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Back to The History of Private Life

The History of Private Life: An Overview
By Steven Mintz

Each generation writes its own history - a history that reflects its needs and concerns. During the tumultuous 1960s, historians focused on protest and the powerless, the dispossessed, and people at the margins of society - especially slaves, women, workers and racial and ethnic minorities.

Today's history needs to reflect the preoccupations of our time. We live in an age preoccupied with issues of identity and intimacy. We need a history that places those concerns in historical perspective. What I am going to suggest to you is that the history of the family or manners or sports is as worthy of study as the 30 Years War.

In the past, scholars mistakenly assumed that the history of private life was a chronicle of trivial changes in fashion and custom. After all, who needed to know when the bathtub was invented or when people began to eat with forks? But the history of private life is anything but trivial. Over the past 500 years, every aspect of our life has undergone profound transformations: our holidays, our manners, our relations with loved ones. These changes reflect a fundamental shift in human sensibilities - in our emotions, our moral outlooks, our sense of self, our psychic make-up.

Few of us think we are making history when we go about the daily business of our lives. But history is not made exclusively by great men. It is also made by ordinary people in the everyday course of their lives. Some of the most important cultural transformations are the result of countless individuals in their daily lives: the emergence of the modern family; the rise of the modern concept of privacy; the growth of individualism. All were the products of actions by countless nameless individuals.

Today, we look to private life for our deepest satisfactions. But our assumption that individuals are most likely to find happiness in the private sphere contrasts strikingly with the values prevailing in earlier societies. In the ancient world, the private domain was considered wholly inferior to the public world of politics and the military. In later periods of European history, privacy was also viewed negatively. What was private was considered shameful. About 200 years ago, however, a fundamental shift took place. It could be seen in the development of portraits, diaries, love letters, novels, and mirrors. Private life became the key to human happiness.

Most of us would regard the growing valuation of private life as a sign of progress. But in fact it is not an unmixed blessing. Many of the problems of contemporary society are due to an overload of expectation on private life, which it is incapable of fulfilling.

Manners and the Civilizing Process

How did our way of blowing our noses change during the past few hundreds of years? How about our way of eating and sleeping? Changes in manners and etiquette are not mere curiosities; they reflect changes in peoples' psychic make-up.

Today, we expect even young children to exhibit a degree of self-control that no adult was expected to have 400 years ago. We expect children to sit quietly in school, to eat neatly with a fork and spoon, to carefully wipe and wash themselves after going to the bathroom.

If you were to be transported back to the Middle Ages, you would be startled by how uncivilized most people were. During the Middle Ages, members of royal courts had very elementary standards of manners. There were no forks or spoons; instead, people ate with their fingers or with their knives. There were also no plates; instead, people dipped their greasy paws into a common dish. Nor were there cups. Everyone, from the king and queen down, drank out of a common goblet.

During the early 1500s, however, standards of etiquette began to rise. The first book of manners appeared in 1526. By our standards the advice was primitive. People could eat with their fingers, but they should only use three fingers, not their whole hand. You should wipe your spoon before passing it to a neighbor. You shouldn't drink when your mouth is full, lick the dish, blow your nose on the table cloth, or put half-eaten food back on your plate. One should not fart loudly but instead cough gently so as to conceal the sound.

The author of the first advice book was the famous Renaissance humanist Erasmus, and he had a much higher threshold of shame than ours is today. He felt no inhibitions about discussing matters that would become too delicate to mention, for example, that there should be no snot on the nostrils. Much of the advice is embarrassing to us today: "If you cannot swallow a piece of food, turn round discreetly and throw it somewhere." If you must urinate, you should stand against a wall, and face away from other people. When we read Erasmus, we enter societies where emotions were expressed more violently and directly, with fewer psychological inhibitions than we have today.

What we would find striking about the medieval world is that the invisible boundaries that separate people from one another had not yet been fully formed. There were no arm chairs or separate beds. Not until in the 17th and 18th centuries did such eating implements as the spoon, the fork, glasses, cups, saucers, and napkins appear. These implements enabled people to distance themselves from the eating process. They were now to avoid manual contact with food.

The history of manners measures a significant transformation in human feelings and attitudes. Beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, a new emphasis was placed on delicacy and refinement. Delicacy was to be shown in many ways. It now became disgusting to serve large chunks of identifiable animal. It also became inappropriate to eat with a knife or with one's fingers. Similarly, it became unrefined not to sleep in pajamas or special nightclothes.

Or take our attitudes toward violence. In Paris in the 16th century, there was a public event that involved burning several dozen cats alive. The populace would assemble, solemn music was played, and the cats were placed on a scaffold. When the cats fell into the fire, the crowd cheered. Since the 17th century, however, the joy of killing and destruction was suppressed. Much of our experience of violence takes place vicariously, through popular culture and sports. Boxing, team sports, movies, and television allow us to fantasize about violence and channel our aggressive impulses. Yet our technology means that when our aggressive impulses are not repressed, we are much more likely to kill than our ancestors. Even the most violent American cities 150 years ago had only 2 to 4 murders a year.

