Huck’s Raft, History of Childhood

The American society, like many others, has its own history of formation and development. There are too many cases when it was raised and declined in terms of morality. The people of America made great efforts to prevent our nation from destruction and their power is now felt on the examples of different levels of life. One should think over the issue about the driving motive of every nation and mankind. What kinds of people are able to give something of innovative character to the country? Whom do we need most of all in cases of experience, culture, and knowledge transfer? Children – because they are the future of every nation.

During more than three centuries of development of American childhood, there were many cases showing its perfect outlook. The above-mentioned question is disputable because of the features that still terrify and catch special attention on the problem of the generation gap. Adults always try to make children follow their way while the children want to develop themselves. Such agony caused the idea of analyzing the essence of such controversy between children and adults.

In the book “Huck’s Raft: A history of American Childhood”, Steven Mintz puts into the picture various times of the American childhood’s creation, admitting the sinful nature of children in puritan America and describing them as the industrious workers of the nineteenth century and from that time’s cherubs until the present day youth. The times when the issue of survival in the society was vital for both adults and children; the times when the American nation began pinning hopes on children. Such transformations claim to explore what role was taken by children in a number of social events of American history.

To my mind, Mintz’s investigation is interesting in regards to the examples of completed surveys of how the American culture and traditions are going to reflect its expectancies and worries onto children when they are kept in safety by their parents and preserved from the duties and hazards of adults. A special outlook in this book projects inter mutual actions of children in terms of historical cutoff and social processes in gaining safety and care of adults towards children. In describing the harsh truth of children’s lives throughout history, he generates the idea of mutual understanding between children and adults in the course of their primordial difference. The book shows that under various circumstances children served as active agents providing America with high values on various stages of its foundation as a nation.

The book “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings” by David Lancy holds an idea similar to Mintz’s. From an anthropological point of view, he discovers the evolution of children’s insight and development through the view of historical discourse. Steven Mintz figures out Lancy’s work and the points he shared in it by saying the following words:

“In this work of stunning insight and signal importance, David Lancy frees us from constricted, culture-bound conceptions of childhood, illustrating the extraordinarily diverse forms that children’s development has taken. By dismantling narrowly ethnocentric notions of what constitutes a normal childhood, he allows us to envision alternatives to the overpressured, over-organized, over-commercialized world that today’s middle-class children inhabit.” (Mintz, Huck’s Raft 5).

Both authors are inclined to underline that through the centuries the process of upbringing was like a ceremony of transition with some kind of experience to children either at work or at school in terms of tremendous dangers with which they confronted. The context of the books underscores the achievements of children’s labor for the United States. Incredible is the gradual analysis of American childhood regarding the logical aspect of the issue.

Like in Mark Twain’s famous book, children seem to float by the river evading the realities of adult life. The story of Huckleberry Finn depicts a child’s straightforward movement towards the easygoing life of children as it is described in the book. The raft of childhood in the United States underwent tests during different epochs of American society. The metaphor of raft seems to describe its disequilibrium and possible danger of turning over. The risk was distinctive for previous generations of children, the challenge which appeared to next generations.

The diversity of the nationalities in the US differed in terms of several factors, such as nationality, color, personal well-being, etc. The main difference in the society of that time was skin color. The main struggle in masses was between white people and colonial ones, those of “Puritan Fathers” and those considered to be slaves. The diversity of nationalities and cultures defined constant hatred and ointments within American society. It was so in previous centuries, it continues nowadays. As Mintz writes:

No colonial children experienced a harsher childhood than those of African descent. Put to work from a very early age, they suffered from exhausting labor, high mortality rates, and frequent separation from family members. The English alone imported 1.5 million Africans into their New World colonies (including the West Indies) during the eighteenth century, more than three times the number of white emigrants, including a sharply increasing number of enslaved children. (Mintz, Huck’s Raft 41-42)

The hardship of colonial children and their martyrdom insulted the disagreement they’ve had in their minds since childhood. They tried to elaborate on all the difficulties connected with the inequality within the masses. That fact later caused the revolutionary work of many great African Americans. These people, who felt inconveniences and constant blame from the side of their peers as well as adults, seemed to suppress the idea of enslaving oppression. The reasoning about this matter was of a contradictory character. In fact, the moral struggle between children of different skin color is something that still occurs in America today.

