From the first Colonial settlements to the Civil War, a great many changes took place within American society. Increasing industrialization in the North and an increase in large-scale farming coupled with reliance on slave labor in the South led to very different values and socially accepted lifestyles than were commonplace in the early colonies. In both of these societies, there was a shift from a community subsistence existence to one of markets and wages. These changes are reflected nowhere more distinctly and thoroughly than in the individual “microcosms of society:” the American family.
Definitions of what constitutes a family have altered over time in response to the functions it is ...view middle of the document...
Fathers had previously exerted an incredible amount of control over their children's lives well into adulthood. This was taking place within a context of a cultural reassessment of the family resulting in a new emphasis on familial love and affection. The family dynamic changed, with mothers keeping charge of child rearing into later years and the advent of “adolescence” as a distinct period of development considered essential to a well-rounded adult.
In the middle class family of the mid-to-late 19th century, love was central. The father had a duty to provide for his family's financial and emotional needs and the mother had a responsibility to the upkeep of the household as well as her children's and husband's emotional well-being. Women became increasingly concerned with personal fulfillment and a satisfying family life was vital to their happiness. Childhood was extended and the focus of child rearing shifted to that of shaping a good and moral future citizen.
Despite these dramatic changes in middle class society, many families maintained a semblance of the colonial-era attitudes and ideals. The majority of American families were working class, many of whom were recent immigrants, surviving at subsistence levels or lower. In these conditions, very similar to what we saw in the early days of settlement, it is essential that all members of the family play an active economic role. Rather than being fostered out or apprenticed to other families as in the past, children of 19th century working class Americans would join the factory workforce at similar ages. In the early factories, many bosses employed entire families together and allowed parents to mentor their own children. That practice fell out of favor in later years, but the basic reality remained: working class families were production-based and worked, although outside the home, interdependently toward the common goal of sustenance.
This isn't to say that working class families didn't also undergo a transformation during this time. The shift from the family as primarily a work unit to one of a haven from the workaday life was more broadly applicable. Even among lower classes, marital and parental affection increased and the family became more important as an emotional escape from the harsh realities they all endured in the factories, mines, or other workplace.
Similarly, the actual structure and daily lives of the African American family changed very little during this period. As the majority of Blacks at this time lived as slaves, the changing roles of men, women, and children in middle class white society did not affect them in the same ways. In slavery, men and women were near equals. Children joined the ranks of forced labor even earlier than their working class white counterparts: at the age of six or seven, a child born into slavery began their lifelong work for the master.
Since the slave owner maintained ultimate control over the lives of the slaves, a very different...