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n his autobiography, Andrew Camegie explained what raw materials he
needed to produce a pound of steel: two pounds of iron, one and a half pounds
of coal, a half-pound of lime, and "a small amount" of manganese ore.1 Like
Carnegie, historians transform raw material into something new. Their "ore" includes such written documents as letters, journals, diaries, legal documents,
sermons, speeches, newspapers, and magazines. It can also be furniture, clothing, paintings, posters, coins, motion pictures, and other unwritten artifacts. In
fact, historians' primary sources are almost anything from the recorded past.
They call these direct links primary sources.
To understand what historians do with primary sources, we turn to the Puritans. Like Andrew Carnegie and all historians, they had high respect for raw
material. Theirs, too, had to be refined, cast, and molded. The Puritans' "ore"
was their own children, whom they sought to transform through education. As
the Massachusetts General Court put it in 1647, reading mustbe taught in the
school because it was "one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men
from the knowledge of the Scriptures."2 So the Puritans taught their children to
read and write. And they did write: diaries, journals, tracts, letters, histories,
sermons, and notes on sermons. Today libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies are filled with these historical sources.
The documents in this chapter are primary sources that relate to Puritan childrearing practices. Three kinds of sources are given-portraits,
written material,
and architectural drawings.
The Puritans' child-rearing practices wt..:":; r-.::sponsiblefor this wealth of material. For that reason, it is fitting that we begin our examination of primary
sources by looking at Puritan childhood. Doing so will also tell us about the Puritan society's important values and ideals. Then, by comparing Puritan and
modern childhood, we can learn a great deal about both Puritan society and
our own.
The Puritans believed that a godly commonwealth was constructed with wellordered families. Within these "little commonwealths" child rearing was of
greatest importance. In addition to ensuring that their children could read and
- write, parents were expected~to teach their children the principles of religion
and the fundamental laws. However, because a child's salvation was at stake,
child rearing was too important to leave to unsupervised parents. Farmore than
the schools and government do today, Puritan authorities oversaw the upbringing and education of children.
The Puritan family was, above all, a patriarchy. Drawing on traditional English Customsand Old Testament injunctions, the Puritans placed authority within
the household in the hands of the husband and father. Thus despite the super"icinn
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Chapter 2
The Raw Materials of History: Childhood in Puritan New England
ordained ruler of his little commonwealth. In a preindustrial age when most
work was done in the home, the father was usually present and his authority
was immediate.
Although fathers had final authority in all household matters, mothers of
course also played an essential role in the Puritan family. Aside from doing such
domestic chores as preparing food and making clothes, wives shared the responsibility for rearing children. The education and spiritual salvation of the
children, for example, were primarily the mother's concerns. As the minister
Cotton Mather declared, "A mother must give the law of God unto them."3
Mothers thus exercised a great deal of authority over their children. Although
fathers had the power to overrule their wives' decisions regarding their children, they were encouraged not to. Cooperation between husbands and wives
was the ideal in the Puritan home. As another writer put it, "Children and Servants are ... as Passengersare in a boat. Husband and Wife are as a pair of
oars, to row them to their desired haven."4
The little commonwealth had other important characteristics. One was its
size. Compared with families in England or even Virginia, families in New England were large, often with six or more children. In addition, the Puritans followed the common colonial practice of apprenticing their children at a young
age. At age fourteen a Puritan child would often be sent for as long as seven
years to another family to learn a trade or skill.
Clearly, childhood in Puritan New England was defined by diff~rent expectations and values than childhood in a "typical" middle-class American household in the early twenty-first century. If historians have the ability to travel
instantly to other places and times, when they enter Puritan New England they
step into a very different world indeed.
important influences in shaping a Puritan child. Then list the most important
qualities you think your parents tried to instill in you. In comparing these lists,
you can begin to frame an answer to the first question: How did the experience
of growing up in Puritan New England differ from your own?
Once you have determined those differences, you can begin to consider
what these primary sources suggest about the reasons for the child-rearing
practices in Puritan society. Make a list of the most important influences shaping child-rearing practices in Puritan society and another of the most important
influences in your own childhood. This second task will be much easier if you
have already read the sections on the Puritans in your textbook. When you are
done, some of the important differences between Puritan society and our own
should be very clear.
There is no single answer to the central questions of this ChafJler."your ,111swers will be determined in part by your biases and experiences. If you compare your answers with those of your classmates, you will ":'~:~~,v "" •.over an
axiom of historical inquiry: F\!P" '::::~Il; Ie :>dmeprimary sources, historians do
!"::::: al"vvdYssee the past in the same way.
