Fatherhood in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: A family in a drawing room, artist unknown, 19th century, Bonhams: FA2010/Wikimedia Commons/PD art (PD old)

As the title of the second book in the Waxwood Series, False Fathers, suggests, the idea of fathers plays a huge role in the story and in the psychological reality of Jake Alderdice, the main character. Like everything else in the Gilded Age, fatherhood was a complex and changing concept in the late 19th century.

Before the 19th century, the role of the father was less removed from the family. Since so many Americans lived in rural towns and kept farms or other small ma-and-pa businesses, fathers worked close to home and sometimes even alongside their families. Their involvement with their wives and children was more intimate because of their close proximity to their families.

But this changed in the 19th century, and the concept of the separate spheres played a role. As industrialization and urbanization became the norm for many families (that is, families moved to the cities, and men worked in larger companies owned by someone other than themselves), men’s “place” was regulated more to the pubic sphere. That is, their attention shifted to the larger spaces of business, law, and finance. As such, fathers were more detached from what went on in the home, though they still maintained a certain level of control as the main disciplinarians and educators of their children. The separate spheres also put women more firmly in private places such as the home. Their role as mothers and caregivers became more important, thus removing fathers even further from the day-to-day workings of the family.

We also want to remember the characteristics of the Gilded Age — success at any price, excess, and flaunting wealth. This was an ideal many American men wanted to achieve and, as such, they needed to put all of their focus on their business and financial endeavors to get it. This didn’t leave them much time or emotional energy to devote to their families. Thus, the identity of the father became one of the bread-winner.

There was something else that factored into the extrication of fathers from family life — public schooling. Up until the 1850’s, sending children to public schools was optional. As I mention above, many Americans were still living in rural areas and tending to farms or small businesses. In this atmosphere, children were often times given a very spotty education that depended more upon when they were needed to help out with the family (for example, on the family farm or during harvest seasons) than upon the idea that children should get a steady education. But in the 1850’s, that began to change as states issued laws that made sending children to public schools mandatory. Although the transition to mandatory public schooling for all states didn’t happen until the late 1910’s, it took the role of educator out of the hands of many fathers.

But while fathers lost their hold on their children as educators, their role shifted to business advisors, mainly for their sons (since most women did not and weren’t expected to work). This put the emotional connection between fathers and sons on a different level, a more authority-oriented level that we can imagine may have been somewhat less affectionate than it had been in earlier times. This is indeed the role various father figures take in relation to Jake in False Fathers. Much of his struggle for masculine identity lies in what his future success in the public sphere will look like. In this, he asks and receives help from a number of older men in the book.

I realize this paints a pretty dismal picture of fatherhood in the 19th century, since it makes it sound as if men were little more than bread-winners and business advisors for their families. This is not to say that fathers were emotionally remote from their wives and children by any means (as the painting above shows). And, in the 1920’s, when women had earned more of their rights, they began to demand men share in the raising of their families, both physically and psychologically. In turn, men themselves were advocating for this, starting a Fatherhood Movement which, thankfully, has gained a lot of ground today and continues to do so.

To read more about False Fathers (which is now on sale at a special preorder price), you can go here. If you want to find out more about Jake and other characters in the Waxwood Series, read the series page here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can join my readers group.   

 

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