Guest Post: “young appearance”: Assessing Age through Appearance in Early America

Holly+Headshot_2bw[2]Today’s guest post 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. My research focuses on the definition and negotiability of age in early American law and society, which is the subject of my forthcoming first book, Negotiating American Youth: Age, Law, and Culture in the Early Nineteenth Century.

Children and adolescents are regularly described as big for their age, small for their age, or mature for their age– but what purpose does it serve to judge a person’s age against their appearance? Today, with birth certificates to prove our age it doesn’t actually mean much. But in early America, where no such formalized, institutionally supported forms of record keeping existed, appearing young or old relative to one’s age could have significant ramifications on a person’s life. Continue reading

Why We Doubt Capable Children: Constructing Childhood in the Revolutionary Era

Mann_Page_Elizabeth_Page_John_Wollaston“My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know . . . that we have seven short years until we too have the right to vote.”[1] Speaking at the March for Our Lives event, 11-year old Naomi Wadler eloquently reminded us that childhood is ephemeral. Since they are future voters, she warned Capitol Hill to take the words, emotions, and pleas of children seriously. In many ways, she was also speaking to Florida State Representative Elizabeth Porter who recently exclaimed, “The adults make the law because we have the age, we has [sic] the wisdom, and we have the experience.”[2] For many like Rep. Porter, there has been something disturbing in this moment of youth activism. It cuts to the core of social stability based on the patriarchal family order—that children are subordinate, passive members of society. We inherited this idea from the eighteenth-century revolutionary era, a point in time when age became a main determinant in who could be considered a citizen and an adult. Continue reading