dover Publications, 1918-20). On families in the Depression, see Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), pp. 133-49, quote on p. 136.

[12] Glen Elder, Jr., Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 64-82; Lillian Rubin, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 23; Edward Robb Ellis, A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929-1939 (New York: Coward McCann, 1970); Ruth Milkman, “Women’s Work and the Economic Crisis,” in A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women, ed. Nancy Cott and Elizabeth Pleck (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), pp. 507-41.

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