Notes for Caddie Woodlawn


Myth of the Model Family

Sources:  Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. Eds. Colombo, Cullen and Lisle.  Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1992

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz.  Cambridge:  Harvard U P, 2004


The concept of a family has been around at least four thousand years—since the Code of Hammurabi

Traditional “nuclear” family has a much shorter history (began 200 years ago)


Democratic family—harmonious association of parents and children united by love and trust:  Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, Diff’rent Strokes, The Cosby Show, Wonder Years, The Simpsons, Roseanne.


We have an intuitive sense of what the “ideal” family should be—reflected in the precepts of religion, the conventions of etiquette, and the assumptions of law.


Reality:  Sophocles’ Oedipus (incest, murder, self-mutilation, exile); Bible Cain and Abel, Amnon and Tamar; Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (teen suicide), Othello (murder of spouse), Lear (abandonment of elderly parent)

·        Divorce

·        Single-parent households

·        Effects of remarriage

·        Domestic violence

·        Economic hardships

·        Depression – Suicide rate among 15 to 19-year-olds has more than tripled in the last 30 years.


Caddie Woodlawn – Discussion of “Childhood during the Civil War Period”


Civil War

            Probably about 5 percent were under 18, and some were as young as 10

            Consequences of the war: 

·        young people had to grow up quickly, assuming the responsibilities of absent relatives  (war diminished the father’s role in the family.  Postwar fathers were more disengaged from family life than their antebellum counterparts and more likely to participate in activities outside the home such a men’s clubs)

·        creation of many intellectuals and reformers

·        contempt for sentimentality

·        distrust of political ideologies

·        emphasis upon organization and professionalism—care for orphans and poor children  ((In Boston in 1865 an estimated 6000 vagrant children lived on the streets; in New York the figure reached 30,000.  More than 100 bodies of newborn children were found in empty barrels or in the rivers in New York each month

·        continued work for racial justice  (NAACP 1909)


Frontier Childhood -- Nightmare


·        The frontier could not have been settled without children’s labor.  Severe shortage of labor blurred age and gender distinctions and invested the young with a great deal of responsibility and autonomy—frontier children were expected to help with cleaning, childcare, tending animals, and tending the crop.

·        “One of the most painful things in the Western States and Territories is the extinction of childhood.  I have never seen any children, only debased imitations of men and women, cankered by greed and selfishness, and asserting and gaining complete independence of their parents at ten years old.  William Cody, later Buffalo Bill, was 14 when he rode for the Pony Express. 

·        Frontier children were not subjected to close supervision in the outdoors, instead, they were encouraged to act independently and to assume essential family responsibilities.

·        Loneliness – dispiriting routine

·        Privation – poverty

·        Personal entrapment


Of the 400,000 families that took advantage of the Homestead Act to start a farm, fewer than a third managed to succeed.  During the late 19th century drought, grasshoppers, fire, hail, blizzards, and floods devastated farms from Texas to Dakotas, leaving many families destitute.


Term project ideas: 

Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie

Hamlin Garland A Son of the Middle Border