Digital History>Topics>Private Life

Families in Colonial America

Digital History TOPIC ID 75

Far from being a stable, unchanging institution, the family is as enmeshed in the historical process as any other social institution. The family's roles and functions, size and composition, and emotional and power dynamics have all changed dramatically over time.

In colonial America, the family was, first and foremost, a unit of production. It also performed a variety of educational, religious and welfare functions that were later assumed by other private and public institutions. The family educated children in basic literacy and the rudiments of religion; it transmitted occupational skills; and it cared for the elderly and infirm.

Family composition was far more elastic and porous than in later American families. Even in the most healthful regions during the seventeenth century, three children in ten died before reaching adulthood; children were likely to lose at least one parent by the time they married. As a result, a majority of colonial Americans probably spent some time in a step-family. Family size and composition also varied according to the household's economic needs. Many children left their parents homes before puberty to work as servants or apprentices in other households.

Perhaps the biggest difference between families then and now is that colonial society placed relatively little emphasis on familial privacy. Community authorities and neighbors supervised and intervened in family life. In New England, selectmen oversaw ten or twelve families, removed children from 'unfit' parents, and ensured that fathers exercised proper family government.

In theory, the seventeenth-century family was a hierarchical unit, in which the father was invested with patriarchal authority. He alone sat in an armed chair, his symbolic throne, while other household members sat on benches or stools. He taught children to write, led household prayers, and carried on the bulk of correspondence with family members. Domestic conduct manuals were addressed to him, not to his wife. Legally, the father was the primary parent. Fathers, not mothers, received custody of children after divorce or separation. In colonial New England, a father was authorized to correct and punish insubordinate wives, disruptive children, and unruly servants. He was also responsible for placing his children in a lawful calling and for consenting to his children's marriages. His control over inheritance kept his grown sons dependent upon him for years, while they waited for the landed property they needed to establish an independent household.

In actuality, the ideology of patriarchy co-existed with a high degree of blurring of gender boundaries. Colonial women shouldered many duties that would later be monopolized by men. The colonial goodwife engaged in trade and home manufacturing, supervised planting, and sometimes administered estates. Women's productive responsibilities limited the amount of time that they could devote to childcare. Many childrearing tasks were delegated to servants or older daughters. Ironically, the decline of patriarchal ideology was accompanied by the emergence of a much more rigid domestic division of labor.

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