Like all things, “fatherhood” has a history. From the enslaved men of the Anglo-American Atlantic to the middling sort to working class daddies and “their chairs,” ideas about fatherhood across socio-economic status in the nineteenth century shared one common trope: fathers were supposed to be providers. This wasn’t always the case in the US or Britain. 18th-century ideal fatherhood looked quite different from the 19th century, and of course in the late 20th century feminists and gender equality activists began criticizing this narrow view of fatherhood. So this episode takes a look at the particularly industrialized, urbanized, “Victorian” kind of daddying.

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Get Lit: Heating and Lighting in the Victorian Home

Fragile Masculinity, Playing Indian, and Mechanical Goats: Fraternal Orders in the 19th Century US

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Papa Can You Hear Me? Fatherhood in 19th century US and Britain

Written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded and Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Averill: In CHAPTER 6 of Sarah’s brilliant book, Bodies in Blue, she discusses the impact of the American Civil War on the men who fought and the families of those soldiers. She tells stories of men unable to cope with the return to civilian life, whose were described as “productive” before the war, but who could no longer hold down a job or deal with day-to-day life with their family. Many were committed to mental institutions, dismal places of medical experimentation and terrible loneliness. Sarah discusses one man who was a successful farmer for years, who provided for his wife and a number of children, but who grew increasingly erratic over the decades after he returned from fighting for the Union. Eventually, he died in the New York State Asylum at Utica. In another heartbreaking story, a young man named Caleb Moncrief wrote to the asylum asking whether his veteran dad was “getting much gray,” and inquiring whether he even remembered his family. A little census searching showed that Caleb Moncrief had named his own baby son after his long lost father. Men lost, broken, and traumatized by war were unable to fulfill the duties expected of Victorian fathers. Today I want to build on Sarah’s discussions of the ability and inability to work, Victorian masculinity, and gendered conceptualizations of domesticity to discuss fatherhood. For her more focused exploration of these issues in the post-Civil War US you will have to, of course, get a copy of her book and read it for yourself! Building from her work and the work of scholars of gender, family, and Victorian masculinity, this episode draws together the threads of US and British ideas about fatherhood from around 1850 to 1900.

Averill: I’m Averill Earls

Elizabeth: And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Averill: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: We want to give a big thank you to all of our Patreon supporters, particularly our Auger and Excavator level patrons: a very special thanks to Danielle, Lauren, Christopher, Colin, Maggie and Peggy! Your generosity will go down in history. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can be – just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.

Averill: Like all things, “fatherhood” has a history. For this episode, I wanted to draw together the histories of fatherhood in the 19th-century US and Britain. There isn’t really much conversation happening across the pond in the historiography. (Historiography means history of the history, more or less). So, in addition to revisiting things I haven’t read since comprehensive exams, like Davidoff/Hall’s Family Fortunes and John Tosh’s A Man’s Place, I searched for everything I could find about fatherhood in Britain and the US during the era we generally refer to as the “Victorian period.” There are some significant works about the US and UK from the late-1990s, which was when “masculinity studies” really took off, and then a few more recent books and dissertations scattered throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Sarah’s book touches on this topic in the Civil War and Reconstruction era, but friend-of-the-show John Riley’s dissertation is even more specifically focused on fatherhood in the Civil War. In addition to Stephen Frank’s Life with Father and Brett Carroll’s article about John Shoebridge Williams, I looked specifically to Riley’s work on this topic for the 19th century US. John Tosh and Claudia Nelson have written great books on fatherhood among the English middling sort, and Julie-Marie Strange has added a much-needed look at working class fatherhood in Britain. Tosh, Nelson, Strange, Frank, and Carroll are talking specifically about white men. Brenda Stevenson’s Life in Black and White, and parts of Riley’s dissertation address the experiences of enslaved black fathers. I couldn’t find much at all speaking specifically to fatherhood as a concept in immigrant communities, Native American communities, imperial fatherhood (getting children on brown indigenous women), or the ways that fatherhood differed from one religious community to the next in the UK or US (and by that I’m thinking of the Catholic, various Protestant, and Jewish communities in both countries in this period). This may be a limit of my libraries, so if any of you listeners are aware of some published histories that I just didn’t uncover, please share with us! An email, a tweet, a Facebook post or message – you know we love hearing from you. But, you know, it’s also a 1 hour podcast, not a book, so I had to leave something out!

