by Lilith Logan, Lead Interpreter
Childhood today looks rather different than it did in the 19th century, when it was even more shaped by economic class. Before the child labor laws of the late 19th century and the compulsory education laws of the early 20th, the children of poor families were expected to work. They were often sent to labor on farms or in factories from early ages and had little time for education or entertainment. These children learned reading, writing, and basic math at home or in community schools or churches. Their toys were typically homemade, rather than bought. Children and their parents crafted dolls, cards, and checkers, and they often created their own games as well.
The children of free and enslaved people of color had even less access to education and entertainment than their poor white counterparts. Laws restricted access to education – many states placed prohibitions on teaching people of color to read or write. By 1840, an estimated 5 percent of free or enslaved people of color became literate, which they did at great personal risk, compared to 90 percent of the nation’s white population. Enslaved children were expected to work alongside adults to learn the tasks their enslavers would require of them. Their toys, if they possessed any, were largely homemade of scrapped or found materials. Like other children, they created their own games and songs to entertain themselves and their friends.
Middle- and upper-class children experienced life differently than their less advantaged peers. They were free from the burden of factories or farms and had greater access to both education and entertainment. Though the type of education depended on the age and gender of the child, privileged children were able to study in more formal settings. While the girls trained to become ladies and were expected to become proficient in social entertainments, etiquette, and how to manage a domicile, male children were expected to become gentlemen scholars. The boys learned subjects like math and science and were often prepared for programs in medicine or law. While these children played some of the same games as their poorer counterparts, they had greater access to manufactured toys and knick-knacks to keep them entertained. Little girls enjoyed playing with porcelain dolls and tea sets, both of which reflected the expectations of young girls of wealth, who learned how to be a lady through both play and formal education. Boys enjoyed sports and outdoor activities like hunting, wrestling, and variations of what we might call baseball today.
In the latter half of the 19th century, education became more readily accessible for poor children and children of color. By 1880, half of all white children were enrolled in school, and enrollment for children of color grew from nearly nonexistent to 34 percent. Though mass-manufacturing made store-bought toys more affordable for poor and working-class families, their children still created their own toys and games. Hide and Seek, Charades, Checkers, and marbles were especially popular.