My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sometimes Cruel, but Never Unusual: Children’s Lives in the 17th Century

1670 Mason Children
The old rhyme goes, “Men may work from sun to sun; a woman’s work is never done.”   There is no doubt that our colonial forefathers worked hard in planting crops, cutting firewood, and hunting for food.   Their wives were equally busy, but what were children’s lives like in our country’s early days?  Their parents worked hard, but did children have an easy life?

Pilgrim Cradle
They had to survive coming into the world, and what medical assistance was supplied to mother and child often did more harm than good.  Miscarriages and premature births often went unnoted, and in some communities, 30% of the children whose births and deaths were recorded died before their fifth birthday.

Young Mother's Tombstone
Hopefully the newborn’s mother would survive too.  It is estimated that 1 - 1.5% of pregnancies ended in the mother’s death, and throughout their lifetimes, 1 in 8 women died during pregnancy or childbirth.  A nursing mother passes crucial antibodies to her infant with the first milk produced after birth.  If she died, that child began life with a compromised immune system.  If the infant survived, it might be raised by another nursing woman – if one was available.

Three children in one tomb
A child who survived birth was taken to the meetinghouse a few days later for baptism.  In January, ice on the baptismal font would have to be removed first, then the baby was dunked in that frigid water.

Young children were assailed by disease, impure food and water, and accidents.  Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in Boston, sired 15 children, 8 of which died before being weaned.  He wrote, "We have our children taken from us, the Desire of our Eyes taken away with a stroke."  40% of 17th century children did not become adults.

“In the midst of life we are in death” comes from the Book of Common Prayer.  Children learned that early, for they were often taken to public hangings for an object lesson in crime and punishment.  Funerals and wakes were held at home.  Hell awaited most children, or so they were told, for "their Hearts naturally, are a meer nest, root, fountain of Sin, and wickedness." (Benjamin Wadsworth)

Some cures were worse than the disease.  A child being treated for rickets (vitamin D deficiency) might be dosed with snakeroot and saffron steeped in rum, then dipped head first in cold water.  If that didn’t make the child sweat, “Let a little blood be taken out of ye feet…and that will cause them to sweat afterwards.”  Wearing wolf’s fangs might make the child’s teeth come in more easily, but that was less painful than scratching the child’s gums with an osprey bone.

The Capel family
Infanta Margarita
Both boys and girls wore linen gowns in their earliest years, similar to the one worn by Lady Capel’s baby.  When children were old enough to be ‘breeched,’ boys wore shirts & breeches like their father’s.  Girls were clad in miniature versions of their mother’s clothing.  Few children were so fortunate as to wear the stuff of the Infanta’s painting:

Boy Eating Porridge by Hals
Children ate and drank what their parents ate, including beer.  Milk was only available when cows had calves.  Water was considered to be an unhealthy drink.  Rightly so, when it was drawn downstream from a cow pasture or privy.

Girl With Broom - Fabritius
Childhood labor laws – what were they?  As soon as they were big enough to hold a broom, children worked alongside their parents.  They were not considered to be mouths to feed, but helping hands.  The more children a family had, the more likely that family was to prosper. 

Miss Campion with hornbook
In our country’s early days, formal education was a luxury for most boys, but it was sometimes available.  In 1640 Robert Lenthall was granted 100 acres of land in Newport, Rhode Island “for Encouraginge of ye poorer sort to trayne up their youthe in Learninge.”  The school was not successful, though, and Lenthall returned to England a few years later.  However, affluent children, both boys and girls, might be educated.  In this picture, Miss Campion holds a hornbook printed with the alphabet.

As early as age 10, many children were sent to work for another family, or were bonded to tradesmen as an apprentice.  An indenture could last a specific span, say, 5-7 years, until the age of 21, or perhaps until a girl married.  A boy could learn to be a tailor or cobbler, but there was great potential for abuse unless that child’s family was keeping an eye on him.

Children at Plimoth Plantation
Children did have some time for fun.  Marbles, tops, and pieces of ceramic dolls are turned up by colonial archeologists. King Charles I and his father both issued a Book of Sports, listing “lawfull Recreations and honest exercises” to be played “upon Sundayes and other Holy days, after the afternoone Sermon.”

Puritans were far stricter, but games for children were allowed – within reason.  In 1657, because several people had been hurt, boys who played “football in the streets” would be fined 20 shillings.  But they could play football, wicket, and other games on the Common.

17th century doll
Sampler by Loara Standish
Girls were taught household crafts, and perhaps that wasn’t as much fun as playing football.  But they also had dolls, including this early model.  It doesn’t look much like today’s Barbies, but with a dress, a painted face, and perhaps a wig, it would have provided a young girl with an hour’s entertainment.

It is clear from this blog that I have a liking for our country’s earliest days.  However, when I consider whether I’d rather have been a child in the 20th century, or the 17th, I am glad to have been born in modern days.

Child Life in Colonial Days – Alice Morse Earle  1899
Customs and Fashions in Old New England – Alice Morse Earle  1893
Woman’s Life in Colonial Days – Carl Holliday  1922

Tombstones: personal collection
Velasquez’ Infanta Dona Magarita de Austria:
Carel Fabritius’ “A Girl With a Broom”:
Miss Campion with Hornbook:
Sampler by Loara Standish:

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