Although artists attempt to capture the likenesses of their subjects, their patrons
often want them to db more than that. A portrait may be a view of the subject
as he or she wishes to be seen or, in this case, as parents wish their children to
be seen. Moreover, as they do today, formal portraits in the seventeenth century
captured their subjects' likenesses at special times; historians cannot assume
that the subjects looked like this every day. They also have to be careful about
using appearances to draw conclusions about personality or emotions. For instance, these Puritan children are not smiling. When modern children have
their pictures taken, photographers usually ask them to smile. Yet modern
posed photographs of children may not reveal their subjects' feelings either. The
question to keep in mind, then, is why the Puritans would prefer to have their
children portrayed with facial expressions so different from those in modern
photographs. Finally, the dress of these Puritan children may seem odd by
modern standards. As you examine it, consider whether it suggests anything
about children's roles or about parents' expectations regarding proper behavior.
This chapter contains several primary sources relating to the Puritan childhood
experience. Some are written sources; others are not. As you read and examine
them, answer the following central questions:
1. How did the experience of growing up in Puritan New England differ from
your own experience in the late twentieth century? What values did the
Puritans attempt to instill in their children?
2. What are the main reasons for the differences between Puritan child-rearing
practices and those in the late twentieth century? What forces shaped child
rearing then and now?
As you study the sources, you can make a short list of what you think were the
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Chapter 2
The Raw Materials of History: Childhood in Puritan New England
Elizabeth Eggington
Margaret Gibbs (1670)
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Source: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. Gift of Mrs. Walter H. Clark. Endowed by her daughter,
Mrs. Thomas L. Archibald.
Source: Freake-Gibl)s painter. Oil on canvas 102.87 x 84.14 cm (40'h x 33'A, in.) Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston. Beque,t of Elsie Q. Giltinan. 1995.800. Photograph @ 2004 Museum of Fine Arts,
The Raw Materials of History: Childhood in Puritan New England
Chapter 2
Henry Gibbs (1670)
The Mason Children (1670)
Source: Attributed to Freake-Gibbs. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Gift of Mr, and Mrs. John
D. Rockefeller, 1979.7.3.
Written Evidence
Source: Artist Unknown. Collection of Sunrise Museum, Gift of Mrs. David M. Giltinan, Sr. Photo
Steve Payne.
The answers to some of the questions in the portrait section may not be obvious
from an examination of only the paintings. As you read and analyze the written
documents, note what values Puritan parents tried to instill in their children
and whether independence or creativity was highly prized. Also look for clues
to Puritan attitudes about idleness and play. Try to determine whether Puritan
Chapter 2
The Raw Materials of History: Childhood in Puritan New England
parents and children had an egalitarian relationship and whether they recognized the period of prolonged dependence between childhood and adulthood
that we call adolescence. Note any evidence of intense psychological pressure
on children. Finally, some observers have argued that children growing up in
American society today are often treated like adults by advertisers, Hollywood,
parents, schools, and others. Were Puritan children treated more like adults
than modern children are?
If a man have a stubborn or rebellious son of sufficient years of understanding, viz. sixteen, which will not obey the voice of his father or the voice
of his mother, and that when they have chastened him will not harken unto
them, then shall his father and mother, being his natural parents, lay hold on
him and bring him to the magistrates assembled in Court, and testify to them
by sufficient evidence that this their son is stubborn and rebellious and will
not obey their voice and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes.
Such a Son shall be put to death.*
Letter of Samuel Mather (Age 12) to His Father
(ca. 1638)
[1670]. Ordered that John Edy, Senior, shall go to John Fisk's house and to
George Lawrence's and William Priest's houses to inquire about their children, whether they be learned to read the English tongue and in case they be
defective to warn in the said John, George, and William to the next meeting
of the Selectmen ....
William Priest, John Fisk, and George Lawrence, being warned to a meeting of the Selectmen at John Bigulah's house, they making their appearance
and being found defective, were admonished for not learning their children
to read the English tongue: were convinced, did acknowledge their neglects,
and did promise amendment.
Though I am thus well in my body, yet I question whether my soul doth prosper as my body doth; for I perceive, yet to this very day little growth in grace;
and this makes me question, whether grace be in my heart or no. I feel also
daily great unwillingness to good duties, and the great ruling sin of my heart;
and that God is angry with me, and gives me no answers to my prayers, but
many times, he even throws them down as dust in my face; and he does not
grant my continual requests for the spiritual blessing of the softning of my
hard heart. And in all this I could yet take some comfort, but that it makes me
to wonder, what God's secret decree concerning me may qe; for I dou!;>t
whether ever God is wont to deny grace and mercy to his chosen (though uncalled) when they seek unto him, by prayer, for it; and therefore, seeing he
doth thus deny it to me, I think that the reason of it is most like to be, because
I belong not unto the election of grace. I desire that you would let me have
your prayers, as I doubt not but I have them.