Elizabeth: We’re going to be talking about some historical categories that are… complicated. What the British thought of as “working class” or “middle class” didn’t always look the same as what Americans thought of as socio-economic classes. By the time Victoria came to power, the British had already abolished slavery, and it would take 30 more years for the Americans to follow suit. While there were certainly people of color living in the UK in the 19th century, there were nowhere near the number as in the American South or even the Northern states; there simply had never been the same demand for an enslaved laboring class in the UK as there was in the Americas. But for the sake of keeping things a bit simpler, we’re going to talk interchangably about Anglo-American “middle” and “working” classes, both black and white; our discussions of enslaved people of color, however, are drawn almost exclusively from examples in the US.

Averill: (Also… I’ve always found it weird that historians of the US refer to the 1840ish to 1900ish period as the “Victorian period,” the same way the British do, even though Americans had eschewed the British monarchy in 1785. Do you know why people talk about the “Victorian era” in the US, Elizabeth?)

Elizabeth: (I believe it’s a matter of convenience. We have a lot of other names for smaller chunks of time – Antebellum, Civil War Era, Reconstruction, Gilded Age, Progressive Era, etcetera – but nothing besides “the nineteenth century” to talk about the long haul of the century. And because even after our independence, a lot of white American culture filtered in from Britain–fashions, medicine, economics, even human rights–throughout the nineteenth century, it makes a sort of sense to talk about a “Victorian” era in American history. The US was still really in development as a world power, and still had a relationship with the UK well after American independence. The huge cotton manufacturing industry in the UK, for example, got the majority of its raw cotton from the US until shipping lines were disrupted by the Civil War. Places like Manchester, England, also known as “Cottonopolis,” were economies built entirely on cotton, and relied on that cheap raw material flowing across the Atlantic via slave labor. Even though the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, and abolished slavery in their own colonies and at home in the 1830s, many Brits continued to profit off the enslaved peoples of the United States.)

Averill: Typical. So, anyway, “Victorian” ideas about fatherhood in the US and Britain. I read everything I could get my hands on on this topic. It would be impossible to say “all white middle class men did fathering this way” and leave it at that. Of course every father did things a bit differently, lived his life and did his parenting the way his particular background and experiences moved him to. But still, there is a broad-strokes kind of way that we might talk about Victorian fatherhood. Though the details differed for fathers of different classes and ethnicities, the common baseline for Victorian fatherhood was about providing. To be a ‘good’ father required that one provide economically for ones family; this was true for white middle and working class men, free black middle and working class men, and immigrant men.

Fathers Pride | Currier and Ives 1859 / Library of Congress

Elizabeth: Enslaved men faced different challenges. Rather than thinking about providing economically for their family, they had to think about how to keep their family together, surrendering, as John Riley notes, hard earned wages in hopes of stopping their children from being sold out of state.[1] Intrastate slave sales separated families regularly, and fathers might have to walk dozens of miles to visit a wife and children on another plantation. Riley also argues that enslaved black men who ran away, seeking freedom in non-slave states, did so to earn enough wages to purchase their wives’ and childrens’ freedom. Though this is messy – and evidence that there are nuances and important details that we can’t ignore when thinking about fatherhood – enslaved black men also strove to provide for their families: to provide safety and freedom.

Averill: “Provider” in the economic sense is a bit of a stretch for the enslaved black father, but that’s ok. We’ll return to those nuances in a bit. First, though, we should preface our provider conversations with a little background on what fathers looked like (or were supposed to look like) prior to the Victorian era. Provider as central fatherly role is something that is tied to Victorian masculinity — it wasn’t always the case, for example, that men were the exclusive breadwinner of the middle class family. Economic production wasn’t always the most important element of the fatherly identity.

Elizabeth: In an earlier era, we’ll say from the mid-18th century through the mid-19th century, fatherhood at the middle and upper class levels of white society was in “harmony with domesticity,” according to historians Catherine Hall and Lenore Davidoff. Fathers, especially middle class fathers, were responsible for their children’s religious and (for boys) worldly education; they managed the household and its economic output, aided and supported by wives. Davidoff and Hall’s standard Family Fortunes about late 18th and early 19th-century British family life describes a pre-Victorian model of middle class domesticity in which fathers had “intense involvement” with their children.

