Science in the Service of Children, 1893-1935

Science in the Service of Children, 1893-1935

by Alice Smuts

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This book is the first comprehensive history of the development of child study during the early part of the twentieth century. Most nineteenth-century scientists deemed children unsuitable subjects for study, and parents were hostile to the idea. But by 1935, the study of the child was a thriving scientific and professional field. Here, Alice Boardman Smuts shows how


This book is the first comprehensive history of the development of child study during the early part of the twentieth century. Most nineteenth-century scientists deemed children unsuitable subjects for study, and parents were hostile to the idea. But by 1935, the study of the child was a thriving scientific and professional field. Here, Alice Boardman Smuts shows how interrelated movements—social and scientific—combined to transform the study of the child.

Drawing on nationwide archives and extensive interviews with child study pioneers, Smuts recounts the role of social reformers, philanthropists, and progressive scientists who established new institutions with new ways of studying children. Part history of science and part social history, this book describes a fascinating era when the normal child was studied for the first time, a child guidance movement emerged, and the newly created federal Children’s Bureau conducted pathbreaking sociological studies of children.

Editorial Reviews

The Annals of Iowa

"Alice Boardman Smuts has written an excellent book on a very important subject."--Hamilton Cravens, The Annals of Iowa

— Hamilton Cravens

Barbara Beatty

"Alice Boardman Smuts has written the first comprehensive history of early scientific research on children, which will be very useful to anyone interested in the history of children, science, and social policy. Smuts' work is highly original and she writes in a direct, accessible manner."—Barbara Beatty, Education Department Chair, Wellesley College, and author of Preschool Education in America

Julius B. Richmond

"Everyone interested in improving the lives of children and their families should read this book. It is a brilliant presentation of how the emerging science of child growth and development gave rise to the child caring professions and an important contribution to American history of the twentieth century."—Julius B. Richmond, M.D., Professor of Health Policy, Emeritus, Harvard Medical School

The Annals of Iowa - Hamilton Cravens

"Alice Boardman Smuts has written an excellent book on a very important subject. . . . Engagingly written and absorbing in its content."—Hamilton Cravens, The Annals of Iowa

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Science in the Service of Children 1893-1935

By Alice Boardman Smuts

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Alice Boardman Smuts
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10897-2

Chapter One

Save the Child and Save the Nation: The Rise of Social Feminism and Social Research

A distinctly American ideology of domesticity originated during the earliest years of the republic and was embellished and expanded by evangelical Protestantism during the decades before the Civil War. A new nation with a sense of mission, the United States saw its destiny tied to its children. Children in early America were valued for their economic contributions to the family and nation. Boys were particularly valued also as future citizens who could fulfill the expectations of the democracy, whereas girls were prized as future mothers who could teach their own children to be responsible parents and citizens. Children therefore required the kind of rearing that would produce adults morally dedicated to the democratic mission and trained to carry it out. Thus emerged early in the life of the new nation the concept of the Republican Mother, which enhanced women's status by linking it to the importance of the child for the future of the nation and justified education and participation in activities outside the home that were related to their unique stake in maintaining democracy.

Linda Kerber points outthat American post-Revolutionary ideology accomplished what the English and French Enlightenment had not: it justified and popularized a political role for women. Although women could not vote or hold office, their domestic activities had an important political function because through them they molded sons and influenced husbands in the practice of civic virtue. Benjamin Rush, one of the theorists of the Republican Mother, urged American women to model themselves not on fashionable British womanhood but on an ideal appropriate to democracy. According to Lois Meek Stolz, almost a century and a half after Rush wrote, Lawrence K. Frank, chief architect of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial child study programs, similarly urged American mothers not to imitate the Lady Bountiful activities of European women but to devote themselves to rearing their own children.


In early Puritan New England the father, as God's representative on earth, was held responsible for the education of his children. Although little is known about changes in the allocation of educational responsibility, it is clear that the educational role of fathers decreased as economic developments began to take men's work away from home and church membership became feminized. By the 1830s and 1840s Protestant clergy and New England reformers were proposing that the remedy for the evils of materialism, the moral restoration of the nation, and the salvation of democracy depended on American mothers, who had the awesome task of instilling in young children the virtues and values essential to the republic. Mothers were asked to assume responsibility not only for their own children but also for all children in need. Single women and childless wives were expected to participate in this rescue mission.

