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History of Fatherhood in the United States: 1700s to Early 1900s

After yesterday’s post about Roman Krznaric’s essay on the history of the men as fathers, I decided to do a little research on my own; being a self-professed history nerd, I didn’t require much arm-twisting to do so either. Unlike Krznaric’s broader worldwide focus, I decided to hone in on just the progression of fatherhood in the United States, and what I discovered was surprising.

Most of us are familiar with the major events in history—the colonization of early America, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, World War 2, and so on.  What many of us may have not considered, however, was the part these events played in shaping the image and expectation we have of fathers today, which, when looked at through a lens of the past 300-plus years in its entirety, is slightly off in my opinion.

What’s more, when looking through that lens, keep in mind that many of the perceptions we’ve had of family dynamics throughout history are incorrect or only half-truths. For example, the idea of colonial fathers being an austere, unfeeling, authoritarian ordained by God isn’t entirely accurate. Did religious dogma dictate that the man was to be the head of the household? Yes, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t warm and unloving. We only see it as being so because such an arrangement seem archaic and stifling within the context of our contemporary society—a society that has morphed over three centuries at the hands of ever shifting socio-economic conditions and world-changing events beyond our control.

To get a true picture of this progression of fatherhood through time, there was no way I could fit everything into ten slides; thus the presentation is split into two parts (and even then it’s still probably not enough).


  • 1. Colonial Fatherhood 1 of 10
    1. Colonial Fatherhood
    Family dynamics followed a patriarchal structure with the father as the head of the home. This reflected the "Great Chain of Being" ideology which viewed everything as being bound by a line of authority and subordination which extended from God on down the chain—a view reinforced by the Protestant Reformation. Home and work duties are closely aligned. Fathers are more involved with the family, especially after birth. They teach the children to read and write. Parenting manuals are addressed to men.
  • 2. Its the Law 2 of 10
    2. Its the Law
    State laws now supersede paternal authority. Colonial statutes dictate that men are to live with their wives, support them financially, assume their debts from before marriage, and pay their criminal fines. Connecticut and Massachusetts institute first laws in history against wife beating, adultery, and fornication while recognizing divorce and remarriage in cases of abandonment, adultery, and extreme physical cruelty.
  • 3. Demographic Differences 3 of 10
    3. Demographic Differences
    Factors related to geography, commerce and mortality rates create regional variations in paternal roles over the course of the later 1700's. Puritan fathers of New England become more controlling of children and view family more like a corporation as the economic stability of the family rests heavily on passing the family's assets onto the sons. Mid-Atlantic Quakers seek to preserve childhood innocence, focus on a nurturing environment, and help establish their children's success as adults with large dowries and land holding. High mortality rates among men and fewer women in the Southern states result in large age gaps between married couples; fathers die early in children's lives and mothers are more independent.
  • 4. Go West Young Man 4 of 10
    4. Go West Young Man
    Demographic, cultural and economic factors continue to change the father's role causing the patriarchal to break down. Increased population in the East means smaller land holdings to pass on to children while the expanding western frontier opens up new opportunities for younger families. As a result, fathers lose their influence as their children move away.
  • 5. The Virtuous Mother 5 of 10
    5. The Virtuous Mother
    In Western Europe, England, and soon the United States, the idea of Republican Motherhood takes hold. This ideology holds to the belief that women are more virtuous than men because they are less susceptible to the corruption and vices associated with politics and business to which men are exposed to regularly. As a result, mothers are viewed as being the best parent to pass along such virtue and upstanding character to their children.
  • 6. Industrialization 6 of 10
    6. Industrialization
    19th Century Industrialization requires men to work away from the home making mothers the hub of family life. Paternal authority diminishes as a result, and fathers are pushed to the emotional sidelines with their contribution to the family being primarily economic.
  • 7. The Second Awakening 7 of 10
    7.  The Second Awakening
    A national religious revival known as the Great Awaking, promotes the idea that the man's job as a father is to be the moral overseer of the family. Men respond by either accepting this belief in seeking to build a stronger family unit, or they reject it. Family desertion, abandonment, and divorce rates sharply increase.
  • 8. Separate Worlds 8 of 10
    8. Separate Worlds
    The division between home and work lives increase around the time of the 1860's and 70's, making gender-related domestic duties more pronounced, and fathers more emotionally detached. This holds true in rural homes too where labor is categorized as being either "productive work" performed by the women, and "paid work" done by the man. Men are officially referred to as being "the provider" and his family as "dependents." Woman also start refer to themselves as being "nurturers."
  • 9. Middle Class Dad 9 of 10
    9. Middle Class Dad
    As industrialization moves forward in the late 1800's, the middle class father emerges. Men's authority at home is now mostly contingent on outside factors related to property, proprietorship, and social network beyond the family. Without bankruptcy protection, limited liability laws, and life insurance, men's economic security is not as secure as in the past, making consequences of failure extreme for families. Pressure to avoid this results in less involvement with families and male identity being tied to occupation. Per capita alcoholism nearly triples.
  • 10. The Family Wage Economy 10 of 10
    10. The Family Wage Economy
    By the early Twentieth Century, men in middle class families are the sole breadwinner. This is not the case for the working class where all family members were forced to contribute which included children working in factories and other hardships. Many fathers are forced to work far away from the home. Progressive Era reforms, however, adjust the earnings wage between men and women allowing working class families to live off the father's income.

 

You can find Part 2 HERE

* * *

Ron Mattocks is a father of five (3 sons, 2 stepdaughters) and author of the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can’t Afford Vodka. He blogs at Clark Kent’s Lunchbox, and lives in Houston with his wife, Ashley, who eternally mocks his fervor for Coldplay.

Photo Credits: Wiki Commons (#4 Brian Standsberry)

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