Averill: Similarly, Brett Carroll argues that from about 1750 through the Victorian era, the American middle class conceptualizations of familial relations were in flux, being reshaped by the social, political, economic, and religious upheavals of that period. Marriages were supposed to be companionate and romantic, relations between parents and children were supposed to be more egalitarian, less authoritarian (as had been the case in the largely Calvinist northern colonies before Independence), and the ideal of Republican Motherhood was imbuing women with the responsibility for shaping the new generation of American citizens.[2] By the time Victoria came to power, many of these same ideals were evident in the UK. Victoria and Albert’s marriage, in particular, was very much depicted as the ideal – companionate, affectionate, and egalitarian.

Elizabeth: (Side Note: Americans were quite enamored of the English queen – in America you could buy Victoria soaps commemorating her 1838 coronation, some Philadelphians suggested changing the city name to Victoria-delphia, and American newspapers dedicated thousands of words to describe the young queen’s lavish processionals and celebration of Victoria’s crowning. Like cotton, literature, and railroads, British celebrity culture – and norms surrounding fatherhood! – permeated the United States.)

Averill: So while scholar  Claudia Nelson’s noted that in Georgian Britain “Fathers oversaw discipline, led the family in prayer, determined the nature of their children’s educations and marriages and careers” was written in specific reference to British fathers, it was very much a shared ideology with the Americans, both before and after the American Revolution.[3] There weren’t major challenges in print or popular culture to this level of fatherly involvement. Instead, this was the expectation, supported by the religious revival at work around the Atlantic at the time. Generally there weren’t distinct spheres of work and home life, particularly as pre-Industrial Revolution middle class businesses tended to be run out of the home. But the Victorian era was shaped by Industrialization, urbanization, the responding religious revival, and  shifting gender roles. By the start of the Victorian period, we’ll say 1837, when Victoria took the throne, work and home life were separated. At the middle class level, there were shifting attitudes about women and their roles in marriages, family, households and society–and right alongside attitudes about women, were shifting attitudes about men.

Elizabeth: So effectively the Victorian period created conditions in which the concept of fathers as, first and foremost, providers, took shape.

Averill: Exactly. And because a “working class”–different from rural peasants or farmers who occupied the same general societal space 200 years earlier–didn’t really come into existence until the Industrial Revolution, we see that provider identity formulated for those folks at approximately the same time. 

Elizabeth: On the one hand we have this broadly conceived idea of Victorian fatherhood as “provider,” particularly when we are talking about working class and middle class men, Black and white. On the other hand, there were of course nuances that were shaped by class, race, and nationality, and we will touch on those as much as possible.

Averill: In A Man’s Place, John Tosh categorizes the Victorian father into one of three kinds. The first is also the most common representation of white middle class fathers in popular culture: the absent father. This is the guy who is out working long days in an office or overseeing a factory, maybe that room full of fellas in the beginning of The Greatest Showman, dozens of men at big typewriter-looking calculators, wearing weird green see-through visors to keep the glare out of their eyes, punching in numbers for 10 hours a day. Then after work they unwind at a local gentleman’s club, drinking hard liquor and smoking cigars, maybe throw some dice, maybe check out a pugilist match or a chicken fight. He might make it home for supper, but more likely he’ll just take his dinner out with friends. He might return home long after his children have gone to bed and the scullery maid has banked the household fires, steal into his bedroom–he only visits his wife’s room once a month, when he is invited–and then he gets up the next day and does it all over again.

Elizabeth: This absent father is providing for his family, working long hours and bringing in income sufficient to send his son off to boarding school, to maintain the home with a couple of live-in servants, to make sure his wife has what she needs to raise their children. He is, according to Tosh, “aloof, bewildered by children,” and more content to leave all that domestic business to his wife. According to Tosh, this absent father was far rarer than suggested among white middle class men in Britain than earlier scholars of the period suggested.

Averill: Conversely, among white working class men, the ‘absent’ father was absent because he was working for the family – this was the sacrifice and devotion of the working class father. The absent father is a cliche of the working class narrative in Victorian British history, but that he was working for his family is important. That’s what Julia-Marie Strange, in her recent work on working class fatherhood, explores and highlights through examinations of working class autobiographies and other sources.

