Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


In the decades after the Civil War, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration marked the start of the Gilded Age, a period of rapid economic growth but also social upheaval. Reformers responded to the social and economic chaos with a "search for order," as famously described by historian Robert Wiebe. Most reformers agreed that one of the nation's top priorities should be its children and youth, who, they believed, suffered more from the disorder plaguing the rapidly growing nation than any other group.

Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era explores both nineteenth century conditions that led Progressives to their search for order and some of the solutions applied to children and youth in the context of that search. Edited by renowned scholar of children's history James Marten, the collection of eleven essays offers case studies relevant to educational reform, child labor laws, underage marriage, and recreation for children, among others. Including important primary documents produced by children themselves, the essays in this volume foreground the role that youth played in exerting agency over their own lives and in contesting the policies that sought to protect and control them.


Paula S. Fass

Mandatory schooling, citizenship training, and anti–child labor laws: If we want to sum up what the late nineteenth century brought to childhood, these would form a sturdy pyramid for government action. in the United States, during the period from 1880 to 1920, these concerns came prominently to the fore when a variety of individuals, private groups, political parties, and government agencies turned their attention to improving both child life and the social fabric. Throughout the Western world, the increasing emphasis on child welfare and its relationship to social stability and national prosperity made states turn their attention to these matters.

Once we add play and recreation to the mix of factors, we can neatly summarize the goal of progressive reformers, those women and men who sought through private and public means and through prominent media activity to illuminate the plight of the many who were not fully part of the nation’s life. This largely meant immigrants and especially the children of immigrants. Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, is usually viewed as emblematic of this movement to improve the quality of life for immigrants and their children. But progressives ran the spectrum from those most concerned with the state of city politics to those eager to reorganize schools in order to improve instruction. All of them were responding to the industrial transformation that had remade the lives of many Americans starting in the second half of the nineteenth century and that, by the early twentieth century, threatened to undermine social coherence and national identity, as well as the quality of lived experience among American citizens.

In all these matters, children often became the central subjects of attention. What kinds of citizens, workers, and family members would they grow up to become? How could their futures be directed toward social ends as well as stable, productive adulthoods? How could they be kept from criminal activity and, if already involved, effectively served by . . .

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