ARGUMENT – Sociologist Vivian A. Zelizer argues that as nineteenth century children came to be valued less for their contribution to the family economy, they were appreciated more for their sentimental and emotional value.
She concludes that notions of the “economically useless but emotionally priceless child” began to emerge in the 1870s and culminated in the “sacralization” of children as emotional and affective assets. Although she places the emergence of sentimental notions of children later than others, she reaffirms that by the twentieth century:
“properly loved children, regardless of social class, belonged in a domesticated, non-productive world of lessons, games and token money” (pg 11).
Zelizer conducts a historical analysis of primary sources including child death notices, adoptions, and children’s life insurance policies.
There are no children’s voices in her study – only adults. Her argument assumes that children stopped working altogether in the nineteenth century yet many were still employed outside the home. She removes some agency/authority from children by implying that they inhabited a parallel fantasy world far removed from real “adult” life.
This is a landmark study of childhood in the nineteenth century. A special issue of The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth celebrated the 25th anniversary of its publication with retrospective articles from key historians including Paula Fass and Dan Cook.