Family life was of supreme importance to nineteenth-century Americans of all races and social classes. Husbands and wives, and parents and children, looked to the family for nurturance and support in a world that was often perceived as cold and hostile. For white and African-American families of the North and South, children were the focus of family life, and couples were eager to start their families soon after marriage. Fathers and mothers were equally invested in the upbringing of their children, although mothers shouldered most of the burdens of daily childcare.
Nineteenth-century white middle-class Americans looked upon the home as a refuge, a place where parents and children could reside together in safety and harmony, away from the pressing problems of the society at large. It was the role of the women of the family to cultivate the home so that it was a restful and pleasing place. It was the duty of the menfolk to brave the harsh, competitive environment of the work world and to earn the income necessary to maintain the home and provide for the family. Children were instructed to obey their parents, learn their lessons, and mature into responsible, moral adults. In spite of the challenges of each family member’s role, families expected to enjoy being together at home. Evenings were a particularly cherished time for the entire family to come together. Parents and children took pleasure in reading aloud from newspapers, magazines, and books; playing games; playing music and singing hymns and popular songs; and sharing hobbies. Many families—both Protestant and Catholic—spent part of this evening time reciting prayers. Protestant fathers often read passages from the Bible. In their letters home, fathers in the