One result of the development of modern manners was to distance people from their bodily functions. Spontaneous impulses were to be checked by new inhibitions. These inhibitions performed an essential social function. They distinguished the upper and middle classes from their social inferiors.

During the late 20th century there was been a revolt against the civilizing process. There has been a heightened emphasis on informality and permissiveness and a growing rejection of inhibition and shame. And yet, we shouldn't exaggerate this revolt. Today, we are much more obsessed than our ancestors with with personal hygiene. This is perhaps most evident in the New Puritanism, the new stress on restricting smoking and drinking.

While we think of ourselves as liberated, in fact we surround our behavior with all kinds of taboos. We condition children from birth to subject their instinctual life to strict control. We admonish them not to pick their noses or to speak with a full mouth or sprawl across the table. A child who fails to behave properly is labeled as immature. Psychologists diagnose such children as suffering from Attention Deficit disorder and prescribe ritalin or some other drug as a way to alter their behavior. In short, we have little tolerance for instinctual, impulsive forms of behavior. We regard this as sick or pathological.

Traditional Family Values and Breakdown of the Family

We hear a great deal these days about traditional family values. But precisely when did traditional family values reign supreme? Certainly not in the world of the Old Testament or classical antiquity. Let's go back 2,000 years and see what families were like then.

For one thing, the world of classical antiquity had no word for family. This is a case where the Greeks didn't have a word for it. Wealthy people had families that contained not only spouses and children but servants, slaves, and a host of relatives and non-kin. At the same time, many slaves had no families at all.

Secondly, women in the ancient world married at or even before puberty. In ancient Greece, the average woman married between the ages of 12 and 15. Men married much later, usually in their mid or late 20s. A very substantial age gap between husbands and wives made families very patriarchal. Women usually were not allowed out of the house unless chaperoned and covered in heavy robes.

Thirdly, the ancient world permitted a wide range of practices that we find abhorrent. The most startling practice was called "exposure." In ancient Greece and Rome, newborn children were left out of doors, so that handicapped babies - and many daughters - would die. These aren't the only practices that we would find inconsistent with traditional family values. Most ancient societies permitted divorce on demand, polygamy, and concubinage - the cohabitation of people who were not legally married. This was an earlier form of surrogate motherhood.

When, then, did the modern family emerge? When did romantic love become the basis of marriage? When did the emotionally-intense, child-centered nuclear family appear? When did mothers become the very center of family life? Surprisingly, the modern family is just 150 years old.

In colonial America marriages were not based on love. Ministers described romantic love as a form of madness and urged young men to choose their mates on the basis of rational consideration of property and family. Marriages were often quite brief. In colonial Virginia, an average marriage lasted just seven years. Till death do us part meant something quite different than it does today.

Families were large - too large to allow parents to give much attention to each child. The average woman bore between 8 and 10 children. Fathers, not mothers, were the primary parent. Child rearing advice books were addressed to men, not women.

In colonial America, children were sent away from home at very young ages. Children of just six or seven were sent to work as servants or apprentices in other peoples' homes. There was no adolescent rebellion when adolescents didn't live at home.

It was not until the mid 19th century that the family patterns that we call traditional begin to emerge. For example, it was only during the Victorian era that middle class women began to make motherhood and housekeeping self-conscious vocations. And it was only in the 19th century that modern household architecture with an emphasis on personal privacy emerged. It was only then that houses began to have hallways and separate bedrooms.

And yet, we must be careful about assuming that the 19th century was truly an era of traditional family values. Prostitution was extremely widespread in 19th century America. Our best guess is that between 5 and 10 percent of young urban women practiced prostitution in 19th century America.

Americans dramatically reduced birthrates during the 19th century - but the major method of birth control was abortion, which was legal in virtually every jurisdiction before the 1880s.

Above all, families in the 19th century were just as fragile and unstable as families today. The proportion of single-parent, female-headed families was almost as high in 1900 as it is today - because of the higher death rate.

Today, we tend to assume that families are weaker and more fragile than those in the past. But I think this view is wrong. From an historical perspective, however, we invest much more emotional and psychological significance in family life than did our ancestors. We regard family ties and intimacy as the key to our personal happiness. And as a result, when our family relationships are unhappy or abusive, we get divorced. Our high divorce rate doesn't reflect a low valuation on marriage; it reflects our overly high hopes and expectations.

Let me make one more point. Our high expectations have also made family life more conflict-riven. We have eliminated many opportunities to blow off steam and to reduce the intensity of family relationships. Four centuries ago, only 8 percent of homicides were within the family, compared to 50 percent today.