Elizabeth: Strange also poses the idea that unemployment, which was couched in language of failure by their contemporaries, was, for the fathers themselves, actually fragility. In a really moving chapter that utilizes a poverty survey of York working class families, the interviewers are quite generous in their depiction of the unemployed men included in the study. Unlike a lot of the middle class white Victorian reformers and poor relief officials, the catalogers in this study described the evidence of men who tried really, really hard to provide for their families, and the effects that a stagnated economy, underemployment, and the death of traditional manufacturing in the region had on the family and, more specifically, the fathers themselves: they were gaunt, their feet blistered and swollen from walking upwards of 30 miles a day in search of work they rarely found; they were silent through most of the interview, sitting in the corner of the room, the shame and shattering hopelessness of not being able to provide for their family etched on their faces, stooped shoulders, fidgeting hands. A lot of middle class white reformers would have seen complacent, lazy, undeserving poor in these tableaus, but Strange reads the true empathy of the surveyors in their reports.[4] In introducing the concept of “fragile fathers,” Strange notes that in these instances, men and their wives “sought to validate men’s household and family status” when the shadow of his unemployment hung over the family.[5]

Averill: More common in the white middle class, in Britain but also, as Stephen Frank shows, in the US, were the “distant” and “fond” fathers. The distant and fond fathers emerged from the “cult of domesticity” that characterized familial relations in the Victorian Anglo-American world. The cult of domesticity was made up of the companionate, romantic marriage; the home as sanctuary; the innocence of childhood that needed to be cultivated carefully by both parents, but especially the mother; and yes, father as provider and breadwinner.

“Harold and Father” | Library of Congress

Elizabeth: The cult of domesticity was imagined in ladies’ home manuals, fiction, newspaper ads for a range of household products, stories about the Queen and her family, finishing schools for girls and private schools for boys. The ideal–if less regularly the reality–emphasized separate spheres. Even while evangelicalism made middle class professionals and businessmen worried that their work was putting their mortal souls in danger — because greed is sinful — they saw it as a necessary evil. The solution was to keep that taint out of the home, which was being recast as a tranquil, moral space. The “angel of the home,” or the white middle class wife and mother, was shouldered out of her traditional role in business and finance. Instead she was bestowed the high honor of moral authority. Her power rested in her management of the household. It would be, in this ideal vision of domesticity, her place to see to the rearing, educating, and religious instruction of the children, and daddy would bring home the bacon, but would otherwise spend most of his time out of the house. He’d be at work, at the gentlemen’s club, in places of political discourse and decision-making, or with some mistress upon whom he could inflict his carnal lusts, which were otherwise too much for his delicate angelic wife.

Averill: Though more removed from reality than popular representations of the period would have us believe, this was the idealized vision of domesticity and fatherhood. The ideal was not without real consequences, however. The imagined “natural” lusts of men and sexual frailty of women were maneuvered in defense of laws like the Contagious Diseases Acts and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. In the former, the British government sought to regulate women who sold sex with invasive and forced medical examinations and internment in venereal disease “lock” hospitals. In the latter, many of the same men who insisted that prostitution was a “necessary evil” in the 1860s supported the changes in the Criminal Law Amendment Act that were supposed to protect women and girls from being trapped into prostitution. In reality it just allowed for crack-downs on brothels, which forced women from the relative safety of indoor sex work to the more dangerous streets of places like London.

Elizabeth: Religiosity required that middle class white men do their darndest to keep these carnal lusts in check, of course. But, as one young defender of the Contagious Diseases Acts said, “kings, philosophers, and priests, the learned and noble, the wise no less than the ignorant, have tasted freely of Circe’s cup in every age and under every clime. And having thus always existed, have we not good reason to fear that [prostitution] will always continue? Some of our opponents believe that prostitution can be done away with altogether. But the day when not a single prostitute can be found in London even, will not be, I fear, in the time of any of us. Hence, when we say that prostitution is a necessary evil,  we imply  merely that it will  always exist so long as the animal part of his nature preponderates in man.” In other words, boys will be boys.

Averill: Gross. But sure, the men who passed these laws were mostly family men themselves, adhering to the Victorian domestic ideals to some degree or another. Some may have been absent fathers, others distant or fond.

