Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 3, Children

Children’s lives have drastically changed through the centuries.

First, and foremost, children had to have a parent (as in father) or legal (male) guardian. Originally, the intent was to make sure a child didn’t become a public charge of the town or county.

Assuming a child lived in an intact home with two parents, whether natural or a step-parent and likely siblings, what was a day in the life of a child like?

For some children, schooling, probably at home, was an important part of their lives, as reading the Bible was considered a necessary societal skill. Writing was sometimes taught, but not always. Boys were taught to “cipher” or do rudimentary arithmetic.

Most of a child’s daily life was spent learning the skills needed to succeed in adulthood.

Some of these websites refer to British childhood, but, in many ways, the lives of American and British children didn’t vary much.

17th Century Practices

A Brief History of Children

Children’s Clothes in the 1600s

Playing Dress Up: Kid’s Clothing in the 17h Century

Seventeenth Century Child Rearing: It’s a Hard-Knock Life

The Dying Child in Seventeenth Century England

18th Century Practices

Childhood in the U.S. During the 1600-1750s

Children’s Clothing

Colonial Children’s Games

Colonial Games for Children

Daily Lives of Colonists in the 1700s

The Eighteenth-Century Child

What Was the Role of Children on the 18th-Century Virginia Farm?

19th Century Practices

19th Century Children’s Clothing for Girls and Boys

A Child’s World: Childhood in 19th Century New England

Children at Play: An American History – covers multiple centuries

Children in the 19th Century

Children’s Costume History (Girls) – covers 1775-1920

History of Children’s Clothing

Outdoor Toys and Games

Picturing the Child in Nineteenth-Century Literature

What Was Life Like for Children in the 19th Century?

Child Labor

A History of Child Labor

Child Labor in America Throughout History

History of Child Labor in the United States – Part 1, Little Children Working


Education in Colonial America

Education in Colonial America

Education in the Thirteen Colonies

Learning Your ABCs and 123s – A 17h-Century Education

The Education of Indentured Servants in Colonial America – Sometimes these servants were children

The History of American Education

We’ve covered childhood in general, but what about orphaned children? Until well into the 19th century, a child was considered to be an orphan if his or her father had died. It didn’t much matter if the mother was alive and well because she wasn’t the breadwinner in the family.

In families that were a bit more well-to-do, extended family (grandparents, uncles and cousins) might take in orphaned children, but that usually meant splitting up siblings because nuclear families tended to be large – six to ten children.

If other family members were unable or unwilling to take in orphans, the court immediately bound children out to learn a trade, whether the child be  male or female, when they reached an appropriate age.

Those taken in by relatives were also often apprenticed out because it was imperative that the child become a contributing member of society when adulthood was reached. That meant having a skill or trade that would enable him to earn a living.

Girls were taught women’s work – sewing, cooking, etc. – so that, in time, they would make good wives and mothers.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “orphan” took on its present meaning of a child who had lost both parents.

In any case, if you are researching a family with orphaned children, court records should be the first source you read. From the earliest colonial times, courts handled child care and placement if the father died and the mother didn’t marry again and quickly.

Online Resources:

Bound Boys

Bound Children

Childhood in the Early Colonial Period

Children Bound Out 1756-1790

Children Bound to Labor

National Orphan Train Complex

Orphan Trains (1854-1929)

The Rise and Demise of American Orphanages

There are many other websites covering the lives of children through the centuries, but these resources should get you started.

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