Roundtable: The History of Childhood & Youth: Meg Eppel Gudgeirsson

fullsizerender_2If you missed previous posts in our new roundtable series on the history of childhood and youth, click here. Stop by Wednesday for the finale of this roundtable series!

Today we welcome Dr. Meg Eppel Gudgeirsson, expert in nineteenth-century U.S. religious history and childhood. She completed her PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz in June 2016. Her dissertation, “Perfect Child, Perfect Faith: Raising Children in Nineteenth-Century Communities,” is a study of how four religious communities raised their children in an effort to embed their differing goals and identity in future generations. The United Society of Believers (better know as Shakers), Oneida Perfectionists, Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Berea abolitionists all created specific communities grounded in their unique interpretations of Christianity in an effort to reform and improve American life through challenging rural and bourgeois notions of family, gender, and race. She is currently working on expanding her research on Berea, exploring the role of children in the community’s goals of integrating education in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Dr. Gudgeirsson is a lecturer in the History Department at Santa Clara University, teaching courses on nineteenth and twentieth-century US, California History, and World History.
JUNTO: Why study children and youth?

MEG EPPEL GUDGEIRSSON: Childhood is a unique period in one’s life. Arguably more than any other, it is a liminal state on which adults write their own ideals, expectations, and hopes. I have found that by focusing on children and childhood much can be gained in our understanding of a given people.

Throughout history children have been seen in a variety of different ways from small adults to creatures of sin that must be taught morality to blank slates of innocence, which is largely where western culture has sat since the mid nineteenth century. In these different approaches to childhood, we can learn both about the children themselves but also how people see themselves. In many ways, adults can be much more transparent in their ideals when writing about child rearing and education than they are in their own assessment of themselves.

Children themselves also offer a fresh view of a people. When their records are available and when they write about their worlds, they are often less encumbered by expectation and judgement. For better or worse, they document what they see, what they want to see, and what they don’t see. And even when we use a memoir, we can find the relationship between one’s expectation/memory and their “reality.” Of course, we are then grabbling in the messy world of memory but that also has its own excitement and interest.

JUNTO: In your own research, how do you define “childhood” and “youth”? Are they different? Are they synonyms? What are the numeric boundaries that you use?

GUDGEIRSSON: As this question assumes, childhood and youth can be slippery terms. The limits and definitions of childhood depend on a specific community, religious beliefs, gender, and/or time. As most of my research sits in the nineteenth century, marriage is often the marker of one’s end of childhood. And it is not always marriage itself, but the possibility of marriage. Even that is problematic as a person not yet old enough to be married might be seen clearly as a youth, s/he may no longer be recognized as a child.

In my dissertation, I looked at four different religious communities in the nineteenth century. Each grappled with how childhood and youth ended differently – although often tied to marriage or the age when one might have their own children. For example, children in the Oneida community left their youth when they were old enough to participate in the sexual practices of complex marriage, typically around sixteen. However, in the Shaker community members practiced celibacy. Therefore marriage was not a marker of adulthood. Here the community defined the end of youth by the age one could officially commit to the community: twenty-one for women and twenty-three for men.

JUNTO: It’s always really interesting to see how different historical conceptions of age can be to our modern connotations, as that examples demonstrates. To talk about your research a little bit more, how do you define what you do? Do you focus more on the history of childhood (what people thought about children) or children (children’s experiences)? 

GUDGEIRSSON: I tend to focus more on childhood rather than the history of children themselves. For the purposes of my research and work, this often means what people thought about children, what children represented to them. (I expand on this more in the following question).

JUNTO: Given this focus on the history of childhood, what types of sources do you use and how have you had to creatively read sources for childhood experience? As many of the scholars in this roundtable have noted, this can be a really tough task.

GUDGEIRSSON: Generally it is very difficult to find sources written by the children in the community/place/time you want to study. I often focus much of my research on how adults saw and used childhood as a place to define themselves. Teaching children, whether through school, church, or another institution, is often a way that a society is trying to teach its youth about social norms. Looking there we can find clues to (or bluntly stated) communities’ self definitions and/or idealized goals. The work I have done looks at religious communities. These communities saw their youth as the way of continuing their religion and perfecting it. Their handbooks, newsletters, and curriculum make clear their ideals.

JUNTO: 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?

GUDGEIRSSON: Personally, I came to childhood studies through my own interest in gender, specifically women’s history. While I see the clear connections, I do find that childhood and youth studies are unique. There is overlap between many fields of history but does not mean that they should not stand alone. One of the main arguments I make for childhood studies as its own field is that it is not only connected to women, gender, and families. Multiple institutions deal with ideas of childhood, children, and youth. This includes education, religion, correctional institutions, and government; and this is just a start. Even if we look at our own modern moment, the government separation of children and their families as the border reveals much about the government and public’s view of both children and immigration.

JUNTO: Along with this, how do you incorporate the history of childhood and youth into larger fields of inquiry like political history, social history, and economic history? Why is it important to do so?

GUDGEIRSSON: As I discussed in several of my answers, I find that the history of childhood reveals a great deal about societies and communities. People can be more transparent in their goals and self definitions when they are writing about or discussing children, education, and childrearing. Therefore, we can learn much about the history of a political movement, a society, a culture, etc. by looking at how they talked about raising, educating, and disciplining their children. And we can also learn this by examining how they treat the children who break their rules or who abandon the society or community, and, of course, how this changed over time and why.

JUNTO: What are some of the most influential scholars and/or works to your own research and why?

GUDGEIRSSON: Three scholars immediately come to mind when I think of whose work influences and inspires my own work. Catherine Jones, who I had the pleasure to have on my dissertation committee as well as work with as a teaching assistant several times through graduate school, is doing some thoughtful work with childhood and youth history of Reconstruction (Intimate Reconstructions). Mary Niall Mitchell’s book, Raising Freedom’s Child, also looks at children in this period. I find both historians’ work to be very powerful as they investigate liminal periods in life (childhood) and in US history (Reconstruction). The parallels of society seeing an opportunity to perfect itself in both its future and in its reunion following the Civil War is such a fruitful space for new discoveries in the field. Dr. Jones’s thoughtfulness with language and definitions really raises the bar. Dr. Mitchell, similarly, writes in such an engaging way and I find myself drawn to how she reads the photographs of these children. Photography and imagery of children is such a powerful source of material in the field. Finally, Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s Dependent States has provided me a good model of reading sources created by children in the nineteenth century and was one of the first books I read that moved me in the direction of studying childhood and youth history.

Thank you to Dr. Gudgeirsson for joining us to discuss her research and perspectives on this dynamic field! For more information about Dr. Gudgeirsson and her work, check out her personal website:

Check back Friday for our finale post of this roundtable series with Dr. Anna Mae Duane!




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