CRF Blog

New York and the invention of modern childhood

by Bill Hayes

In New York and the invention of modern childhood, New York magazine examines how the idea of childhood has developed over the years.

Immigrants were streaming in by the millions back then—between 1890 and 1900, the population of New York grew from 1.5 million to 3.4 million—and the city strained to accommodate the growing number of children. Most attended school in overcrowded classrooms (as many as 70 kids per class) and slept in tenement rooms without windows, fresh air, or sometimes beds. Some were even less fortunate: Over a span of 70 years, nearly a quarter-million children were loaded onto “orphan trains” and shipped as far away as Alaska (where one orphan subsequently became the state’s governor). At the Museum of the City of New York, you can find dozens of pictures of “Street Arabs,” those gangs of dispossessed and shoeless kids who, to keep warm, slept on grated vent holes with one eye open (“like rabbits in their burrows,” in the words of Jacob Riis). At the DiMenna children’s museum at the New-York Historical Society, there’s a haunting, yellowed list, circa 1874, that carefully documents the reasons 100 boys applied for beds at a newsboy lodging home: Half were orphaned, twelve had mothers in prison, and two had mothers in the hospital. Four had parents who were homeless themselves. Nine were deserted by their parents; seven described their parents as drunkards. Three had fathers who’d run off with someone else, three had stepfathers who’d turned them out, and four had fathers at sea.

Yet in spite of the overcrowding, the hardships, and the danger, New York City, at least in Nasaw’s opinion, was one of the better places to be a kid in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States. “I’m not saying that there weren’t city kids who were victimized and ragamuffins,” he says when I call him to ask about this somewhat contrarian point of view. “But the vast majority of the kids who worked in the cities by then had homes, hats on their heads, and enough to eat.” [more]