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Motherhood and Fatherhood in Nineteenth Century Families

Digital History TOPIC ID 86

It is a commonplace of historical commentary that the industrial revolution made mothers the hub of domestic life and thrust men to the family's emotional and psychological periphery, as their contribution to the family became essentially economic. Is this view accurate? Or is this simply an example of nostalgia for a mythical golden age?

Certainly a number of contemporary observers were convinced that social change sharply altered the nature of men's and women's family involvement. In 1851, Horace Bushnell, a Presbyterian minister, declared that over his lifetime he had witnessed a 'complete revolution in domestic life' (cited in Thernstrom, 1984). He lamented the breakup of the 'organic' household economy and especially men's declining influence on their children's lives. The most famous statement about the weakness of paternal authority was made by the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville. He observed that in the United States, bonds of affection between fathers and sons were stronger than in Europe, but that these emotional ties were premised on their offspring's early independence and mobility (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

Yet if in many cases the shift toward a more commercial and industrial economy weakened paternal authority and reduced paternal involvement in the family, this was not an automatic or inevitable consequence of social change. One cannot understand men's roles within the early nineteenth century apart from two fundamental developments: the evangelical religious revivals that shaped the moral atmosphere of pre-Civil War America, and the emerging separation of home and work (Frank, 1992; Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

During the decades before the Civil War, a series of religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening swept across American society. The revivalists placed a new emphasis on domesticity and especially on men's role as the family's moral overseer. The revivalists depicted the family as a repository of moral values and a school of character and promoted a new definition of masculinity: He was a truly Christian family man who would serve as his family's religious leader, educate his children, restrain their impulsive behavior, and take a loving interest in his wife and children's lives. He was supposed to lead daily family prayers, to start his sons in a career, make decisions about schooling, and enforce discipline. With many activities that might have competed with an intense family life denied on religious grounds--such as dancing, drinking, or the theater--and with relatively few dining groups or sporting activities targeted at adult men, many evangelical fathers found their closest companionship with their families (Davidoff & Hall, 1987; Mintz, 1983).

During the nineteenth century, men tended to define themselves either in terms of this religiously-rooted conception of domesticity or in opposition to it. Even in the early nineteenth century, family involvement for men was a matter of choice. And while many men embraced the evangelical conception of the father's role, many others rejected it. A variety of pieces of evidence suggest that desertion and abandonment as well as divorce increased sharply in the early nineteenth century (Stearns, 1991).

The physical separation of the household and the workplace also contributed to a new conception of the family and of men's familial roles. According to an emerging middle-class ideology, the family was an oasis or haven set apart from the pressures of business world, and the husband and father was his family's protector and provider. During the early nineteenth century, family roles were reorganized around the idea of sexual difference, with men and women increasingly occupying 'separate spheres.' Prior to the nineteenth century, women had been active participants in commerce, farming, and many business pursuits, assisting their husbands, keeping books, overseeing apprentices and journeymen, and manufacturing many goods for sale. Not only artisans but even lawyers and doctors practiced in a room in their house, so women tended to have a direct relationship with their husband's business affairs (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988; Ryan, 1981).

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, however, the workplace moved some distance from the home. Increasingly men left home each day to go to work, while their wives stayed home. The mid-day meal, when an entire family gathered together, was now replaced by the evening meal. Apprentices, who previously had lived with their masters, were expelled from middle-class homes and began to live in distinct working-class neighborhoods. Even farm families adopted a sharper sexual division of labor, erecting separate structures for 'productive' activities apart the farm house and replacing the wife's 'productive' labor with paid farm laborer (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

A new heavily gendered language emerged to describe familial relationships, which identified the husband as provider and his wife, children, and servants as his dependents. Indeed, a key component of middle-class status was a man who could dispense with his woman's productive labor. A shift in vocabulary underscores this change: Instead of calling a wife 'Mistress,' a word descriptive of a woman's responsibilities over servants, apprentices, and journeymen, she was called 'Mrs.,' usually with her husband's name appended. In a wholly new way, a woman's identity was absorbed by her husband's (Davidoff & Hall, 1987).

A much more rigid demarcation of male and female spheres gradually emerged. Freed from many of the onerous responsibilities of home production, many middle-class women began to define themselves self-consciously as nurturers and full-time mothers, while the father was viewed as protector, provider, and the representative of public authority. Unlike the mother, whose position in the family was rooted in childcare and household work, the middle-class father's authority within the home ultimately rested on material conditions outside the home: property, proprietorship, and connections to networks outside the family (Davidoff & Hall, 1987; Mintz & Kellogg, 1983).

Many men were unable to meet the pressures of an emerging market economy. In a changing economy--lacking modern bankruptcy and limited liability laws, life insurance, and secure forms of investment--a man's economic position was much less stable than in the past. Technological displacement, mounting economic competition, economic vacillations, and opportunities for success or failure--all increased in frequency. If economic change increased opportunities for success and advancement, it also heightened the chances of failure. Not surprisingly, per capita consumption of alcohol doubled or tripled in the first decades of the nineteenth century, offering men a way to cope with increasing economic and social stresses (Rorabaugh, 1979).

Even a superficial survey of the biographies of significant early nineteenth century politicians, intellectuals, reformers, and religious leaders reveals a woe-filled litany of failed, abusive, or absent fathers and husbands. The fathers of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Andrew Jackson died prematurely, when their sons were young boys. Herman Melville's father suffered insanity before dying when his son was 6. William Lloyd Garrison's father was an alcoholic; Thomas Wentworth Higginson's went bankrupt. Sam Houston left his wife and moved to Texas. The fathers of Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Smith were among the many economic failures who moved repeatedly in search of financial success (Reynolds, 1995).

During the second half of the nineteenth century, evidence of active male involvement in families weakens. Before the Civil War, most middle class men still worked or aspired to work as individual proprietors or independent professionals. While they might work temporarily as salaried employees, they generally conceived of themselves as independent businessmen who adopted a paternalistic ethic in their private as well as their public lives (Mintz, 1983).

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, male familial involvement had declined. Many factors contributed to this shift. Masculine identity became increasingly identified with a man's occupation or career. Informal and formal systems of apprenticeship declined, replaced by modern forms of educational credentialing. The separation of home and workplace widened, a gulf that was apparent in the spatial restructuring of cities, with the middle class living further from business districts, and in the rise of single-sex clubs and fraternal orders. Male-only forms of recreation offered a growing alternative to domesticity (Carnes, 1989; Griswold, 1993).

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