We live in a society obsessed with competitive team sports. Our cities are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds to ensure that we have baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. Thus, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that competitive team sports are a recent historical invention less than 150 years old.

People played sports before the 1850s. They tossed balls, rode horses, they went fishing, and wrestled. They watched horse races and cockfights. But they didn't have modern sports - that is, they didn't have competitive team sports, played according to clearly defined rules. They didn't have professional spectator sports with paid athletes. Nor did they keep records.

It was not until the 1840s that the first modern sports were invented. The timing was not accidental. During this period, America became more urban and industrial. Fewer and fewer people lived on farms or worked outdoors. Sports arose during this period for symbolic reasons: it was a way for men to demonstrate their masculinity.

Modern team sports were justified on the grounds that they embodied the manly virtues of self-discipline, responsibility, and dedication. Especially after the Civil War, team sports became a moral substitute for war. The sports team became a substitute for the local militia. Team sports also provided a symbolic embodiment of modern values of team work, sacrifice, cooperation, and playing by the rules.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sports acquired additional ideological significance. Football was established on elite college campuses so that the country's elite would not become effete. It was a way for wealthy young men to prove their manliness and prepare them for social leadership. And while originally sports were targeted at the native born, immigrants soon discovered that sports offered a shortcut to cultural assimilation.

During the 20th century, sports truly became a field of dreams. Americans regarded the athletic field as the country's true melting pot, where immigrants could become truly American. Sports also symbolized a true meritocracy, where men achieved success based only on their skills, their drive, and their guts. Somehow, Americans blocked out sports' seamy side. Even in the 19th century, sports was big business. The first baseball teams were organized by streetcar magnates, eager to attract patrons to their new mode of transportation. Since World War II, however, the market for sports became truly national.

In recent years, sports have been stripped of their symbolic meaning. Instead of regarding sports stars as idealized versions of themselves, Americans have increasingly viewed athletes as little more than highly paid performers. Meanwhile, media have become much more open about publicizing antisocial acts by athletes and some psychologists and sociologists have argued that athletes have higher levels of aggression than other people. In short, sports has lost its larger moral and symbolic meaning. It has simply become another form of commercial entertainment.

Holidays and the Invention of Tradition

If you were catapulted back to colonial America 350 years ago, you would be struck by the absence of holidays. There was no Christmas and there was no Easter. There was no Halloween, no Valentines Day, and, of course, no Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, or Mother's Day.

Take the example of Christmas. In New England, the celebration of Christmas was illegal. In Massachusetts there was a five shilling fine for celebrating the holiday. In the southern colonies of Virginia and Maryland, it simply wasn't celebrated.

Let us jump ahead to 1800. Christmas is no longer illegal. But Christmas was definitely different than it is today. Christmas was not centered around the family or children or giving presents. There were no Christmas trees with ornaments and lights; there were no Christmas cards; and there was no kissing beneath the mistletoe. Nor were there Christmas carols. Most amazingly of all, no Santa Claus or Kris Kringle or St. Nicholas.

What there was in 1800 was a rowdy drunken street carnival, a raucous combination of Halloween, New Year's Eve, and Mardi Gras. The poor would demand entrance into the homes of the rich and aggressively beg for food, drink, and money. Sometimes things would escalate and there would be break-ins, vandalism, sexual assault, and plenty of drinking. In 1828, a particularly violent Christmas riot in New York led the city to institute its first professional police force.

Christmas celebrations in 1800 owed more to the midwinter worship of Saturn and Bacchus than to Christ. By the second century, the Romans were regularly feasting, drinking, and cavorting like satyrs from December 17, the first day of Saturnalia, to January First. They also decorated their houses with evergreen boughs.

In the fourth century, Christians began to celebrate Christ's birth on December 25, the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. This was a partly way to meet the challenge of pagan cults. The church tacitly agreed to let the holiday be celebrated more or less as it always was. The Christmas celebration that arose in Medieval Europe was an occasion for excess and extravagance, public lewdness, and violations of social order. In medieval and early modern Europe, celebrants often elected a "Lord of Misrule" to preside over these annual revels. In one episode in 1637 in England, the crowd gave the Lord of Misrule a wife in a public marriage service conducted by a fellow reveler posing as a minister. The affair was consummated on the spot! No wonder, New England Puritans sought to criminalize this rowdy affair.

Puritans were particularly upset by two irksome Christmas practices: One was mumming, the exchange of clothes between men and women; and even worst was the outbreak of rioting, drunkenness, and fornication. It was this raucous celebration that the New England Puritans tried to kill.