Elizabeth: The distant father was concerned about and invested in his family, but felt obligated by his duty to the moral welfare and stability of the family to be firm, even harsh, with his children, and not to show too much affection. The fond father, according to Tosh, was a playmate to his children, affectionate and fun. This is the father that Ave described, somewhat satirically, in her episode “Get Lit.” In both cases, however, the primary function of the father wasn’t really parenting in a broader sense – the distant father left the parenting to mother, interceding to protect the children’s mortal souls when he felt it necessary, but generally buying in to the idea that middle class women were morally superior and better equipped to raise the children; the fun dad just riled the kids up before bed, and then it fell to mom to coax them into sleep in the stuffy attic bedroom.

Averill: So in the white middle class, the absent father was a common trope but an uncommon reality; in the working class family, the absent father could be a good thing, and from what Strange suggests, absent fathers were likely also either distant – unsure how to connect emotionally with children, but concerned about their welfare and success – or fond, playful, and affectionate. All of these historians show that individual fathers’ parenting is hard to categorize, though these broad strokes tell us about the broader social and cultural conditions that shaped ideas about and practices of fatherhood.

Elizabeth: Immigrants arriving in the US and Britain who tried to assimilate also emulated the Victorian fatherly ideal, sometimes to the point of exaggeration, but many also rejected Victorian family hierarchies in favor of maintaining their own traditions, or blended them. Still, for communities in which remittances were expected, the ‘distant’ father who was also provider was common. Chinese immigration to the US in the 19th century, before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, were overwhelmingly male. In 1852, for example, according to one source, of the 8,129 Chinese who arrived in California via ship, only eight were women. Men sought economic opportunities in America, which they found in agricultural, mining, railroad construction, and other low-skilled jobs. Some were fathers when they arrived in America, and sent money home to support their families. Some earned money in the US first, returned home, and married – and then came back to the US, leaving the new (usually pregnant) wife behind. While 19th century travel required long sea journeys, at least 5 months from California to Hong Kong, work in the US was often seasonal, and the wages earned, while meager, could buy these men passage home with enough leftover to support a family. Laborers made between $4-15 weekly at midcentury, the cost of a ticket in the steerage cabin of a steamship from California to China was on average $30, which included food, though not always a dedicated place to sleep. Chinese laborers who made the lower wage might have to wait several years before setting aside enough money to travel home, start a family, and then return to the US. Others turned their wages into profitable businesses, which allowed them to fund the passage of others from their towns and villages in China to the US, and support an extended family through remittances.

Averill: Among black fathers in the US and the UK, the concept of provider was still important in the 19th century. As discussed by CaVar Reid, Laura Dawkins, Brenda Stevenson, Mark Okuhata, and others, enslaved black men were denied the freedom to perform anything resembling a ‘normal’ fatherly function. Not only were they prevented from providing for their children, but there was little they could do to protect their children — from violence, sexual abuse, removal from the family, from hunger or disease, from back-breaking labor. Enslavement was a system that stripped black men of a lot of what they considered manhood, including fatherhood. That was true for enslaved men who were recently deposited on the shores of the United States, and those who were born into slavery here. No enslaved man’s cultural background permitted for this level of schism from his family – not the cultures that came with enslaved people from the West coast of Africa, nor the Christian and syncretic versions of Christianity that many adopted after generations.

Elizabeth: In slave states before emancipation, enslaved African Americans were property. They were not allowed to own property, they had no parental rights over their offspring. As one Kentucky court finding summarized it in 1811, “the father of a slave is unknown to our law.” Families were torn apart by enslavement. Charles Ball, an enslaved man who published his memoir in 1837, wrote about the effect enslavement had on his own father. His mother was dragged away, sold to some other plantation, and Ball watched as she screamed, “Oh master, do not take me from my child!” and the man who had purchased her beat her over the head and shoulders, tore little Ball from her arms, and pulled her away. Ball said he never heard her voice again, though he hoped for it everyday. His father was shattered by this destruction of their family. He “had formerly been of a gay social temper, and when he came to see us on a Saturday night, he always brought us some little present, such as the means of a poor slave would allow–apples, melons, sweet potatoes, or, if he could procure nothing else, a little parched corn, which tasted better in our cabin, because he had brought it. … After this time I never heard him laugh heartily, or sing a song. He became gloomy and morose in his temper, to all but me; and spent nearly all his leisure time with my grandfather, who claimed kindred with some royal family in Africa, and had been a great warrior in his native country.”

