Where are the Victorian mommy blogs?
January 17, 2013 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books about parenting in past times -- did the Victorians write about raising children? How about the middle ages? Even early 20th century would be interesting to me. If you have any personal insights about past parenting methods and the day-to-day of child-rearing, please share!
posted by amanda to Human Relations (15 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
You might start by checking out Ellen Ross' Love and Toil, a good general overview of late Victorian motherhood among the poor, and Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall's Family Fortunes, a far-reaching social history of the Victorian middle-class family. Both of those will point you toward a wide range of interesting primary sources, though it is much more common to hear about the day-to-day life of the Victorian family from the perspective of children. I also can't recommend enough that you read M.V. Hughes' delightful trio of autobiographies, which begin when she was a child in the 1870s and end with her as a mother in 1890s.
posted by vathek at 12:57 PM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

How about Little Women and Little Men?
posted by bq at 1:03 PM on January 17, 2013

The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder provide a view onto this, albeit from the perspective of the childhood. She does a very good job, though, of revealing her parents behavior and their approach to parenting throug the child's eyes.
posted by alms at 1:25 PM on January 17, 2013

There are several versions of Mrs. Beeton's book of household management floating around online, from 1861.
posted by damo at 1:36 PM on January 17, 2013

Seconding looking at some fiction sources. You could try some of the later Anne of Green Gables novels, in which Anne is married and has children of her own: Anne's House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley, and Rilla of Ingleside. The novels cover the years from the mid 1890's to WW1. It's a pretty good look at how the Edwardian middle class might have parented/viewed their children, albeit quite idealized.

One of the most interesting things about this topic is the dramatic shift in attitudes about children that took place towards the turn of the twentieth century. In the Victorian period, the "children should be seen and not heard" axiom pretty much ruled the day. But as the Edwardian period drew near, people began to change their view of children, in large part due to the advent of the field of psychology into popular thinking. Parenting in the Edwardian period was typically much more indulgent, at least comparatively, to the Victorian period, and for the first time people began to recognize that children actually needed to be treated like children instead of small wayward adults.

I would check out Victorian Web, one of my favorite websites for all things Victorian. It's kind of disorganized, so you might have to do a Google site search to find everything of interest, but this page seems like a good place to start. It starts by explaining the various conceptions of childhood held by Victorians.
posted by katyggls at 1:53 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Invention of Childhood by Hugh Cunningham

And a whole reading list from Wikipedia

Ari├Ęs, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
Boas, George. The Cult of Childhood. London: Warburg, 1966.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:55 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

How far back in time are you going? Are you interested in secondary sources (books based on research) as well as primary?

The academic literature on parenting before 1800 has gone through a shift since the first books were written in the 1960s (Aries, Stone) which really overplayed the discipline, etc. Children weren't treated like mini-adults, as Aries claimed, they just wore adult clothing for formal portraits. Also, they were loved a lot more than Stone claimed. If you go into the research literature, start with the more recent work.
posted by jb at 1:59 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here is a recent book on childhood illness, for example.
posted by jb at 2:01 PM on January 17, 2013

Also, I would note that the ideology of childrearing/parenting (as reflected in manuals, etc) may have been very different from the actual practice of parenting, as is true for almost any thing in life. Obviously, most parents in the past didn't read childreading manuals, and the writers of any manuals may or may not have had children. Both are very interesting but very different topics. Books on the practice of parenting tend to use sources like diaries, letters, coroner's records or doctor's case notes (as in the book I linked), etc, to try to get at what really happened as opposed to what someone thought ought to happen.

Novels can also be a very good but also tricky source. We record things about society and social practice in novels that we don't always write about in other sources, but always when you read a novel you have to ask yourself: was this really the common way, or has the novelist made a conscious choice to depict an usual or weird thing for their own literary purposes?
posted by jb at 2:08 PM on January 17, 2013

If you're into academic literature, Frances & Joseph Gies are the go-to names on the topic of medieval family life and literally wrote the textbook on it in their Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages.

Barbara Hanawalt offers some interesting research in her Growing Up in Medieval London.

The Sources section of the Wikipedia entry on the Medieval Household can also point you in the direction of further reading.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 2:38 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

A great book on this is Linda Pollock's Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900.

I work with 18th-century material, and there was a lot of material written about childrearing in that period, although most of it was aimed at parents by doctors (or people claiming to be doctors) telling parents how to do it - more Dr Spock than mommy blogs, really. But you can get a sense of what was being railed against and what was changing, at any rate, and some of them are freely available online:

William Cadogan, An Essay upon Nursing, and the Management of Children, 1748 (here)
James Nelson, An Essay on the Government of Children, 1753 (here)
John Theobald, The Young Wife's Guide, in the management of her Children, 1764 (here)
Hugh Smith, Letters to Married Women, on Nursing and the Management of Children, 1767 (here)
Hugh Downman, Infancy, or the Management of Children: a didactic poem, in six books, 1774 (here)

And the big guns, John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762).

