Children's Lives: Comparing Long Ago to Today
How have children's lives changed over time?
Too often we look back at the way people lived and evaluate the past in terms of the technology that dominates our lives today. We ask: Imagine life without automobiles or electric lights or running water. No refrigerators, washing machines, radio, television, or movies? No computers, CDs, cell phones or credit cards? How did they survive? If that is how you want to approach the past, ask yourself this: what invention do we not have that will make Iowans of the future look back and wonder how made it through the day?
Children's Lives in the Home
A better approach is to look at how people of any age adapted to what they had around them. For children, the best place to start is to look at their homes. For children on the Iowa frontier, most homes had to produce nearly all their own needs. Children learned to contribute to the family’s survival at an early age. Most Iowans lived on farms that raised much of their own food, and children became an important part of the family team. They gathered eggs, worked in the garden, carried in wood and water and perhaps cared for younger brothers and sisters. As girls got older, they learned to cook, sew, preserve food for the winter, do the washing and tend to the sick. Boys helped their father with the livestock, planting and harvest, hunting, and maintenance of buildings and fences. Their opportunities for education were limited to whatever a near-by school offered. When there were heavy demands for their help on the farm, like during corn picking, older boys especially helped at home and went to school only when they could.
Life for children in town usually experienced home improvements before their farm cousins. Many towns installed electric systems in the years shortly before or after 1900 that brought electric lights, appliances, and other conveniences. Town children were more likely to have the opportunity to attend high schools and engage in school activities like music and sports. Automobiles brought big changes in children’s lives on both the farm and in town. Farm children could get to school and back home more easily, and their families were not so isolated. All families found travel to neighboring towns for entertainment and shopping easier. Instead of producing so much of their own food and clothing, families were able to purchase more goods from local stores, relieving family members, including children, of some time-consuming responsibilities but making them more dependent on the father’s income. The invention of computers, the internet and cell phones greatly enhanced opportunities for everyone in the family, and children could connect with friends and the outside world in ways that pioneer families could not have imagined.
Toys, Games and Culture
Toys and games changed with the times. In early days, with most Iowa families on the farm, brothers and sisters played games with each other. Often they made up their own games and the toys that went with them. They played outside in good weather when they had free time from chores. Through the 20th century, industries grew up devoted exclusively to children’s entertainment. Today, you can buy games, expensive sports equipment, foods like breakfast cereals and snacks marketed especially to young children or watch TV shows or movies made for young viewers. Schools expanded and required children’s attendance until age 16 or graduation. More and more young people attend college. When homes produced much of what they needed to survive, there were many large families of 8-10 children or even more. As more families began living in towns and cities and families needed to purchase what they needed, smaller families with 2-3 children became the norm.
Children’s lives reflected the opportunities and culture in which they lived. As the culture changed, especially with new technologies, families adapted and childhood changed. Children’s lives today are much different than our pioneer ancestors’, just as the great-grandchildren of today’s children will look back and marvel at the things we “lived without.”
How has play changed over time?
- Portrait of Two Young Girls with Doll in Baby Buggy, 1890 (Image)
- Children Waiting for the Train, June 30, 1893 (Image)
- Boys Posing While Playing Soldier in Davenport, Iowa, 1915 (Image)
- Studio Portrait of Donald Fanton Holding Trolley Car Toy in Gilman, Iowa, 1927 (Image)
- Farmer Earl Pauley's Children Playing with Dolls in Tumbleweed Near Smithland, Iowa, December 1936 (Image)
- Children Playing with Boats in Grundy Center, Iowa, April 1940 (Image)
- Boys Playing Marbles in Woodbine, Iowa, May 1940 (Image)
- Yaeko Nakamura and Family Buy Toys from Fred Moriguchi at Manzanar Relocation Center, 1943 (Image)
How has communication and technology changed over time?
