Phillippe Aries (1986) and Neil Postman (1994) both suggest that childhood is a modern phenomenon that has only come into being in relatively recent times.
Aries and Postman argue that in the past the young were not understood as children in the way we now understand the term. They were not treated any differently nor recognised as being in need of particular concern because of their young age.
Children lived and worked alongside adults, wearing the same clothes and undertaking the same activities. There was no concept of ‘development’ and children learned about life by participating in it.
Aries draws is evidence from historical documents and paintings but his conclusions have been challenged by a number of critics. For instance, Tucker (1977) points out that we have no way of knowing how children were viewed by their mothers and nurses as the majority of surviving historical evidence was produced by men.
Pre-industrial childhood in the early modern period
Infants began to be seen as ‘fragile creatures of God who needed to be both safeguarded and reformed (Aries, 1986, p.396).
Religion – great influence on how children were viewed
Children were expected to learn prayers and catechism by heart and the prime reason for learning to read was so as to be able to read the bible.
Without modern standards of sanitation and medicine a quarter of children were likely to die before their first birthday (Cunningham, 2006). Aries suggests that adults made little emotional investment in their children because of the very real possibility of their loss at any time. It is a widespread assumption, therefore, that adults did not care for their offspring. However, Linda Pollock (1983) has challenged this view and shows that because parents did not view their children in the same way as contemporary parents does not mean that they did not love them.
Throughout the 17th century childhood began to be more recognised with special clothing, books and playthings produced for children, as well as a number of books written to advise and guide parents.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries a growing middle class had arisen whose increasing affluence enabled them to keep their children sheltered from the economy until a later age. These children were able to experience a protected period of life more akin to what we would now regard as childhood.
Nonetheless, for the vast majority, it was taken for granted that children should work and contribute to the family upkeep. As well as an economic necessity, work was also considered an appropriate way to keep the young usefully occupied and out of mischief. The nature of the work would vary according to the parents’ occupation and regional industry.
E.g. young girls in Nottingham would be engaged, alongside their mothers, in making lace whereas children in areas of wool production would learn to spin, card and weave.
In the countryside children were employed in stone clearing and crow scaring and would be expected to help with harvesting and agricultural tasks such as caring for animals.
The effects of industrialisation
The industrial revolution centralised production within factories and mills.
Children’s labour was particularly valuable in textile industries where their small size and nimble fingers enabled them to undertake tasks such as tying in threads which adults could not manage with such dexterity. They were also cheap to employ.
Cheapness of child labour contributed to Britain’s industrial success throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The issue of child labour began to be a matter of public concern and over the 19th century a number of government acts introduced to regulate children’s working conditions brought about gradual improvements.
The Factory Act 1833 – made it illegal for children under 9 to work in textile factories and limited the working hours of those