A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FAMILY
By Tim Lambert
The Family in The Ancient World
In the past many of the children born died before they could grow up. As many as 25% of children died before their fifth birthday. As many as 40% of the people born died before they were 16.
Most children in Egypt did not go to school. Instead boys learned farming or other trades from their fathers. Girls learned sewing, cooking and other skills from their mothers.
The Family in Israel
The father was the head of the family. He could divorce his wife if he wished. He could also arrange marriages for his children. People in Israel got married very young. A girl could marry when she was 12.
When a father died his sons inherited his property. The oldest son was given a double share. Daughters could only inherit property if there were no sons.
In Israel children did not go to school but their parents had a duty to teach them God's laws. Girls learned skills like spinning, weaving and baking from their mothers.
The Family in Ancient Greece
In Greece when a child was born it was not regarded as a person until it was five days old when a special ceremony was held and the child became part of the family. Parents were entitled, by law, to abandon newborn babies to die of exposure. Sometimes strangers would adopt abandoned babies. However in that case the baby became a slave.
Girls married when they were about 15. Marriages were arranged for them and often their husband was much older than them.
In a wealthy Greek family women were women were kept apart from men. They were usually confined to the back or upper part of the house.
In a rich family the wife was expected to run the home and, sometimes, to manage the finances. However rich women would normally stay indoors and send slaves to do the shopping. Poor women, of course, had no choice. They might also have to help their husbands with farm work. Women, even rich ones, were expected to spin and weave cloth and make clothes.
Life in Ancient Greece
The Family in Rome
In Rome the father had authority over his wife and children. He could whip or beat his children and he could divorce his wife if he wished.
However women were allowed to own and inherit property and some ran businesses. Nevertheless most women were fully occupied with looking after children and doing tasks like spinning wool for the family.
Read more about the Ancient World
The Family in the Middle Ages
Saxon women were allowed to own and inherit property and to make contracts. However most Saxon women had to work as hard as the men spinning and weaving, preparing food and drink and performing other tasks.
In the Middle Ages women worked hard. They spun wool and they did cooking and cleaning. Women washed clothes, baked bread, milked cows, fed animals, brewed beer and collected firewood as well as looking after children!
Children from noble families saw little of their parents. When they were very young nurses looked after them. When they were about 7 they were sent to live with another noble household. Boys became pages and had to wait on lords and ladies. They also learned to fight. At 14 a boy became a squire and at 21 a knight. Girls learned the skills they needed to run a household.
Childhood ended early for children in the Middle Ages. In upper class families girls married as young as 12 and boys as young as 14. They did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriages for them. Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool. Children were expected to help the family earn a living as soon as they were able.
Life in the Middle Ages
The Family 1500-1800
In the 17th century both boys and girls from well off families went to a form of infant school called a petty school. However only boys went to grammar school. Upper class girls (and sometimes boys) were taught by tutors. Middle glass girls might be taught by their mothers. Moreover during the 17th century boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them girls were taught subjects like writing, music and needlework. (It was considered more important for girls to learn 'accomplishments' than to study academic subjects).
As usual poor children did not go to school. By the age of 6 or 7 they were expected to do some jobs e.g. scaring birds away from newly sown seeds. However at least when they were not working they could play the same games children had played for centuries.
In the 16th and 17th centuries most women were housewives and they were kept very busy. Most men could not run a farm or a business without their wife's help.
In those days most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family's bread and brew their beer (it was not safe to drink water). She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat and making pickles, jellies and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers). Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the families candles and their soap. The Tudor housewife also spun wool and linen.
A farmer's wife also milked cows, fed animals and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also took goods to market to sell.
On top of that she had to cook, wash the families clothes and clean the house.
The housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family's illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor.
The Family in the 19th Century
For many children in the early 19th century things grew worse! The industrial revolution created a huge demand for female and child labour. Children had always done some work but at least before the 19th century they worked in their own homes with their parents or on land nearby. Children's work was largely seasonal so they did have some time to play. When children worked in textile factories they often worked for more than 12 hours a day.
In the 19th century families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.
In the early 19th century the churches provided schools for poor children. From 1833 the government provided them with grants. There were also dame schools. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing and arithmetic. However many dame schools were really a child minding service.
The state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. Forsters Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children.
In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution transformed life in Britain. It changed from a country where most people lived in the countryside and worked in farming to one where most people lived in towns and worked in industry.
For working class women life was an endless round of hard work and drudgery. As soon as they were old enough they worked on farms and in factories. Even when they married and had children housework was very hard without electricity or modern cleaning agents.
Life in the 19th Century
The Family in the 20th Century
Things greatly improved for most children during the 20th century. They became much healthier and better fed and better clothed. They were also better educated.
Until the late 20th century teachers were allowed to hit children. Corporal punishment was phased out in most primary schools in the early 1970s. The cane was abolished in state secondary schools in 1987. It was finally abolished in private schools in 1998.
In the 20th century women gained equal rights with men. Technological and economic changes made it inevitable that women would be given the same rights as men.
More occupations were opened to women. In 1910 the first policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. In 1916 the first policewoman (with full powers) was appointed in Britain. The 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act allowed women to become lawyers, vets and civil servants.
In the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.
In 1970 the law was changed so women had to be paid the same wages as men for doing work of equal value. In 1973 women were admitted to the stock exchange. From 1975 it was made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant.
Meanwhile in 1921 Dr Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in England. Contraceptive pills became available in Britain in 1961. They gave women new freedom.
A brief history of Children
A brief history of Women
A brief history of English Society
A history of EducationHome
Last revised 2013