Adults v. Children: History's Dark Lessons

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Adults write history. It is little wonder, therefore, that the history of children has not received much attention. In the 301st year of the life of the City of Philadelphia we examine what life in our city has meant for children over the generations. The picture is not encouraging.

It is little wonder that we avoid reading or studying about it except in versions that are sugar-coated. But it is extremely important for us to understand how we have treated those who are immature and vulnerable. History is more than nostalgia. It is the record of what we have done to one another.

It tells us about ourselves and how we arrived at our present condition.

In the 1700's, James Logan placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette in which he sought a runaway indentured child. "Runaway from James Logan's plantation near Germantown the 28th instant, an Irish servant lad named Patrick ..."

These kinds of advertisements were common and they reveal an enormous system of indenture in which thousands of children between 5 and 10 years old were legally bound out as child laborers. The system was unjust and freely abused. The children frequently tried to escape, only to be hunted down. The system lasted until after the Civil War in Philadelphia, long after it had been abandoned elsewhere, and its persistence in the city was not unrelated to political corruption.

In the 1830's, the physician for the Philadelphia Almshouse wrote: "A hundred or more children were sheltered on their way to an early grave to which most of them were destined. Illegitimate and other outcasts formed the majority, and ophthalmia, that curse of children's asylums, made them a sore-eyed, puny group most pitiable to see. ... I pointed out in the committee of the board how the disease was disseminated by the children washing in the same basins and using the same towels ... and also by the insufficient food permitted them. ... But, of course, the committee ... knew better than I, and ... nothing was done to correct the wrong."

In a study of the age of Andrew Jackson called Fathers and Children, Michael Rogen has examined the paternal tyranny that was part of the family life of America for so long and that permitted unquestioned domination of women and children as part of a social and religious cult of male superiority. This cult was changed somewhat beginning in the 1840's when a new view of childhood brought a higher estimation of the needs of children, but with this change there was also a fiery religious revival and a view that children were actually creatures of the devil who had to be driven from them by practices of discipline and punishment that we would quickly classify as child abuse today.

Numerous homes for children were founded in the middle of the 19th century in Philadelphia. Among them were the Northern Home for Homeless Children (1854) the Home for Colored Children (1856) and the Industrial Home for Girls (1859).

Such institutions were badly needed because with industrialization and overcrowding, due to immigration, there was a terrible toll taken among workers and their wives, leaving thousands of orphans. The rise of industry and its need for child labor produced a social crisis in the family life of the city.

After a fight lasting two generations, public education was eventually legally established. But in 1876 The [Philadelphia] Inquirer reported that the schools were scandals of "utter inefficiency" with 70 children to a class and 20,000 city children neither at work nor at school.

One editorial noted the prevalence of eye infections in schools due to manure dust coming through the school windows because the streets were rarely cleaned, the same kind of infection noted in the Almshouse in the 1830's.

The age of child labor in factories was in full swing after the Civil War. It was cheaper to hire women than men and cheaper still to hire children rather than women. The toll in accidents, fire deaths, pulmonary diseases, stunted lives, and blighted educations was relentless.

It was not until the 20th century that serious reforms were made. In 1903, the labor organizer Mary Harris, known as "Mother Jones," visited Kensington [a working-class neighborhood] when 70,000 textile workers were on strike. Ten thousand of the strikers were children. She gathered several hundred and walked them to Oyster Bay, Long Island, where President Theodore Roosevelt had his splendid home. They knelt on the lawn to pray for child-labor laws. Roosevelt did not choose to meet them.

Probably the longest-running type of criminal behavior in our city is that of juvenile gangs, and many of these gangs in the past were literally child gangs. They are listed in the 1700's as some of the earliest sources of violence in our streets and, of course, despite recent improvements, they are still part of our social life in this city.

The current concern about families with female heads prompted recent Wall Street Journal. articles lamenting the conditions of single-parent families. This should remind us that poverty and misfortunes for children have been historically linked with the exploitation and demeaning of women. In 1890, the U.S. Census showed that 14 percent of the nation's households had female heads.

In 1890, there were also thousands of families headed by widowers because of high death rates among women in childbirth and other circumstances.

The causes of the misfortunes of single-parent families today, though, are different. Instead of industrial accidents and deaths in childbirth, the grim conditions associated with cutbacks in welfare budgets, with teen-age pregnancy, and with the abandonment of families by males are prominent. The United States is the only industrially advanced country that lacks a real national family policy with such benefits as a system of family allowances that would help assure minimum care for child citizens.

In its 301-year history, Philadelphia has regularly deluded itself with illusions of benevolence and ignored the record of exploitation that has scarred its children. Our standards are still far too low in matters of social development and education, and our priorities are truly deranged in our contemporary economy.

In his book, The Child and the Republic, Bernard Wishy has said that "Life in America has taken a dreadful toll for its high rewards." Much of this toll has been taken among children. In the fourth century of the life of the city where our republic first stated its ideals, we should commit ourselves to change that.

Vol. 02, Issue 23, Page 19

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