Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Nocturnal Habits and Dark Wisdom": The American Response to Children in the Streets at Night, 1880-1930

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Nocturnal Habits and Dark Wisdom": The American Response to Children in the Streets at Night, 1880-1930

Article excerpt

In his 1915 book, Street-Land, Philip Davis wrote of a well-brought-up young boy named Tommie, the son of a schoolmaster in Boston:

"Like his parents, Tommie was taught from infancy to retire soon after sundown. One evening, while in his 'nightie' and in the midst of his prayers, he heard the fire alarm. He ran excitedly into the front-room, flung the window open--just in time to catch sight of the fleeting shadows of little children running madly behind a clanging, hissing fire-engine. 'Mama,' he asked in great surprise, 'are these the night children?'"

Contemplating the implications of the phrase "night-children," Davis used a revealing analogy:

"Did you ever hear of night birds? There are owls, to be sure. Those on the Boston Common, known to sight-seers the country over, are as cosmopolitan by nature as our city children. But their reputation is rather low in birdland. Their reputed wisdom is of a doubtful sort, mostly derived from a knowledge of things which well-bred babes of birdland close their eyes to before nightfall. Nevertheless, the owl, in its nocturnal habits and dark wisdom, strikingly resembles the 'wise-guy' of Street-Land. The alarming thing about city children is that they are becoming more and more owlish. ("1)

Davis's vignette of Tommie and the night children reflected a widespread concern among the American middle class at this time. From about 1880 to 1930, children's access to the nighttime city became a subject for public hand-wringing and for intervention by middle-class social reformers and government officials. Middle-class Americans feared that children's development would be undermined. The orderly process of learning and acculturation that took place in schools and homes would be tainted by the "dark wisdom" to be gained in urban public spaces--knowledge of the world that was unsuited to young people.

This concern revealed cultural conflicts between middle-class and working-class Americans over the meanings of modern night, and over the raising of children. Middle-class city dwellers, like Tommie's parents, already ensured that their own children stayed indoors at night and went to bed early. Working-class parents did not. Confident of their own cultural superiority, middle-class Americans searched for ways to remove all children from the streets after dark. Their desire to shield even poor children from premature exposure to adult knowledge lay behind efforts to create supervised recreation centers such as boys' clubs, to regulate child labor in the streets, and to impose juvenile curfews. These three reform campaigns won major victories in large American cities in the decades of the 1880s through the 1920s. By 1930, a new institutional framework was in place to restrict children's access to the city at night, and thus to impose greater order on the scheduling of urban life.

The Problem of Modern Night

Before examining each of these three reform campaigns in turn, I will first address this question: How did the middle class come to perceive night as such a problem, and why did their concerns focus on children?

The most obvious reason for concerns about night stems from the increasing nighttime use of urban public spaces. Through the mid-nineteenth century, night had been strongly associated in the public mind with vice and danger. A woman who was on a dark street without an escort was almost certain to be a prostitute, also known as a "night-walker." Men were likely to be out for debauchery, if not crime. Except for these disreputable activities, the American street was typically quiet for most of the night. Fanny Trollope, who visited Philadelphia in the late 1820s, wrote, "the great and most striking contrast between this city and those of Europe, is perceived after sun-set; scarcely a sound is heard; hardly a voice or a wheel breaks the stillness. The streets are entirely dark, except where a stray lamp marks an hotel or the like; no shops are open but those of the apothecary, and here and there a cook's shop; scarcely a step is heard and for the note of music, or the sound of mirth, I listened in vain. …

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