Source: Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (New York: Russell and Russell, 1967), p. 40,
from 1852 ed., originally published
in 1702.
Court Records
[1646]. If any child[ren] above sixteen years old and of sufficient understanding shall curse or smite their natural father or mother, they shall be put to
death, unless it can be sufficiently testified that the parents have been very
unchristianly negligent in the education of such children, or so provoked
them by extreme and cruel correction that they have been forced thereunto to
preserve themselves from death or maiming ....
Source: Robert D. Marcus and David Burner, eds., America Firsthand, Vol. I, pp. 61-63.
1989. Published by SI. Martin's Press, Inc.
[1674].Agreed that Thomas Fleg, John Whitney, and Joseph Bemus should go
about the town to see that children were taught to read the English tongue
and that they were taught some orthodox catechism and to see that each man
has in his house a copy of the capital laws. For which end the Selectmen
agreed there should be copies procured by Captain Mason at the printers and
they to be paid for out of the town rate and the men above mentioned to
carry them along with them to such of the inhabitants as have none.
Thomas Fleg, John Whitney, and Joseph Bemus gave in an account of what
they had found concerning children's education and John Fisk being found
wholly negligent of educating his children as to reading or catechizing, the
Selectmen agreed that Joseph Bemus should warn him into answer for his
neglect at the next meeting of the Selectmen.
[1676]. Ordered that Captain Mason and Simon Stone shall go to John Fisk to
see if his children be taught to read English and their catechism.
'This penalty was never actually
imposed on a child in Puritan Massachusetts.
Chapter 2
The Raw Materials of History: Childhood in Puritan New England
lawrence Hammond, Diary Entry
for April 23, 1688
This day came into our family Elizabeth Nevenson, daughter of Mr. John
Nev[e]nson and Elizabeth his wife, who wilbe 13 yeares of age the 22d day of
October next: The verbal Covenant betweene my wife and Mrs. Nevenson is,
that she the said Elizabeth shall dwell with my wife as a servant six yeares, to
be taught, instructed and provided for as shalbe meet, and that she shall not
depart from our family during the said time without my wives consent.
Source: Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, XXVII: p. 146.
Samuel Sewall on the Trials of His Fifteen-Year-Old
May 3, 1696. Betty can hardly read her chapter for weeping; tells me she is
afraid she is gon back, does not taste that sweetness in reading the Word
which once she did; fears that what once upon her is worn off. I said what I
could to her, and in the evening pray'd alone with her.
November 12, 1696. I set Betty to read Ezekiel 37. and sh~weeps so that
can hardly read; I talk with her and she tells me of the various Temptations
she had; as that she was a Reprobat, Loved not God's people as she should.
Source: Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729
(Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 5th se-
ries, Vol. V), I: pp. 423, 437.
The Well-Ordered Family (1719)
Parents should govern their children well, restrain, reprove, correct them,
and there is occasion. A Christian householder should rule well his own
house .... Children should not be left to themselves, to a loose end, to do as
they please; but should be under tutors and governors, not being fit to govern
themselves .... Children being bid to obey their parents in all things ...
plainly implies that parents should give suitable precepts to, and maintain a
wise government over their children; so carry it, as their children may both
fear and love them. You should restrain your children from sin as much as
Source: Robert D. Marcus and David Burner, eds., America Firsthand, Vol. I, pp. 61-63. Copyright
p"hli<hpn hv St. Martin's Press, Inc.; originally from Benjamin Wadsworth, The Well-
You should reprove them for their faults; yea, if need be, correct
them too
Divine precepts plainly show that, as there is occasion, you
should chasten and correct your children; you dishonor God and hurt them
if you neglect it. Yet,on the other hand, a father should pity his children ....
You should by no means carry it ill to them; you should not frown, be harsh,
morose, faulting and blaming them when they don't deserve it, but do behave themselves well. If you fault and blame your children, show yourself
displeased and discontent when they do their best to please you, this is the
way to provoke them to wrath and anger, and to discourage them; therefore
you should carefully avoid such ill carriage to them. Nor should you ever
correct them upon uncertainties, without sufficient evidence of their fault.
