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Old-Time Dads May Be Just a Memory

The fatherhood that Americans get so nostalgic about feeds off an idealized vision, not history

June 15, 2003|Anne S. Lombard | Anne S. Lombard is an assistant professor of history at California State University at San Marcos.

For Father's Day this year, as advertisers trotted out the usual array of goods from which we could choose to demonstrate our filial devotion, I noticed that lots of the newest items evoked nostalgia for the fathers of the past. There were old-style electric fans, phones with dials, replicas of cars that men now in their 70s and 80s drove when they were young dads, old Rawlings baseball mitts.

The advertisers seemed to be drawing upon an idealized vision of families past, a vision that is also evoked by moral reformers who lament that fathers are not what they used to be.

In that vision, everybody lived in Victorian houses, and fathers both provided for their children and played ball or went fishing with them every weekend.

But, in fact, the history of fatherhood in the United States is more complex than that. The historical forces that have dramatically reshaped fatherhood in the past have continued to change it in our lifetimes. It's not even clear that we would want to restore fatherhood as it existed in years past.

When the Anglo-American colonies were founded, the English Protestant Reformation was at its height, as was the development of the patriarchal family. In free white families in Colonial America, fathers and sons spent a lot of time together, especially in the North, where men trained their sons from early childhood to help run the family farms those sons would later inherit. Little boys began doing chores for their fathers at age 6 or 7. Often it was fathers, not schools, who taught boys skills such as writing and carpentry, while mothers taught girls to read and sew. If schools existed at all, they were typically held for only a few months in the winter, and most children stayed in school until age 10 at the latest.

Boys spent a good deal of time with their fathers -- but it was spent at work or acquiring spiritual education, not taking trips to the fishing hole. Neither diaries nor child-rearing advice pamphlets from the period suggest that fathers were expected to play with their children. Childish playfulness was something to be overcome, not encouraged. Puritan and evangelical Protestant fathers began when children were 7 or 8 to warn them about death and exhort them to pray for the salvation of their souls. Colonial fathers usually were stern and demanding.

Several forces transformed these patriarchal, father-centered families during the next two centuries. Commercial and industrial development, beginning first in the northeastern United States, produced a growing differentiation between work and home. And as urban, middle-class fathers stopped working at home, mothers assumed primary responsibilities for the day-to-day rearing of sons as well as daughters. Currier and Ives lithographs, like other print media, popularized sentimental images of children with their mothers.

The role of fathers receded. Advice book writers like the popular Lydia Marie Child, author of "The Mother's Book" (1830), urged fathers not to interfere with their wives' management of the children. Middle-class fathers began to see themselves primarily as economic providers and career counselors for older sons. In the 19th century, middle-class fathers typically saw their children most on Sundays, which they spent with their families, going to church, taking walks or Sunday rides and even playing games with their little children.

By about 1920, the mother-centered family had become the norm throughout most of American society. Fathers saw less of their children than ever because most youths at this point continued their education through high school. But as continued economic development raised standards of living and increased leisure time, Americans rediscovered fatherhood -- and redefined it.

Advice writers began to place new emphasis on the importance of fathers as role models, urging fathers to devote their leisure time to play and share hobbies with their children. The terms "dad" and "daddy" began to come into common parlance in the 1920s.

The idea of a national Father's Day, first proposed in the early 20th century (and heavily promoted by the tobacco and menswear industries) began to catch on in the 1930s.

Men's ability to provide a suburban, middle-class lifestyle for stay-at-home wives and children is even more recent. It was the remarkable growth in American prosperity that followed World War II and lasted until the early 1970s that first made it possible for a majority of American families to own their own homes.

The fathers of the baby boom generation have become fixed in our memories as "traditional" fathers but, in fact, they are a very recent development, a product of the modernization of fatherhood.

Of course, we can still feel nostalgic for yesterday's fathers. But let's face reality too: The ongoing historical processes that shaped the experience of fatherhood in the past are still shaping it.

Since the 1970s, most men's real wages have fallen and, with them, men's ability to provide for families at 1950s' levels. More than two-thirds of mothers now work for wages.

One of the healthier cultural consequences has been the rise of "equal parenting" and involved fatherhood. But a less salubrious effect has been our loss of leisure time. On average, Americans work more hours per year than anybody else in the industrialized world, which means less time for families.

To my mind, if we want to feel nostalgic about something, it should be time. We just don't have as much of it as our parents had. Instead we buy replicas of old fans and telephones to celebrate Father's Day and pretend we'll have lots of time to spend together, real soon.

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