March 2, 2011
THIS IS a photo of a young girl who was taken in by a charitable organization in 1890 in Bristol, England. She had been either living on the streets or in a state of extreme poverty and was taken into a home run by the Waifs and Strays’ Society, which cared for more than 22,000 children across England between its founding in 1881 and the close of World War I. Due to rapid urbanization, industrialization and population growth, there were a significant number of children living in grinding poverty in England of that day. Children worked in coal mines, factories and poorhouses. They toiled at jobs that would be unthinkable and illegal for children today. Others were pressed into domestic service or hired as chimney sweeps. Homeless children roamed the streets of cities and lived as beggars.
All of these things are unimaginable today.
Without dismissing the terrible hardship and duress these waifs and child laborers suffered, I would like to suggest to you that childhood as an institution was actually healthier then than it is today. That’s right. In general, the culture of childhood was much better. That does not mean every single child living in that time was better off than any single child alive today. It means that childhood as it was understood by Western society at that time was better at keeping children from premature adulthood and safeguarding their development.
I will elaborate on this theme in future posts. Before I do, I will simply leave you with this image below. It is a recent album cover for the pop star Taylor Swift, who is adored by millions of very young girls today, many of whom are the age of the waif above. This image is not meant to be a complete argument for the thesis I have stated, only one small bit of evidence. There are many factors that go into the degradation of childhood.