Passing over to the European children’s reality in the nineteenth century, one cannot help but remember the novel “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens. The classic tale is about the life of an orphan who was involved in the work process in so-called “workhouses”. The book keeps the reader’s thoughts on the problem of children’s exposure. Adults see them as unwanted and undesirable to support or somehow help. Such cases, of children enslaving, were considered by the adults as a source of their financial filling.

In the United States, children suffered from adults’ indifference as well. They tried to maintain things about the house unless working somewhere else. Children of four years old could knit stockings, they were aware of the main activities they should do about the house. This plus work on the farms, factories, and markets gave birth to new generations of Americans. This made them vary between their childish interests about games, wondering, playing, etc. and a need to support their families. Among the games girls liked one to maintain a good rhythm and tempo, called “Come, Butter, Come.”

Come, Butter, Come.

Come, Butter, Come.

Johnny’s waiting at the gate.

He wants a piece of butter cake.

Come, Butter, Come.

This was used to shorten the time when working. Girls at that time were creative in every work concerning the house. Also, they were taught to help their would-be husbands in their uneasy work and life of supporting the families with everything necessary. The boys wanted to be like Western heroes – good boys which give goodness to, for instance, the citizens of Wild West. Constant bank robberies and other crimes influenced the children as well. These bad examples were the sources to create the elusive picture of how to earn easy money. Children began stealing as an alternative to the harder work of the mines, mills, and farms which also required long hours of labor.

As far as I know, the nineteenth century was full of inventions causing progress in mechanics and science as a whole. The railway stations, as well as the further appearance of the body of the railroad, were spreading across the US. This provoked the need for people’s resources and children appeared to be a source of the additional workforce. Looking at their own childhood, adults referred to the point of significant use of children’s labor. Of course, no one asked children before; it was on a mandatory basis. Before the nineteenth century, young members of the society worked in their families or others, which trained them in an experienced and skilled trade. While urbanization increased, the spheres of children at work changed its view dramatically. As Mintz notes, “children worked because their earnings were essential to their family’s standard of living.” (Mintz, Huck’s Raft 296) Lancy’s research gives the information, that almost twenty percent of children from ten to fifteen at that period were gainfully employed. Parents usually wanted to have an outcome from their children and sent them to earn money in factories, mills, mines, and farms. The last one was and still is the oldest kind of youngsters’ work. During the time of Progressive Era society focused on the fact of children’s employment. Mints point out that:

“It was the increasing contrast between the middle class and lower class childhoods, organized labor’s fear that children were taking jobs away from adults, and the growing idea that all children were entitled to a sheltered childhood, devoted to education and play.” (Mintz, Huck’s Raft 181)

The public opinion was gathered as of providing reforms in this sphere of its reality. Many public figures, as well as politics, tried to facilitate the burden of American childhood. The employed children were tired and shaped with a current feeling of their fatality. Between the years 1900 and 1920, the number of children having a full-time job reduced, and that symbolized the notion of a generation shift after every decade, half-century, and century. It is clear from the standpoint of making life better as the years go by. Nowadays children are better saved from the dangerous influence of adult irresponsibility and indifference, which were seen in earlier periods of US history. The gradual movements from the worst period to the best needs time, patience, and effort. In this case, one should not forget about the psychological side of the question, about the period of man’s life, which is deserved to possess. Childhood is the time when everything unknown going through the orifice in the yet small mind of a child becomes a part of his further mindset. To nurture the feeling of love and patriotism means to attach them at the very beginning of a person’s life.

To sum up, one could surely admit that present generations of children ought to be thankful to their predecessors with regards to the great pains that were taken by them in a desire to make life better and suitable to live. It is those people who guaranteed the wealth and authority of today’s America; they showed the spirit of a great desire to move towards the changes, not realizing the value of such changes.

Historians still adore the courage and patience of children in the nineteenth century. Their way of life cannot but stimulate present time youth not to consume more than to live with total efficiency. During that period of the United States, history people thought about simpler things and took care of their families before anything else. That was the fusion of parents and children to prevent them from dying within a society of cruel and selfish people. This tandem had a great influence on the structure and quality of the institute of family in the US. Moreover, with a huge flow of immigrants in the twentieth century, it helped to save the purity of traditions and intentions to share that is within every American, no matter where they originated from.

The childhood of Americans should be saved even by means of adults’ sacrifice. These pearls should be brought up in a manner of the coherent transition from one stage of life to another. Rephrasing an English proverb one should rather say: “Childhood is your oyster, just crack it.”


Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A history of American Childhood. Belknap Press. 2006.

Lancy, David F. the Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge University Press; 1st edition. 2008.

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