- U.S. Mail Sled Being Pulled by Horses in Alaska, between 1900 and 1927 (Image)
- Man and Woman at Desk with Typewriter, between 1909 and 1932 (Image)
- Telephone Operators, between 1914 and 1917 (Image)
- Lady Signaling Operator on Old-Style Telephone in Scranton, Iowa, April 1940 (Image)
- Crowd of Men Listening to World Series Game in Saint George, Utah, September 1940 (Image)
- Airborne Infantry Officer Using a Walkie-Talkie in Louisiana, 1942 (Image)
- Taking High School Classes via Television in Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1958 (Image)
How has transportation changed over time?
- Ambulance Wagons on the Bull Run Battlefield, 1861 (Image)
- Logs Being Hauled on a Sleigh by a Team of Horses, between 1900 and 1930 (Image)
- Horse-Drawn Wagons Removing Snow in New York City, January 1908 (Image)
- Children in an Automobile, between 1912 and 1930 (Image)
- Crowd and Trolley Cars in Washington, D.C., between 1913 and 1917 (Image)
- Parked School Buses Near Wells, Texas, April 1939 (Image)
- Workers Boarding a Trackless Trolley in Baltimore, Maryland, April 1943 (Image)
Portrait of Two Young Girls with Doll in Baby Buggy, 1890
Children Waiting for the Train, June 30, 1893
Boys Posing While Playing Soldier in Davenport, Iowa, 1915
Studio Portrait of Donald Fanton Holding Trolley Car Toy in Gilman, Iowa, 1927
Farmer Earl Pauley's Children Playing with Dolls in Tumbleweed Near Smithland, Iowa, December 1936
Children Playing with Boats in Grundy Center, Iowa, April 1940
Boys Playing Marbles in Woodbine, Iowa, May 1940
Yaeko Nakamura and Family Buy Toys from Fred Moriguchi at Manzanar Relocation Center, 1943
U.S. Mail Sled Being Pulled by Horses in Alaska, between 1900 and 1927
Man and Woman at Desk with Typewriter, between 1909 and 1932
Telephone Operators, between 1914 and 1917
Lady Signaling Operator on Old-Style Telephone in Scranton, Iowa, April 1940
Crowd of Men Listening to World Series Game in Saint George, Utah, September 1940
Airborne Infantry Officer Using a Walkie-Talkie in Louisiana, 1942
Taking High School Classes via Television in Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1958
Ambulance Wagons on the Bull Run Battlefield, 1861
Logs Being Hauled on a Sleigh by a Team of Horses, between 1900 and 1930
Horse-Drawn Wagons Removing Snow in New York City, January 1908
Children in an Automobile, between 1912 and 1930
Crowd and Trolley Cars in Washington, D.C., between 1913 and 1917
Parked School Buses Near Wells, Texas, April 1939
Workers Boarding a Trackless Trolley in Baltimore, Maryland, April 1943
- The Goldfinch: Iowa Folklife (Vol. 10, No. 4, pgs. 11-12, April 1989)
This Iowa history magazine for children was published quarterly by the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1975-2000. Each issue focuses on a theme and this particular volume highlighted immigration in Iowa and included articles, games, photos and fiction. The featured article in this edition looked at the games played by Iowans at the turn of the 20th century.
- Transportation: Then and Now by Robin Nelson
This book presents a brief look at how transportation has changed over the years.
- Toys and Games: Then and Now by Robin Nelson
This book briefly describes how toys and games have changed through the years, including such topics as how playgrounds differ and how today's toys relate to those of the past.
- Communication: Then and Now by Robin Nelson
This book briefly describes how communication in the United States has changed through the years.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (K)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are elementary-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for kindergarten students.
- SS.K.7. Describe ways in which students and others are alike and different within a variety of social categories.
- SS.K.15. Explain why and how people move from place to place.
- SS.K.16. Distinguish at least two related items or events by sequencing them from the past to the present.
- SS.K.17. Compare life in the past to life today.
- SS.K.18. Given context clues, develop a reasonable idea about who created the primary source or secondary source, when they created it, where they created it, or why they created it.