Nineteenth-Century Fathers get a bad rap for being stern, distant—even tyrannical forces in the household. But some historians are suggesting that these negative stereotypes need a fresh look. Granted, there were as many styles of parenting among nineteenth-century fathers as there are today. Through primary sources they are suggesting that hands-on dads are nothing new in the nursery.
Even as women were pushing boundaries to define the “New Woman” both inside the home and out, the “New Man” was redefining fatherhood.
The Family Man Emerged
In his 1998 book Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North, historian Stephen M. Frank writes that during Victorian times, the maternal role in the household was becoming increasingly more important.
“Because of the priority given to mothers and children whenever inquiry turns to nineteenth-century domestic life, fathers have been, until quite recently, forgotten family members.” (p. 1)
Frank uses letters, diaries, memoirs and other primary sources to create the first account of nineteenth-century domestic life that focuses on the role of fathers. What he discovers about their views towards parenting breaks previous stereotypes. His subjects are often strikingly modern in their active involvement in child rearing and their playfulness with their offspring. As it turns out a “mother’s love” could be equaled by a “father’s care.”
Family roles evolved from 1800 to the end of the century due to Industrialization and significant historical developments. Among them were time constraints on nineteenth-century fathers as income-producing work increasingly took place outside the home. New modes of work absorbed more of their emotional energy and decreased time spent at home with the children.
Despite this, fathers did not necessarily ascribe less importance to domestic life. To the contrary, Frank shows that fatherhood was an increasingly vital component in the social definition of manhood.
“Notwithstanding an expanded role for mothers, fathers participated actively in child rearing, both when their children were young and as they grew older. Men and women alike were influenced by nineteenth-century domestic ideals, which placed a high premium on devotion to family life.” (p. 2)
Just as we see among today’s fathers, no single model of fatherhood fits all men. Not all nineteenth-century fathers balanced careers and family commitments the same. And some exerted greater authority in the household than others.
“Beyond the idiosyncrasies of particular families and events, however, enough fathers occupied places toward the affectionate end of the emotional spectrum to refute stereotypes of the starched Victorian patriarch, self-contained and presiding remotely over his family.” (p. 3)
To complicate studies of nineteenth-century fathers even more, factors including class, ethnicity and geography all influenced individual stories. Still, a broader definition of fatherhood was emerging along with the growing middle class.
“No secular norm for fatherhood prescribed a single set of duties governing the actual behavior of all men all the time, but a distinctive sociotype—the “family man”—emerged in the nineteenth century as a standard against which behavior was judged. This new male identity was a cultural invention of the middle class.” (p. 4)
Society Sought Balance Between Mother, Father And Children
The role of the pater familias–male head of the household with both legal and autocratic authority—declined during the eighteen hundreds. This major legal and social transition aided the transformation of nineteenth-century fathers.
According to Peter Hallama of the digital project of Sorbonne Universite, the adoption of the Napoleonic Civil Code in a number of European countries beginning in 1804 reestablished the all-powerful pater familias.
“The state increasingly intervened in the family sphere, especially after marriage became a civil act with the French Revolution in France, in 1875 in the German Empire, and in 1917 in Russia.”
Children were the subject of growing attention through the nineteenth century, with the passage of important child protection laws.
“Some of these laws specifically targeted “unworthy” fathers. One of the most important of these was the French law of July 24, 1889 that focused on the loss of paternal authority.”
Great Fathers Emerged
Bad dads have always been among us. Fortunately, the role of fathers continues to evolve in a positive direction.
In her 2015 book Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914, Julie-Marie-Strange of the University of Manchester, examined fathers from the Victorian working class to the 20th century. Like Frank, Strange found strong evidence that dads were far more involved in their children’s lives than previously thought.
While we can’t tell what people are thinking, particularly in posed portraits, many of these photographs offer a window into an unexpected side of nineteenth-century fathers.
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