If you missed previous posts in our new roundtable series on the history of childhood and youth, click here. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the next few weeks, stop by to read about challenges and realities of researching and teaching childhood and youth across vast early America.
Today’s interview comes from Holly N.S. White (Ph.D., College of William & Mary) who is an assistant editor of Publications and Digital Projects at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and an assistant producer of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast about Early American History. She specializes in the history of age, childhood, and youth as well as the histories of gender, family, and law in the early America. Her research focuses on the definition and negotiability of age in early American law and society, which is the subject of her forthcoming first book, Negotiating American Youth: Age, Law, and Culture in the Early Nineteenth Century. Be sure to check out Holly’s Junto piece from last month, ““young appearance”: Assessing Age through Appearance in Early America!”
JUNTO: How do you define “childhood” and “youth”? Do you see differences in these categories or are they synonyms? What are the numeric boundaries that you use?
HOLLY N.S. WHITE: In my own research on childhood and youth in early America I define childhood and youth as two separate phases in a person’s life. I decide to label an individual I write about as a “child” or a “youth” based on the context of their particular community and/or family. This includes what opportunities or responsibilities that person did or did not have access to because of their socially designated stage in life. I’ve found that access to social events or youth cultures that would lead to courtship opportunities tended to be a marker of a transition from childhood to youth—children did not have access to courtship opportunities while youth did. For my own purposes chronological age might factor into my determination to label a person a child or youth but that depends on if I’ve been able to conclude that chronological age meant something to the community that person belonged to. For example, in my own research I came across a ten-year-old named Maria Moody who was active in the early republican youth culture of Williamsburg, Virginia. However, upon her move to Richmond, Virginia (a relatively close distance even back then) she was considered a “child” and was not permitted to socialize with older youth. Clearly context matters when assigning the label of child or youth.
JUNTO: Context definitely matters and with that, do you see differences between the historical definitions and our modern connotations?
WHITE: Of course the age of ten today would be considered a child, in my opinion, both legally and socially across the whole of the United States. So yes, depending on when and where you are looking in early American history these terms can be dramatically different from our modern definitions and connotations. But they can also be shockingly similar. It all comes down to regional, communal, and familial context.
JUNTO: We often think of “gender” as a category of historical analysis. Do you see “childhood” or “youth” as similar categories of historical analysis? How do you methodologically approach this?
WHITE: Absolutely! Childhood and youth are stages of life just like adulthood, middle-age, old age, etc. Each stage of life is socially constructed and defined by one’s community, family, and self– just like gender. And just like gender a life stage has a biologically defined component to it as well. When I use childhood, youth, or more relevant to my own work, age, as a category of historical analysis, I first determine how age was understood, experienced, and recorded within the time and place I’m studying. I personally think age is an integral part of one’s identity in early America so I ask myself: How is age defined and experienced within the community, culture, and time frame I’m looking at? How does one’s age intersect with their gender, race, and class identities? How does one’s actual age, or perception of their age, affect their concept of self and in turn influence their motivations in life? Is the significance of that person’s age amplified or diminished by their other “categories of being”? Furthermore, age or life stage just like race, class, and gender has its own system of power relationships: adult/parent/authority figure vs child/youth. Generational divisions come up repeatedly in well-studied narratives of early America—the Puritan’s Half-Way Covenant and the American Revolution are just two obvious examples. We can’t make sense of significant (and seemingly insignificant) moments in history without understanding what role age or life stage played in participants’ motivations.
JUNTO: This brings us to an important question about intersectionality. A big push in youth studies at the moment is to include age as an important factor in intersectionality, on par with race, class, and gender. What are your perspectives on this?
WHITE: I completely agree that age is an important factor in intersectionality and needs to be considered on par with race, class, and gender– and I argue as such in my own work. Like race, class, and gender, age is a fluid category of being in that the significance it holds is defined by society. Age can mean something but it can also mean nothing. Most importantly age is a performed aspect of identity that has social and cultural expectations attached to it that, at different periods of time and in different capacities, are transmitted into law. My own research argues that nineteenth-century elite white ideas about age, and in turn childhood, youth, or adulthood, were not universal or mainstream. Instead these ideas were part of how elite whites constructed their class and racial privilege. Consequently, the concept of age—its construction and performance in conjunction with gender and race– is critical to understanding the development of class in the first half of the nineteenth century.
JUNTO: Being able to find sources that speak to these issues of social construction, whether age, race, or class, for children, though, can be rather difficult. What types of sources do you use and how have you had to creatively read sources for childhood experience?
WHITE: I use a wide range of sources to uncover the histories of children and youth. They include letters, diaries, and prescriptive advice literature– some targeted at parents and others targeted at young people. I also use institutional records– church disciplinary records, marriage records, and school records can be very revealing. My favorite types of sources to use, however, are legal records: laws and trial transcripts from court cases. These are incredibly rich sources to uncover how a community and society perceives and treats its younger (and youngest) members; they can also contain testimony from children/young people and so are a unique way to get access to these voices (especially from poor or lower-classed youth who you would rarely find letters from). Even though their words are being transcribed by an adult, you can read against this bias to say something about the vulnerabilities or experiences these children/young people were subject to.
I like to look at laws because laws defined by age reveal to us who is afforded what opportunities, responsibilities, or protections. Age legally determines who can vote and consent to contracts (be it formal contracts pertaining to marriage, financial, or labor arrangements or informal “contracts” like access to one’s body via sexual encounters). Age also determines who can be held culpable for their actions as well as defines who can be trusted to understand the significance of an oath when testifying. The exciting thing about law is that it seems a hard and fast way of how a society makes decisions, however, once you look at trial transcripts and court rulings it becomes clear that these age based laws matter except when they don’t. Court records are full of cases in which these laws are challenged and qualified against individual circumstance. For example, we see cases in which the heinousness of a crime or the perceived physical or intellectual maturity of an individual results in the legal protections afforded by one’s age—minority—is disregarded and that person is instead tried as an adult. There are also a number of cases I’ve seen where a family argues that although their child has reached the legal age of a majority in reality they should be considered a child because of deficiencies in their physical or intellectual growth.
JUNTO: Legal records are a wonderful source for trying to uncover children’s voices, but also a family’s experience. As you’ve outlined above in talking about your source base, childhood and youth studies are strongly aligned to family history and gender history. Do you think it is important to separate childhood/youth from family history and/or gender history or are they offshoots of these well defined disciplines?
WHITE: I think that the history of childhood and youth can certainly stand on its own as a discipline. Children and youth are/were legitimate, autonomous historical actors in their own right, independent of the families they belong to or come from. However, I don’t think its problematic that childhood and youth studies remains affiliated with family history either. Perhaps the difference needs to be that when we talk about children as members of families (under the umbrella of family history) they should not automatically be considered subservient or second-tier members of the group. We also need to expand our understanding of what a “family” looks like—not just a group of people biologically related but also as a collection of people stitched together through fictive kin relationships.
Thank you to Dr. White for joining us today to discuss the history of childhood and youth in nineteenth-century America! Remember to see her blog post of her research, Guest Post: “young appearance”: Assessing Age through Appearance in Early America.
Tune in on Monday for an interview with Dr. Ben Davidson, James Smithson Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He’ll discuss his work on black and white children’s experiences during the Civil War.