Averill: When Ball’s father’s enslaver decided that he was too much of a flight risk, he sold him. “The price was agreed on, but, as my father was a very strong, active, and resolute man, it was deemed unsafe for the Georgian to attempt to seize him, even with the aid of others, in the day-time, when he was at work, as it was known he carried upon his person a large knife. It was therefore determined to secure him by stratagem.” Ball’s grandfather learned of the plot that the enslavers had hatched to sell off Ball’s father, and helped him run away. Though he’d been affectionate and good toward his son, Ball’s father had little other choice but to leave him behind. Ball writes of his father with a sad sort of hero worship, describing the great strength of his father, but also clearly felt the sundering of losing both parents. He was left with only one kin attachment thereafter, his grandfather, who “manifested towards me all the fondness which a person so far advanced in life could be expected to feel for a child.”

Elizabeth: Ball’s grandfather told him that everyone who practiced his faith relied on a single small book, written in plain language, and that had all the rules of faith and practice. The book “required neither fastings, penances, nor pilgrimages; but tenderness to wives and children, was one of its most positive injunctions.”

“A Slave Father Sold Away from his Family” | The Childs Anti-Slavery Book 1860 / Library of Congress

Averill: Similarly, John Brown, a formerly enslaved man who was, at the time of writing his memoir in 1854, living in England, emphasized the importance of a freedman’s provision for his family. “John Glasgow (a man John Brown knew) had saved money, but not sufficient to support a wife in idle. … Thus the young couple saw that they must depend upon their own exertions, and they set to work accordingly. Through the father’s interest, they got into a small farm in the neighbourhood, and John Glasgow invested his savings in the purchase of three horses, a plough, and a cart. As his wife had been accustomed to farming operations, she agreed to attend to the concerns of the farm; whilst John–who, though well acquainted with the economy of a vessel, from her kelson to her signal halyards, knew nothing at all about farming–determined to continue his calling, and therefore engaged himself as an able-bodied seaman, on board one of the many vessels trading between Liverpool and the West Indies. At the end of his second voyage he found himself the father of a fine brown baby, over which he shed many tears when the time came for him to leave port again. But John and his wife prospered, he in his vocation, she at her farm; and as he had managed to add trade to navigation, there seemed to be a prospect of his amassing wealth in the course of a few years. Indeed, had he only known how to read and write, he might have been mate long ago.”

Glasgow weeps at the sight of his baby, a touching tableau of a fond father, but also knows the most important thing he can do for that baby is return to the sea to provide for his family.

Elizabeth: The expectation that father equals provider is what created the conditions for men who felt they’d failed their families, and families who felt their father had failed them. Even where middle class and working class or black and white ideas about gender and family differed, fathers in all of these communities were judged–internally and externally–on their providing for their offspring. Frustratingly for many men, institutional and structural forces prevented them from fulfilling the fatherly role. In 19th century Virginia, for example, laws prohibiting the marriage of black and white people meant that resulting children were often left in a kind of limbo, not quite belonging in either community. Historian Brenda Stevenson tells of children with white mothers and black fathers. If they were born free, as was usually case with children born of white, even poor or indentured, mothers, the children might be “apprenticed” in an indentured servant position until they turned 18. At that point they’d be turned out, usually with very little money or clout in the world. According to Stevenson, “Jane Robinson, a “mulatto” servant had been indentured since her birth. She met and married George Watson, a local free black man, and they had five children before she could gain her freedom. Virginia law demanded that their children serve her ‘master’ until they reached adulthood.”[6] When it came to having control over their children, indentured servitude for people of color could be just as harsh as slavery. But some free black men and women were able to circumvent these laws. Stevenson shares the story of John Watson, who married an enslaved woman named Cate, and he was able to borrow $200 to purchase her freedom before they had any children — essential, because if she bore him any while she was enslaved, their children would inherit her enslavement.[7]

Solomon Northrups Arrival Home and First Meeting with His Wife and Children 1853

Averill: Free men of color in the antebellum South faced often insurmountable odds when it came to trying to keep a family together, especially if any members of the family were enslaved.  According to Stevenson, Caroline Hunter’s father left her, her mother, and three siblings, because they were all enslaved, and he was free. Their enslaver treated her father like a slave – beating him, threatening his wife and children – and so he left.[8] In Stevenson’s study of northern Virginia, she found that most free people of color moved north, many to Philadelphia, particularly after the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion, which ushered in more restrictive laws governing free people of color. In Philadelphia there was a strong middle class black community that had schools, businesses, and offered assistance to free black people interested in conforming to the middle class black identity.[9] 