The material I work with most directly is letters written to physicians, and children turn up there a lot as well. There aren't many first-person detailed accounts of parenting, but you do get a lot of snippets of what life was like for parents and children in well-off 18th-century families. Some of the things I've noticed, from there and from books like the ones above:

- Babies would often be breastfed by a wet-nurse, or even sent out to a wet-nurse out in the country (which was seen - not unreasonably - to be healthier for a child than an 18th-century city). But this wasn't universal, and plenty of mothers, including the nobility, breastfed. Common physician-recommended advice was that mothers should breastfeed their own infants to avoid disease from the nurse.

- Care of infants in general was all sorts of weird to our modern eyes, and was also a big area of struggle between the increasingly professionalised ranks of medicine and the older customs. Things like rubbing newborns with salt and giving them semi-solid food immediately after birth were still fairly common, although practices were starting to shift, and mothers sometimes express concerns about things like teaching children to walk too early in case it damages their bones.

- Children's diets were often different from those of adults; it was reasonably common to recommend against giving children meat when they were young. They would also be drinking alcohol, often 'small beer' (watered-down and low in alcohol) but sometimes wine. They were clearly getting treats like sugar-plums as well, much to the disapproval of a lot of the authors of childrearing texts; this seems to turn up frequently as an example of why parents (and particularly mothers) are spoiling their children.

- Parents were very concerned about their children's health - understandably, for a time when child mortality rates were still so high - and were very keen to avoid things like consumption (tuberculosis + other wasting diseases), measles, and smallpox. There was a lot of controversy around smallpox inoculation, but I've read quite a few letters from parents asking physicians about inoculating their children, and they are clearly only interested in the risk calculation - is it worth giving their daughter definite mildish smallpox now to protect her from possible worse smallpox in the future, or should they wait a few years until she's older, but then if they wait she'll probably catch it anyway and then she'll pass it to her siblings who are so young it'll be much more dangerous, and so on. Some common childrearing practices, like cold bathing (literally, bathing in cold water), sound fairly horrific to us but were done with the aim of strengthening the child so it would be less likely to succumb to illness.

- People loved their kids. The idea a lot of us today have, that parents weren't so attached to their offspring when they knew they'd lose a few in childhood, is as jb says a myth influenced by some outmoded research from the 1960s. Obviously there were some neglectful and abusive parents, as ever, but there's also an incredible amount of tenderness expressed from parents writing about their children. One of the most striking and recurrent things about the parent-physician letters I've read is all the ways this comes across - parents rushing to physicians because their child swallowed a coin, riding five hundred miles on horseback to see an ill child at boarding school, ending letters with "can anything more be done for my sweet lassie?", describing how many words their toddlers understood, describing their three-year-old running to see his father when he came home. I've read one letter from a grandparent who spends two pages describing how incredibly handsome and clever and talented the young child in question is, this one time he picked up a fiddle and he could play it without even being taught!, before even mentioning his illness. They loved their kids.
posted by Catseye at 2:39 PM on January 17, 2013 [23 favorites]

If you have access to academic works, you could definitely find some stuff there. I believe a friend of mine just finished her dissertation (in English) on mothers in the Victorian era!
posted by pised at 2:52 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a daddy blog! Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote an account of twenty days alone with his young son when his wife and daughters were away on a visit. It's so sweet, and apparently this is a rare glimpse into intimate fatherhood in the mid-nineteenth century.
posted by dlugoczaj at 3:10 PM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Probably the most famous English example is Sarah Stickney Ellis, Mothers of England: Their Influence and Responsibilities.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:19 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might like Anna Davin's book Growing Up Poor: Home, School and Street 1870-1914.

And Round About a Pound a Week (1913).

There are some books from the second half of the 20thc you might find interesting, although strictly speaking outside your period:

Elizabeth and John Newson's sociology books such as "Infant Care in An Urban Community," "Four Years Old in An Urban Community" and "Seven Years Old in the Home Environment". These are extremely readable and largely made up of quotations from mothers about parenting.

Also, from the 1940s and 50s, Can Any Mother Help Me?, letter exchanges between women.

Lots of fiction, especially children's books, contains information about parenting or children's experiences of family life. I can list some Victorian and Edwardian books you might want to look at, but I don't want to take up the thread with what may be tangential to you, so MeMail me if you're interested.
posted by paduasoy at 3:25 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Bloody useless as it stands, innit?   |   I Need Some Relationship Suggestions Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.