100 Years Ago: Homes Are Places to Grow People


We are all aware of the constant news cycle of our modern world. I don’t even have to turn on a news channel or look up a news site to receive a steady stream of information posted or shared by friends and family. It’s easy to imagine that the worries accompanying  the newest headlines are all modern problems. Looking back 50, 60, or 100 years with rose-colored glasses is very tempting. This was a widespread phenomenon a few years ago, when dozens of articles and blog posts sighed wistfully for the days of “Free-range parenting” from the 70’s and 80’s.

The purpose of a home is for people not things.
Society and technology have changed drastically in the past century, but parental concerns remain the same.

A peek back at articles and information from a century ago reveals that the base substance of our fears hasn’t changed. Parents still want to create the best home possible for their family. We still want guidance or suggestions on what to to do, what the threats are, and how to combat them. Changes in society have also changed some of the threats. New technology has brought some of those threats directly into our living rooms and bedrooms.

In The Child Welfare Manual from 1915, Rev. Henry F. Cope lays out his vision for a family home and those things which will help create it. For Cope the central purpose of the home is to “grow people.” Although he uses different terms, he is speaking out against the same materialism that is so often challenged today. It is no surprise that minimalism has become a goal for many. Rev. Cope didn’t know the term, but he expressly decried how people will boast of their possessions, but keep silent about their values and ideals. “We have allowed the kitchen to become more important than character, the chairs than children,” he says.  If we do not improve the home with an eye to improving the people within it, we have missed the point of a home. “We have forgotten that homes exist primarily for purposes that no mechanism can accomplish. They do not exist to serve meals; they are more than hotels They are educational institutions, designed to grow the souls of children into manhood and womanhood.”

I cannot think of anyone who would disagree with that. 100 years ago, Rev. Cope worried about absent fathers, much like many do today. Today, many families are missing their fathers completely. Whether due to divorce or because the father was long gone before baby was born, plenty of children grow up without fathers. That wasn’t the biggest obstacle to families in the early decades of the 20th century. Instead, they were facing the effects of industrialization. Families were moving from family businesses and farms to work in the factories in cities. The absent father of 1915 was not a deadbeat dad, but the hardworking father who put in long, grueling days in a factory.  With few or no labor laws, men would work 16-18 hour days, leaving before children were up and returning at night long enough to eat and go to sleep. The low wages of the factories often forced both parents to work long hours–a situation that is all too familiar to many families here and now.

Rev. Cope also pinpointed the physical home environment as a concern. He isn’t focused on neatness, but on space. Today, most of us live in apartments at one time or another. Apartments of the early 20th century were small and incredibly cramped. Often, several families shared restroom facilities.  One of his biggest concerns is the lack of safe outdoor spaces for children. Children were confined to one or two rooms, with no safe place outside to play, and little inside space either. The importance of outdoor spaces for people in general has certainly garnered some press lately, both for physical and mental health reasons.  It’s not a new idea, we just have studies to back it up now.

However, Rev. Cope reserves his biggest warning for media. In an era when books were expensive and neither television nor the internet existed, it’s hard to imagine what sort of threat the media could be. After all, children would not be accidentally clicking on a link to a porn site or overhearing the evening news. However, his concern is for the newspaper, whose, “standards are those of the street.” In the family setting of the time, the newspaper was available to the entire family, and children would read the lurid stories as well as any pleasant ones. It is a great deal like the endless stream of click-bait we see today, and stories crafted to make us feel superior or outraged, or both by turns. Reporters 100 years ago wanted readers as much as today’s blogger and news sites. “It results in the child’s mental picture of the whole world as a round of scandal and divorce, of the fields of the world as one great moral garbage-heap, of the abnormal as normal.” The media we consume, whether a newspaper or television show, helps create the lens through which we all, adults and children, view our world. We should work to avoid warping that lens.

What our children read, see and listen to will change how they see the world.
What our children read, see, and listen to will change how they see the world.

It should come as no surprise then that the solution to this is to direct children toward books, both classic and modern, that will provide an unwarped view of life. In addition to books, music and other reading that will create an appreciation of life, family, and beauty are recommended–including Bible reading and religious studies. Although fewer homes identify as religious today than in Rev. Cope’s time, the basic message is sound. Guide your children toward things which uphold your values, whether those are religious, political, or just personal. In addition, the environment of the home will always be children’s first school. “The disorderly, selfish, unsocial home thunders so loud the child can hear no words uttered in it. The immoral home, the one which seeks to cheat life by taking its pleasures and evading the price of pain and service, becomes a teacher and guide in immorality. The home where all learn life’s great lessons of the joy of service and the blessedness of patience and kindness, will be the parent of other homes where love reigns and lives are grown into beauty.”

Most importantly, the members of the family should view their surroundings as the means to an end: building good character. The material things in the home should not be ends unto themselves. The goal of life should not be to acquire more or newer or bigger things, but to buy and use those things which will direct the family toward the values and ideals the parents hold. Despite the vast difference in life in 2018, parent still wish to see their children grow and embrace the values of the family. It’s a part of being human I don’t think we will ever change.

* All quote from Rev. Henry F. Cope as found in his article, “The Conservation of the Modern Home” in the 1919 edition of The Child Welfare Manual.


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