Family Matters

The century of the child

In the wake of the industrial revolution, many families saw their children go to work in factories, mines and other sectors where they were put in the most dangerous jobs in return for the lowest wages. Often the only breadwinners in the family, children had no choice but to sustain the dire circumstances and to gain money in whatever way possible.

As a consequence, working-class children in the 19th century enjoyed no special status: they shared the same responsibilities as the rest of the household, which is reflected in photographs of the time. Here children appear as ‘little adults’, without playful attributes or clothes tuned to their age.

In middle and upper-class families, children were the crux of the household in quite a different way. With daily life completely revolving around them, a successful, well-groomed, happy family was a constant concern as well as a vast source of pride for every parent.

Films and photographs show how the high-minded romantic ideal of childhood as a time of innocence and purity was the governing principle in bourgeois society. The other side of the coin was documented by photographers such as Lewis Hine, who replaced the abstract concept of ‘child labour’ with intricate, individual portraits of underaged workers. Highlighting the enormity of the machines in factory halls against the frêle stature of the children, photographers such as Hines were instrumental in helping to close the gap between the living conditions of children in different social stratospheres.

The obvious contrast between the living conditions of poor children and the idealistic middle-class notion of childhood spurred campaigns for the legal protection of children from the 19th century onwards. By 1901, the United Kingdom had raised the minimum employment age to 12, setting in motion changes in legislation in other European countries as well. Eventually, the middle and upper classes’ views on the importance of family and the sanctity of the child, would go on to shape the modern attitude towards children.

A family-staged parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1943. Museo Nazionale del Cinema. In Copyright - EU Orphan Work

Children were now discovered as consumers too. From books, toys, food and drinks, to products promising improved hygiene and health, a wide range of commodities catered for even the most discerning families.

Brands cleverly tapped into that potential by leveraging on parents’ concerns for providing the best care that money could buy. Double-income households were of particular interest to advertisers, with budget to spare but limited time to spend with the family.

The emancipation of the child in the 20th century is also reflected in fashion history. Now considered a league of their own, children started to wear clothes quite different from the adult styles to which they used to be confined in previous centuries.

While it wasn’t customary for little girls to wear trousers beyond the infant stage, from the 1920s onwards, bloomers to be worn beneath dresses opened a new range of play clothes for toddlers.

From the 1940s onwards, girls often wore trousers at home. Yet for public outings and formal occasions they were still expected to wear a dress. Only in the 1970s, the gender connotation began to disappear, coinciding with the emergence of the most unisex dressing style yet: jeans.

Accentuating childhood as a time free of worries, destined for fun and games, factory-produced toys became available for every boy and girl.

Next to a rapidly expanding range of toys, entertainment tailor-made for children was booming business for popular media. Filmmakers had started experimenting with narrative styles and techniques tuned to their youngest audience in the 1900s. Bob’s electric theatre is an early example of the development of animation film using dolls and the stop-motion technique.

Bob’s electric theatre, 1909, Filmoteca de Catalunya, public domain

Animated series first appeared in the 1960s and with the creation of dedicated children’s tv channels, cartoons experienced a golden age in the latter quarter of the century.

Nonetheless, the balance didn’t tip over entirely to all play and no work, as children were now expected to spend a large part of their days at school. After primary schooling had become compulsory in the late 19th century, many European countries installed compulsory secondary schooling in the 1910s and 1920s first to 12, then to 14 and later, in the 1970s, to 16 years old.

The continuous surge in educational options saw the emergence of a previously unrecognised age group in the 1950s: the teenager.

Away from their home environment, schools were where teenagers were able to develop their own social conventions and customs.

From new population class, booming consumer market, and possible security threat, by the end of the 20th century, the teenager had become one of society’s main drivers and a benchmark for what’s considered in or out, cool or ice cold.