Before 1820 most child-rearing advice literature in the United States was imported from England. During the 1820s, however, a native, mass-circulation literature popularized the message that mothers had the power to change the course of the nation. "When our land is filled with pious and patriotic mothers," John Abbott wrote in 1833, "then will it be filled with virtuous and patriotic men." The exaltation of motherhood was linked to a belief in woman's special nature, untainted by the marketplace, which made her morally and spiritually superior to man. The doctrine of "separate spheres" emerged from these beliefs about the essential differences between males and females and the need to protect the home from the corruption of the world. Man's sphere was the world of business and politics; woman's, that of hearth and home. The cardinal virtues of "true womanhood," according to Barbara Welter, were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

Recent historical scholarship has challenged the validity of some of these views. Nancy Hewitt, for example, believes that the antebellum concept of "true womanhood" was not considered applicable to black and lower-class women and that middle- and upper-class women were divided along economic and social-interest lines more than they were united by domestic ideology. Other scholars have shown that the reality of women's lives in the workplace and in reform activities did not conform to the rhetoric of the prescriptive literature. Laura McCall's content analysis of Godey's Lady's Book between 1830 and 1860 found that 37 percent of 234 fictional characters possessed none of Welter's four cardinal virtues, and no character possessed all four. Mary P. Ryan also argues that Welter's four attributes, particularly "submissiveness," must be reconsidered.

Although dispute continues over the extent to which the doctrine of separate spheres reflected antebellum reality, there is consensus that antebellum women had great power. "The question of political and civil rights for women," Anne Kuhn wrote, "paled into insignificance in the light of this great responsibility which made them moral agents for the carrying out of democratic purposes."

European romanticism, introduced to the United States in the 1820s, meshed harmoniously with beliefs about the importance of childhood and motherhood. The Enlightenment's emphasis on the formal instruction of children in mental skills shifted during the early nineteenth century to an emphasis on the development of moral character, not through precept and instruction, but through intimate association with family members. Belief in the power of unconscious parental influence made early childhood a crucial period and led to increased reliance on the mother, who, because of her constant presence, was thought to be the single most important influence on the child.

"By the time a child is three," cautioned the Reverend Horace Bushnell, the most influential dispenser of child-rearing advice during the two decades before the Civil War, "the parents will have done more than half of all they will ever do for his character." Preaching that God worked through domestic education and emphasizing the importance of parental example, Bushnell wrote that "the spirit of the house is in the members by nurture not by teaching, not by any attempt to communicate the same, but because it is in the air the children breathe.... The odor of the house will always be in his garments and the internal difficulties with which he has to struggle will spring of family seeds planted in his nature." Since the child becomes virtuous before the age of reason by imitating the mother, she must be at all times an exemplary model. The mother's enormous power entailed comparable responsibility. She was not to entrust her child to servants and was expected to be energetic and active in discharging her parental obligations.

Related to beliefs about how children acquired moral character was the veneration of the untutored mother. "The mother, whether wise or ignorant, learned or unlearned, healthy or sick," Bronson Alcott declared, "is the most efficient educator." With respect to women of all classes, Cott pointed out, "Domesticity as a vocation began to mean for women what worldly occupations meant for men, and they staked their claims to social power on their 'vocations.'" At mid-nineteenth century, Catherine Beecher popularized the idea that wife- and mother-hood was woman's "profession."


The new child-rearing advice enjoyed a wide circulation primarily through the efforts of local maternal associations and the periodicals they sponsored. Beginning in Portland, Maine, in 1815, maternal associations proliferated during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1836 two rural New Hampshire counties alone contained thirty-eight mothers' clubs with more than a thousand members. The purpose of maternal associations was to foster Christian motherhood and thereby transform the world. "Christian motherhood," Meckel explains, "represented a religious calling that superseded the boundaries of the organized church."

Maternal associations encouraged mothers to share their experiences and learn from one another, but they also stressed the need to learn from experts; consequently, they distributed child-rearing literature. A member of the Utica, New York, maternal association sponsored the Mother's Magazine, a nonsectarian journal that was intended to reach beyond its Congregational and Presbyterian base. Founded in 1833, it had a circulation of ten thousand by 1837. Two more periodicals for mothers were established by 1841 and quickly rivaled the Utica magazine in circulation. In spite of their emphasis on early religious training and moral reform, the magazines contained, one historian notes, "surprisingly eclectic and inclusive material," including essays by Locke and Rousseau, articles on child health and the importance of maternal education, and even one on the early-childhood-education pioneer Pestalozzi before he had become well known to American educators. The maternal associations embraced a concept of children and a psychology of early child development that seemed "to seek a middle ground between Calvinist repression and romantic permissiveness." The magazines encouraged the establishment of new maternal associations that became effective channels for the widespread dissemination of child-rearing and maternal-reform literature. They reached and received much of their support from lower-middle-class women.

