Childhood 100 years ago

Photo courtesy of The Chicago Historical Society


At a time when the world seems to be getting more and more complicated, it’s nice to think back to a time when the world was a simpler place.


What about 100 years ago?


That was a time when a kid could be a kid, right? Barefoot, carefree afternoons at the fishing hole or playing stick ball in the street. Families had a better sense of being a family because they were working together on daily chores, right? Everyone had a sense of who they were. It must have been much easier to be a kid and easier to raise a child back then.


Or was it?


With the idea that you have to know history or you are doomed to repeat it, Chicago Parent thought it would be interesting to take a look back.


A full day “Daily survival was a family activity wrought out of necessity,” says Michael H. Ebner, American history professor at Lake Forest College. In 1903 there were no dishwashers, no laundry machines, no vacuum cleaners, no electrical appliances, no refrigeration, no microwaves and, in many cases, no electricity, which made home upkeep a never-ending all-day ordeal.


The 2000 PBS series “1900 House” dramatized the tough, day-to-day existence of 20th century urban families. The program took a modern-day family and plopped them into a 20th century life. The Victorian house used for the project was stripped of insulation, electricity and toilets. Gaslight fixtures and a coal stove were installed and an outhouse was built in the backyard.


Three days into the two-month experiment, the mother in “1900 House” had an emotional breakdown when she realized her journey back in time wasn’t the sentimental foray she had expected and her son wasn’t going to eat dinner if it wasn’t deep-fried from a fast-food restaurant. Over time the “1900 House” family learned to cope. By the end of the two months, they said they had grown closer as a family and learned that every person had a specific role to fulfill to get the work done.


Children were a big part of the household equation in 1903. Younger children would help with indoor cleaning. Older children were sent out on foot to do errands. The children would help tend the vegetable garden and collect eggs from the backyard hen house. Because parents and children


spent so much time working together, it helped to foster the values of responsibility, respect and togetherness within the family.


Of course, children in 1903 had time for fun too, but what did they do? One thing’s for sure: Whatever they did, they did it outdoors. City neighborhoods were not yet landlocked with development, and there was always an open lot nearby that could be used for baseball or as a playground. Marbles, fishing, dolls in buggies, tea parties and stickball were the rave.


In contrast, today’s kids are much less likely to have a fishing pole than a GameBoy, PlayStation, computer, movies or television. There are park district classes, organized sports and precious little time for free play.


In 1903, school meant one-room schoolhouses for rural children where grades one through eight were taught in the same room. The three Rs-reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic-were the staples. Girls were separated from boys for physical education. Boys took woodworking and shop, girls home economics.


In her landmark book, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, published in 1909, child rights advocate and Hull House founder Jane Addams recognized the value of youthful innocence and the need to protect it. Addams wrote, “Nothing is more certain than that each generation longs for a reassurance as to the value and charm of life, and is secretly afraid lest it lose its sense of the youth of the earth.” Addams wrote this at a time when the Industrial Revolution had exploded, demanding so many workers that children were exploited in an organized labor force, placing children-especially young girls-at great risk. Addams’ advocacy helped pave the way for child labor laws, which are still protecting youth today.


News to you World headlines in the early 1900s weren’t that different from those today. There was a threat of war looming and a threat to national security. The United States was involved in an overseas military action with 100,000 troops stationed in the Philippines. As the new century dawned, Americans were feeling a sense of uncertainty about the future. A year later, in 1901, the country was rocked by the assassination of President McKinley.


Early 20th century Americans got that news the way they got all of their news: via a newspaper or word of mouth. They waited for the twice-daily newspaper deliveries or scooped up the rare Extra. Today, news is immediate-24-hour television, radio and Internet news gives us almost instantaneous information about world events. E-mail allows children to find virtual pen pals all over the world.


“When we think of a child in the year 2000 and their experiences, we certainly think about the abundant opportunities they have,” says Ebner. In comparison, he says, “In 1900 there are fewer external forces that are going to make their way into a child’s life.”


The proliferation of radio, TV, computer and Internet also led to a culture that sees children as a market for commercial products and services. It began in the 1930s when children’s radio programs such as “Little Orphan Annie” promoted breakfast cereals. In the ’50s, television and movies promoted cigarettes to a teen audience. Today the biggest advertisers driving children’s TV programming are producers of low-nutritional snack foods and drinks, fast-food chains and toy manufacturers.


Health, safety, gender and race The greatest landmarks in cultural evolution in the 20th century occurred in the areas of health and human rights.


In 1903, the world was neither healthy nor safe. Today’s health and safety laws, which sprang from the Industrial Revolution, did not exist. When men, women and children were at work, they also often were at risk of losing their lives.


There were no vaccines to protect children from deadly diseases. Tuberculosis had not been conquered. Polio was of great concern. If a member of your household contracted a highly contagious or life-threatening disease, the health department would most likely quarantine your home. The home would be labeled and sealed, and all family members, with the possible exception of the father who had to go to work, would be confined to the house until the risk was over. In 1903, more than 15 percent of children died before their first birthday. Today, fewer than one of every 100 children die in their first year.


And if you were growing up a girl, your safety was not only compromised by factory work your future was bleak. In 1903, a women was relegated to a life of household chores and child rearing, no higher education, choice of profession and no right to vote.


The growing popularity of the bicycle had a profound effect on women’s freedom. They still couldn’t vote in 1903, but they could get around. Since most families could not afford more than one horse and buggy-used by father for work-a bicycle meant the wife was no longer forced to walk everywhere. Women were able travel greater distances, complete errands more quickly and have more time to visit with friends and family.


And they had more time to agitate for women’s rights-a right women finally won in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s furthered the issues of women and the quest for gender equality.


While women and new waves of immigrants fought against discrimination, African-Americans suffered the greatest injustice.


Though the Civil War abolished slavery in 1865, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson legalized “separate but equal” as the rule of the day. Even though separate often was not equal, especially when it came to education and health care, the ruling spurred Jim Crow laws that restricted opportunity for all African-Americans. Life only began to change after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education said an African-American girl could attend a previously all-white school. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought African-Americans closer to the American Dream.


Get a grip So is it better now? Have we come a long way since 1903?


It’s hard to know where you are if you aren’t sure where you’ve been.


“History, more than anything else, is perspective,” says Lonnie Bunch, president of the Chicago Historical Society. “Children need a sense of perspective.”


Stimulated by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans are eager to learn more about their past. What did America do right? What did America do wrong? The release of a biography of the second U.S. president, John Adams by David McCollough, the History Channel, and a stream of radio and television historical documentaries have spurred the thirst for knowledge. “Who would have thought that a book on John Adams would be a best-seller?” ponders Bunch. “People want to know.”


Bunch recommends that parents introduce the past to their children through their family history. Talking about the lives of relatives and what they did helps children understand they are part of a bigger world. Bunch adds, “Young children look for connections that give them a sense of comfort.”


It’s reassuring to know from where we came and from whom.


“History gives us the tools to understand the surroundings we live in,” says Bunch. “It helps us to have the guidance of the past.”


Larry McIntyre is a writer, photographer and father of two who lives in Oak Park.


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