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Posts Tagged ‘colonial’

Child Labors

American children are typically expected to focus, laser-like, on doing well in school so that they can do well in college so that they can do well when they eventually start working. Moreover, parents enroll their daughters and sons in extracurricular activities also in part to give them practical skills. Given such a schedule, the proportion of teens, especially young teens, who work for pay has dropped considerably in recent generations; it also appears that rates of doing household chores have dropped. Our image of childhoods past, in contrast, depicts even young children working hard on the farm or in part-time city jobs. When did American childhood change to become so education-focused?

Noted USC historian Carole Shammas contributed to the discussion this summer. (Shammas has produced central studies on, for example, the history of the family and of consumption.) Writing in the William & Mary Quarterly, Shammas analyzes an unusual pre-revolutionary diary – a 12-year-old boy’s a detailed accounting, started in 1774, of all his daily activities. It tells of a quite different adolescence.

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Economic historians studying early America remind one of archaeologists studying prehistoric civilizations. Instead of piecing together pot shards and bone splinters to help imagine cultural practices many millennia ago, the historians piece together fragments of tax records, tattered business ledgers, town regulations, and a few partial censuses (and sometimes pot shards and bones, as well) to describe our economy about three centuries ago.

usps.com

usps.com

Writing in the current Journal of Economic History, Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, esteemed scholars of American economic development, put together a picture of Americans’ incomes before and after the Revolution (gated here; earlier pdf version here.). By interconnecting complex varieties of data, they are able to estimate incomes and standards of living in American households in 1774 and in 1800.

At least three fascinating stories emerge: the cost of American independence, the fall of the South, and the roots of America’s image as the land of economic equality.

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[A version of this post appears at The Immanent Frame]

The furious debate in some quarters over whether America was born a “Christian nation” is ironic. The historical record shows that America was not born Christian, but grew to be very Christian centuries later.

Some Religious Right activists believe that were it to be accepted as a fact that pre-1800 Americans were deeply Christian, a new light would be cast on current debates about where (if anywhere) to draw a line between Church and State today. In the sense of the Supreme Court’s search for “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, Christian dogma would be an originalist justification for, say, reintroducing prayer into schools. But the story of Early American religion is, in fact, a quite different one.
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