Before the Civil War, the predominantly rural and relatively static character of American society and of women's lives encouraged a conservative interpretation of the ideology of domesticity. The changes in American society that later enticed women from their homes had not yet appeared. The mother's obligation to protect and provide for other people's children could be discharged through participation in local moral reform societies and maternal associations, and the demands of good motherhood and good wifehood left women with little energy or leisure for other interests.


The Civil War launched women permanently into large-scale activity outside the home. Drastic changes in American society during and after the war transformed the lives of middle-class women. Many women began to reject the conservative version of the ideology of domesticity because they believed that it would not allow them to fulfill their responsibilities to family and country. In meeting new challenges, these women did not draw on the egalitarian values that motivated women abolitionists and suffragists before the Civil War and that have dominated contemporary feminist ideology. Instead, they chose to radically reinterpret and extend the ideology of domesticity and the concept of separate spheres. So ingeniously and effectively did they use the role of mother to justify their social reform agenda that they succeeded, during the decades just before and after World War I, in bestowing on the child an importance unsurpassed before or since. The "age of feminism" that emerged soon after the Civil War was in large part a reaction of numerous middle-class women to the harmful effects on women and children of urban-industrial life, and to the urgent need to help immigrant families adjust to life in the United States. Women, they argued, must assume a greater role in the formulation of social policy affecting families. Although nineteenth-century women's movements culminated in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the first demand of women reformers was not the vote but improvement in the lives of women and children. Many did not join the suffrage movement until the decade before World War I. They did so then not in a quest for equal rights, but because they thought the vote would be a powerful weapon for achieving maternal and child welfare reform.

Social feminism is the term several historians have used to distinguish this particular form of feminism, which was dominant during the Progressive period. The chief aim of social feminists was to protect and promote the welfare of women and children; few of them were feminists in the now-familiar sense of opposition to male dominance. They thought themselves above politics, pursuing reforms most women supported rather than questing for political and legal equality. Noting that women would soon win the franchise, Chicago philanthropist and social reformer Ethel Dummer asked an all-female audience, Would women enjoy their new right selfishly, or would "the maternal instinct carry us to this great movement to secure justice for all children?" She added: "The finest feminism is that which seeks to solve this problem of motherhood." According to Aileen Kraditor, many suffragists in the early twentieth century still believed that a woman's chief duty was to be a mother.

Social feminists have generally been categorized by historians as more conservative than suffragists, but in 1914 Dummer called herself a "radical feminist." To her, and to many other women of her time, social feminism required a radical change of viewpoint and included female leadership and participation in many activities formerly undertaken only by men. Dummer said that, until 1906, she had lived in a sheltered world in which she assumed that all children were happy. Beginning in that year, her work with the Chicago Juvenile Protective Association exposed her to the shocking conditions of life for children in trouble with the law. She had stepped "from a trim and orderly garden ... into a jungle." Until her death at the age of eighty, Dummer dedicated her life to helping children, partly through welfare activities, but primarily by organizing and funding scientific studies of children. In her humanitarian response to the plight of children in urban-industrial America, Dummer was typical of many upper-class and middle-class women of her time. Social feminism demanded recognition of the impact of social change on children's lives, a radical rethinking of how to discharge women's traditional obligations to home and children, and a willingness to leave home to venture into the once-forbidden public sphere.


Redefining and expanding the ideology of domesticity, women mustered persuasive reasons to justify their participation in state and federal affairs in order to influence private and public policy affecting home and family. They pointed, first, to the magnitude of changes in post-Civil War American society that prevented the insulation of middle- and upper-class children from the problems of the rest of society. Relying on private benevolence or the local community would not safeguard society from the "dangerous classes," from exposure to disease caused by unsanitary conditions, nor from other perils brought about by rapid urbanization and industrialization and increased immigration. Jane Addams told a receptive female audience that a mother's devotion to her family was no longer enough to protect her own children. Mothers were obligated to broaden the scope of their reform activities to encompass any and all issues that could affect their children's welfare.


Excerpted from Science in the Service of Children 1893-1935 by Alice Boardman Smuts Copyright © 2006 by Alice Boardman Smuts. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Alice Boardman Smuts is a founding member of the Society for Research in Child Development’s History Committee, which seeks to promote research and writing in the history of the field of child development. She retired from the faculty at the University of Michigan Bush Center for Child Development and Social Policy.

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