Elizabeth: Even with a pre-existing community, however, life for those fleeing the increasingly risky life of northern Virginia in exchange for the more welcoming Philadelphia struggled. Stevenson describes at length Philip Nelson, who embraced the “traditional” values of his day — he saw his role in his family as breadwinner and protector.[10] When he moved them to Philadelphia, he found life more expensive and good-paying work hard to find. His embrasure of this traditional role of provider was propped up by his patriarchal approach to his family. He made all the decisions – when to move, where to move, what to keep or sell – which Stevenson suggests was actually not the norm for free black families in this period. Instead, she notes, “the nature of the economic and social oppression southern free people of color faced, their ties to a slave past, and their distinct cultural heritage collectively meant that many did not live in patriarchally structured households. It also meant that a growing number did not have nuclear families. Free black domestic relationships were more fluid and malleable–ones whose composition, structure, and leadership could change both within and between generations. Despite this diversity, however, patriarchal authority remained an underlying theme in the social world of free blacks, even if more ideal than real.”[11] 

Averill: As CaVar Reid shows in his recent dissertation on black families in post-emancipation Georgia, father as provider continued after the American Civil War. In one anecdote, Reid tells of a freedman named Charles Billings, who worked with the Freedman’s Bureau to try and get custody of his daughter in May 1868. Her mother was dead, and Billings insisted on pursuing his parental rights. The caseworker, Fred Mosebach, commented in his report on Billings’ evident emotional and financial ability to provide a home for his daughter. Though Billings would first have to undergo another investigation by the Freedman’s Bureau, he would ultimately be reunited with his little girl.[12] Reid argues that black men’s commitment to family was a defining characteristic of their post-emancipation struggles. Like Billings, who fought to gain custody of his child after both were made legally free by the emancipation proclamation, establishing a semblance of a more traditional manhood–particularly as manhood was connected to fatherhood–was essential to the reconstruction of black masculinity after emancipation.

Elizabeth: For the Victorian father to be the “provider,” he had to have economic power. In Industrial economies, one’s value is tied to productivity. So an unemployed man, especially one with a family, is shameful. But it’s not always possible to have economic power – it isn’t always possible today, and it certainly wasn’t possible for many in 19th century Britain and the US. As we’ve already discussed, enslaved black men in the United States had no legal right to earn wages or own property or produce something that could provide economically for their family. Even for a free man of color, if his family was enslaved, it took immense economic power to provide the one thing his wife and children really needed: freedom.

Averill: For white men, particularly those in the working class, economic stagnation, seasonal labor, and any other forms of unemployment could be, usually were, disastrous. Many men, yes, drank their wages and left their families cold and hungry. But many found themselves without work because of forces completely out of their control. If the case study of York, England that Strange examines is much of an indicator, these societal ebbs and flows were far more regularly the cause of unemployment than fathers’ drinking away all the wages. It’s more likely that most men kept back some of their wages for the pub, but generally contributed most of them to the household income. That didn’t mean that life wasn’t always hard for those folks anyway – even with two parents doing whatever they could to scrape by, life for the working class was often miserable and crushing.

Elizabeth: In the defining text for 19th century working class family life, Ellen Ross introduces the idea that the working class was constantly at “Love and toil” for their families. This has become the standard way to think about working class mothers, on whom Ross focuses her study, but not fathers. Strange shows, through studies of working class autobiography and memoir, that it is the case for both. “Love and toil” was central to 19th-century working class parents. Mother sacrificed for and nurtured her children – even those with distant mothers remembered wanting her when they were sick or hurt. That sacrifice, when she worked extra shifts to make more money, went meals without eating, poured every bit of herself into her family, was her toil, and her toil was her show of love. For working class fathers, they worked, they arranged for their childrens’ futures, they walked 30 miles a day to try to find paid labor. Love and toil isn’t talking about love, comma toil. Rather its a single concept, in which working class parenthood was predicated on nurturing through provision, caring through sacrifice, loving through toil.

Averill: Fathers who fail were, in the writings of their children, in the judgments passed by middle class reformers and other outsiders, almost always fathers who failed to provide.

