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
18th Century Practices
19th Century Practices
Children at Play: An American History – covers multiple centuries
Children’s Costume History (Girls) – covers 1775-1920
The Education of Indentured Servants in Colonial America – Sometimes these servants were children
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.
There are many other websites covering the lives of children through the centuries, but these resources should get you started.