A look at children in the 1700s

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A look at children in the 1700s

February 1, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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From an 1856 Poor Richard's Almanac, adults are instructed on the industry required in child raising through visual image and two maxims. (Courtesy Alexandria Library, Lloyd House.)
What did parents in Alexandria 150 years ago teach their children? By learning more about the Franklin Maxims which appear on a 19th century child's cup excavated from the 500 block of King Street, we can move from Franklin's words to their use 100 years later for instructing children in the home.

One scene on the cup depicts a coastal village with people working. These words appear above and below the scene: "Industry needs not wish and he that lives upon hope will die fasting" and "There are no gains without pins [pains] then help hands for I have no lands." Darcie MacMahon found that the first phrase was originally written by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanack in 1739 as "Industry need not wish" and in 1736, "He that lives upon Hope, dies fasting." In 1745, he wrote "No gains without pains" and "Help, Hands; for I have no Lands."

The ideas were combined in Franklin's publication "The Way to Wealth" in which he wrote: "So what signifies wishing and hoping for better Times. We may make these Times better if we bestir ourselves. Industry need not wish..., and He that lives upon Hope will die fasting. There are no Gains, without Pains; then Help Hands, for I have no Lands, or if I have, they are smartly taxed."

Franklin wrote the maxims before the Revolution, when the colonists were still influenced by earlier concepts of children. They were thought to be small adults, which were naturally evil. Correspondingly, children were dressed like adults and expected to behave like adults with work and prayer. A Massachusetts Bay decree in 1641 admonished "that all masters of families should see that their children...be industriously implied [employed]. Some work, such as quilting bees, did have a social aspect. Although children did occasionally fly kites, fish, or swim, they had few toys before 1725. Some toys were made for play after this time, like dolls, rattles, whistles and tea sets.

After the American Revolution, children's play objects increased. The elite and middling class children were somewhat liberated by the democratic ideals of the period. Darcie's new publication, Children's Mugs and Victorian America, quotes from Sandra Brandt and Elissa Cullman's book: "Some began to wonder whether the old ideas of ruling children by the rod might not be as unfair as King George's tea tax. Perhaps a child was something other than a pint sized and unprincipled adult. Perhaps he was not even born bad" (Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America). Darcie states that, "recognition of the child as an immature human rather than a small adult allowed the child to be granted a period of childhood." Hence, more toys were manufactured to enculturate children during this training period. Rousseau's writings about the innate goodness of children which emphasized the naive and innocent as high standards created a theoretical foundation for this major shift. Material culture, like the child's cup, assisted parents in carrying out their industrious task of developing children with Industry who Gain by Pain.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.

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