Pre-School Responses to the 19th-Century Youth Crisis

Article excerpt

The travails of 19th-century urban youth were a precondition to the invention of modern adolescence and the rise of the modern secondary school. These travails, already documented by this author in Adolescence (Nos. 89 and 92), led to a child-saving movement during the last century aimed at taking youth off the streets, putting them in schools, stretching out the normal home-leaving age from 14 to 18 and, in general, prolonging a developmental period. The crisis began in the 1830s and 1840s with the development of America's first urban slums and continued through the early years of the 20th century.

From these slums had issued an entirely new class of American youth - the so-called "street arabs," named for their Bedouin-like wanderings throughout the cities. Increasingly over the 19th century, swarms of these homeless, crime-prone street waifs populated the streets, dodging the police, acknowledging no authority, gambling, fighting, stealing, and in general living entirely by their wits. Many of their parents had died or moved on; other youths were castaways whose parents had abandoned or otherwise lost interest in them, or who could no longer feed them or tolerate their behavior. Others were "runaways," avoiding parental abuse, neglect, and ill-treatment; and still others simply preferred outdoor life to the noxious tenements from whence they had come.

Broken free of any semblance of family control or community restraints, these youth supported themselves through legitimate street trades (e.g., selling newspapers and street foods, carrying coal and firewood, sweeping out stores, panhandling) and from illicit activities including thievery, procuring, drug-dealing, pandering, prostitution, and various extortion and protection schemes.

The problems of youth were not gender specific. Some of the most ferocious street gangs of New York City were composed entirely of roughneck, marauding, brawling girls, aged 9 to 16 - 30 to 40 to a pack. The Forty Little Thieves and Lady Locusts were but two examples. Wild and unmanageable, they scampered barefoot about the streets like so many little hell-hags, sleeping in wooden boxes and under stairways, and scratching out a living by their wits in the street trades. Ten years before the Civil War, one New York observer wrote that one could hardly walk down Broadway without meeting a hideous troop of ragged girls from twelve years of age on down, brutalized already beyond redemption, the stamp of childhood forever gone from their faces.

Boys likewise organized themselves into street gangs. Even as early as 1850, New York City was reeling under the force of more than 200 gang wars, some lasting as many as three or four days. Among the gangs were the Daybreak Boys, the Swamp Angels, the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang, the Baxter Street Dudes, and the Slaughter Houses; and while all the were not exclusively juvenile in makeup, the young did comprise most of their membership. They fought with brass knuckles, sold protection to shopkeepers, and terrorized neighborhoods in virtually every section of town. In 1846, Boston reported as many as 5,000 vagrant youth in the streets, and called them a "corrupt and festering" fountain flowing into the city's brothels and prisons. By 1860, with a population still under 800,000, New York reported more than 30,000 street urchins. By the 1870s, more than 8,000 youth were confined nationwide in reformatories, while still greater numbers crowded into adult prisons. Edward Bellamy wrote that "swarms of half-brutalized children" roamed the streets of Boston in the 1880s. By the end of the 19th century, juvenile gangs controlled many of the streets of Baltimore, Boston, Newark, and New Orleans. A torrent of youth criminality was sweeping the land.

It was these conditions (and the better-publicized predicament of child laborers) that gave rise to a 19th-century child-saving movement aimed at taking youth off the streets and out of the sweatshops. …