Neither should you correct them in a rage or passion, but should deliberately
endeavor to convince them of their fault, their sin; and that 'tis out of love to
God's honor and their good (if they're capable of considering such things)
that you correct them. Again, you should never be cruel nor barbarous in
your corrections, and if milder ones will reform them, more severe ones
should never be used. Under this head of government I might further say,
you should refrain your children from bad company as far as possibly you
can.... If you would not have your sons and daughters destroyed, then keep
them from ill company as much as may be.... You should not suffer your
children needlessly to frequent taverns, nor to be abroad unseasonably on
nights, lest they're drawn into numberless hazards and mischiefs thereby.
You can't be too careful in these matters.
The Duty of Children Toward Their Parents
God hath commanded saying, Honour thy Father and Mother, and whoso
curseth Father or Mother, let him die the Death. Mat. 15,4.
Children obey your Parents in the Lord, for this is right.
2. Honour thy Father and Mother, (which is the first Commandment with
3. That it may be well with thee, and that thou mayst live long on the
Children, obey your Parents in all Things, for that is well pleasing unto the
Lord. Col. 3,20.
The Eye that mocketh his Father, and despiseth the Instruction of his
Mother, let the Ravens of the Valley pluck it out, and the young Eagles eat it.
Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before thee. Luke 15, 10.
Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The New England Primer (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899).
r" .•
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Chapter 2
The Raw Materials of History: Childhood in Puritan New England
I am no more worthy to be called thy Son.
No man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it. Ephes.
I pray thee let my Father and Mother come and abide with you, till I know
what God will do for me. I Sam. 22, 3.
My Son, help thy Father in his Age, and grieve him not as long as he liveth.
And if his Understanding fail, have patience with him, and despise him
not when thou art in thy full Strength.
Whoso cur seth his Father or his Mother, his Lamp shall be put out in obscure Darkness. Provo20, 20.
The Roger Mowry House (ca. 1653)
I ---------------
I -----------~-.,.--III
Architectural Evidence
This section contains sketches and floor plans of two Puritan houses. Like
portraits, they must be evaluated carefully. Although floor plans provide
only a "bird's eye" view of an interior and by themselves do not answer our
primary questions, they can tell us a great deal. First, they reveal the size of
the house, a fairly reliable indication of economic circumstances. In addition,
they may show the amount of private and common space, thus indicating
. whether personal priyacy was possible. When combined 'Yith other sources,
they may also indicate whether privacy was even valued. The number and
location of fireplaces show how much daytime living space a family had dur. ing New England's long winters. Floor plans might even offer clues about
the level of household technology, somethir}g that would greatly influence
the lives of family members. Household sketches give additional information. First, whereas the floor plans here show only the lower floor, the
sketches show how much space was provided by the entire house. Second,
much like portraits, houses reflect the values of the people who built them.
They may be ornate and pretentious or simple and unadorned, qualities that
floor plans alone may not reveal.
As you examine the floor plans and sketches of these two houses, think
about the impact that these dwellings might have had on the children grow-mg up in them. Also keep in mind how they compare to the "typical" middleclass American home.
Source: Drawing by Robert Blair St. George .
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NOTE: Addition
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Source: COlJrtesy Harvard College Library, Reprinted
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Chapter 2
The Raw Materials of History: Childhood in Puritan New England
The Eleazer Arnold House (ca. 1684)
Our first reaction might be to dismiss Puritan child-rearing practices as strange
or ~ven cruel. However, it is important to try to understand the way other people saw their world. As one historian has said, "History cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with the mind of those
about whom he is writing."s
Source: Drawing by Robert Blair St. George.
It is noteasy to make such "contact" with the Puritans. We do not apprentice children. And it is difficult to imagine a child today writing a letter like the
one Samuel Mather wrote to his father in 1638. Yet, like us, the Puritans loved
their children and; like the Puritans, we recognize the need to "govern" and educate them. Their "raw material" was the same as ours, even if the methods,
goals, and results of Puritan child rearing were very' different. Young Samuel
and other Puritan children were formed by their society's beliefs, values, and
material conditions, just as children are today. Studying the differences between Puritan and modern child-rearing practices is thus a good way to understand the forces operating in Mather's society and ours.
In the next chapter, we will discover another reason for historians to make
"mental c:ontact" with people in the past. As we will see, primary sources rarely
speak with one voice; they express opinions as well as facts. To assessthese
sources critically, historians must understand the strangers who created them
on their terms.
Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962).
John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).
Philip J. Greven, Four Generations: Population,-Land, and Family Life in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970).
Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in SeventeenthCentury New England (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).
Alan Simpson, Puritanism in Old and New England (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1955).
Source: Courtesy Harvard College Library. Reprinted in Norman Isham, Early Rhode Island Houses,
1. Andrew Carnegie, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920)"pp. 217-218.