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Life was not easy for many children during the 19th century. While wealthy families did exist, the average family depended on its children to help provide a living. Children began working at an early age. Their skills were honed to make them useful in many areas, from farm production to manufacturing, and street sales.


The average child was afforded little time for play, and the toys available to them were few and simple. Many toys were homemade. Children of wealthy families, however, experienced a very different life. They were not only sheltered from the harsh realities of life known to low or middle class children, but from most of the outside world. During the early and middle 1800’s, many families operated family farms.


Farm families tended to have many children. Older children were charged with helping to care for the young as well as with many other responsibilities. Children were considered an asset to their families as soon as they could begin working to help out with the family farm. “In short, children were expected to begin working for their families as soon as possible.


At age seven, typically, boys joined their fathers to work in the fields and to learn farming while girls took their place beside their mothers to learn the household chores or “women’s work” that constituted their lot”. The subsistence farm was typical in the 19th century, wherein farmers focused on self sufficiency, and grew only enough food to feed their families.


The chores of men and women on the farm were clearly delineated, and women and their daughters played an important role in the subsistence farm. They typically managed dairy and poultry operations, made soap, candles and spent a great deal of time producing cloth. Cotton and wool made up most of the family’s clothing, with the women providing one set of clothes for each family member, every season. In fact, as late as 1840, farm women produced more cloth at home as all American textile mills combined.


Women usually cared for the kitchen garden, but Men typically farmed the fields. Men and boys also cared for the livestock, cut and split wood, built the house and barns and constructed and maintained the fences. Families reproduced their households by setting up their grown children in households on adjacent farms. This allowed them to co-op their farming efforts and made offspring available to care for parents in their old age.


In short, children worked during the day almost as much as their parents. Working alongside parents and older siblings was how children learned the necessary skills they would use to run their own farms in adulthood.


When there was time for play, toys also varied by social class. Manufactured toys and games were available to children in wealthy families, but children of poorer families played with simple homemade toys. Fathers would often whittle toys out of wood or mothers would fashion toys from fabric scraps.

Credit: Teaching American History Grant Program.

Video Credit: Hung Barbour

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