But despite the Puritans' best efforts, Christmas in America became an excuse for dangerous hell raising. At Christmastime, men drank rum, fired muskets wildly, and costumed themselves in animal pelts or women's clothes - crossing species and gender. In New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, they formed Callithumpian parades, which involved beating on the kettles, blowing on penny trumpets and tin horns, and setting off firecrackers.

Then, during the early 1800s, Christmas became a cultural battleground. During the early 1800s, evangelical Protestants challenged the popular Christmas. They called for a shorter, more refined, more family-centered celebration at the end of the year, one that would banish "what is sensual and low, and very close to vice itself in the existing Saturnalia."

As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum has shown, a handful of New Yorkers were primarily responsible for creating a new kind of a Christmas. The first was Washington Irving, the author of Rip Van Winkle and the Legends of Sleepy Hollow. Irving had long lamented the lack of American traditions, heroes, and distinctively American holiday. He was the person who invented the legend that Columbus was the first person to believe the world was round. And he was also the inventor of Santa Claus. He took several legends about a Dutch St. Nicholas and embellished them to create an American tradition.

In his 1809 History of New York, he described flamboyant celebrations of St. Nicholas in what was then New Amsterdam. Although such observances never happened, the book became a best seller of its day, read not only in the drawing rooms of New York City but in log cabins on the frontier. After its publication, the St. Nicholas legend traveled fast.

It was in 1822 that Clement Clarke Moore provided the first definitive description of Santa Claus that we know today. Moore was a prominent Protestant theologian, a slaveholder, and the author of his age's leading Hebrew dictionary. But he became famous for a 56-line poem written solely to amuse his children. By penning the poem that begins "Twas the night before Christmas," Moore Americanized the Old World St. Nicholas, turning him into jolly Santa Claus, a plump, happy go lucky elf with a sleigh full of toys and eight flying reindeer. Not least, he set St. Nicholas's visit on December 24, not December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas' day.

Moore mixed a number of European legends together: the gift giving of the Dutch St. Nicholas, the Norse god Thor's sleigh pulled by flying goats, the chimney descent of a mythical visitor in Germany, and the French and Italian practice of hanging stockings. And the name was an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Sinter Clas.

It is remarkable how long it took before our modern symbols of Christmas became fixed. The first painting of St. Nicholas by an American artist did not appear until 1837. In the early days, Santa Claus didn't necessary give children presents; he was often pictured holding a birch rod in his hands, and he punished children with his gift of a whipping. In 1839, there was a Broadway production: Santaclaus: Or, The Orgies of St. Nicholas.

While Clement Moore had given the country a written description of the ideal St. Nicholas, it was the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who developed the visual image of Santa Claus. Nast was the cartoonist who created the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. When he was just 21-years-old, Nast gave Santa his familiar shape: fat and jolly, with a stocking cap and a long white beard. Previously, Santa Claus was often depicted as tall, thin an domineering - often with black hair and a stiff brimmed hat.

Nast's first Santa Claus appeared during the Civil War in 1863 as a morale booster for Northern soldiers. His drawings showed Santa arriving at a camp of Union soldiers in his reindeer sleigh, wearing a special suit decorated with the stars and stripes. But it was not until 1886 that a Boston printer named Louis Prang introduced a Christmas card that portrayed Santa in a red suit. Around the same time, a store in Brockton, Massachusetts, had the first department store Santa.

It was during the Great Depression of the 1930s that the Coca Cola Company created the image of Santa Claus that persists to today. Coke hired a Chicago artist to create a Christmas advertising campaign. The artist, Haddon Sundblom, produced a new archetype for Santa Claus. America during the Great Depression needed a hearty symbol of happy consumerism, and Sundblom gave him to us. The now famous Santa is no fairy tale pixie. He looks like a kindly uncle who enjoys his work. He raids the refrigerator and takes time to play with the family dog.

Christmas carols, too, do not have a long history. Silent Night was not born until 1818. Most famous Christmas carols date from the 1840s and 1850s. O Come All Ye Faithful was not written until 1841, Joy to the World until 1848; It Came Upon the Midnight Clear first appeared in 1849, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing in 1856.

The essential point is that the modern family Christmas is not a timeless tradition - an ancient, venerable tradition steeped in religious significance. It was something that was invented just 150 years ago.


Today, many lament the breakdown of tradition. We fear that our society is going to hell in a handbasket that parents are neglecting children, that children refuse to respect their elders, that materialism and commercialism have triumphed over all other values.

But traditions are not things written in stone. Traditions aren't static. They are invented. The 19th century was a great period for the invention of traditions. Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, Memorial Day - all were products of the Victorian era. Just as the 19th century created our image of the traditional family, of team sports, the white wedding, and even a traditional Christmas, we have it within our power to create new traditions, suitable for our own time. So as the bloodiest, most violent century in world history comes to an end, perhaps it is appropriate that we should strive to create traditions that we can pass down to our own children.


This site was updated on 23-Apr-14.

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