Elizabeth: But the challenges to a Victorian man’s ability to provide for his family wasn’t unique to white working class men in the UK or free and enslaved black men in the US. Middle class men were just as susceptible to being or being made unable to work. Ability, or disability, to work is also important. Injury, mental illness, and permanent disability may have been mitigated by socio-economic status, but no Victorian man was truly immune to the effects of bodies failing. A failing body could mean life for death or a working class white or black man’s family; it could have dire consequences for a middle class man, up to and including death. When you start to get into periods of social welfare programming, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from both private and public entities, you’ll see people with disabilities being maligned for having children, as though they don’t deserve them.  

Averill: To tie this all back to Sarah’s book, ‘providing’ for families, as the primary fatherly function, was disrupted by the American Civil War. Too many men were killed, too many broken physically and mentally, to return to the Victorian ideal of fatherhood. The post-war period in the US was still a capitalist system that measured the worth of its men in productivity. There is some really fascinating work on disability, capitalism, masculinity, work, and welfare already underway out there; I know that Margery Levine-Clark is exploring these ideas in her current project on the British welfare system and masculinity in the early 20th century. These problems are particularly fraught when we throw fatherhood into the mix. Because in the Victorian mindset about fathers as sole or primary breadwinners, which is one that goes largely unchallenged until second-wave feminism at the end of the 20th century in the US and UK, providing for the family is predicated on the ability to work. So we see these major upheavals around times of war, particularly the American Civil War, the Great War, and the Civil War, where masculinity is in turmoil, governments have to think about how to deal with the loss of the father as provider for thousands, hundreds of thousands of families, and individual men – wounded, shattered, permanently or temporarily disabled – have to figure out how they can still be the father, the man, that they always thought they would be. For those who were fathers before they went to war, they have to figure out what kind of father they can be in the aftermath.

Gerry Mulligan and father | Library of Congress

Elizabeth: An interesting study might be quantifying how many children of soldiers felt that their fathers shifted from fond fathers to distant or absent. But that’s a bit more ambitious a project than we have time for today!

Averill: Some working class, middle class, white, Black, Native American, and immigrant fathers were tyrants, violent and controlling, using physical, emotional, and/or spiritual force to keep his wife and children cowering and bowing to his paterfamilias authority.

Most, though, were not.

Elizabeth: Most toiled to provide for their families. In middle class families, fathers bore the primary burden of economic production, because a husband’s success was supposed to provide enough for his wife to manage the household and raise the children. In working class families, while women both worked for wages (almost always paid far less than their male counterparts) and did the majority of everyday domestic work like cooking and child rearing, fathers were expected to bring in the bulk of the income. Some were absent, physically and/or emotionally, out of necessity, walking dozens of miles in search of work, or not quite knowing what to do with children; many were distant, not socialized to be affectionate, but deeply invested in the well-being and future of their children; many were fond, playing ball with their broods, teaching them how to fish, reading to them or telling them stories while snuggling in “his chair.” No two fathers were exactly the same, for sure, but most did their very best to provide for their families.

Averill: The end.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Sarah Handley-Cousins, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019)

Brett E. Carroll, “I Must Have My House In Order”: The Victorian Fatherhood Of John Shoebridge Williams,” Journal of Family History, Vol. 24 No. 3, (July 1999) 275-304

Laura Dawkins, “Breached Birthrights: African-american Narratives Of The Family, 1899-1940,” PhD Dissertation (Indiana University, 1999).

Stephen M. Frank, Life with Father : Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)

Claudia Nelson, Invisible Men : Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 1850-1910, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).

Mark Asami Okuhata, “Unchained Manhood: The Performance of Black Manhood During the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction Eras,” PhD Dissertation, (University of California, Los Angeles, 2014).

CaVar Reid, “Railroading Black Families: African American Men, Family, and Labor in Post-Emancipation Georgia,” PhD Dissertation, (University of Michigan, 2016).

John Patrick Riley, “This Is The Last Time I Shall Ever Leave My Family”: Fatherhood In Civil War Era America,” PhD Dissertation, (Binghamton University, 2017)

Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White : Family and Community in the Slave South, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Julie-Marie Strange, Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914, (University of Manchester. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

Warren Courtney Wood, “City Fathers: Social Change, Economic Transformation, and the Lives of Fathers in San Francisco, 1849-1920,” PhD Dissertation (University of California Santa Barbara, 2011)

Digitized Memoirs

William Apess, A son of the forest: the experience of William Apes, a native of the forest : comprising a notice of the Pequod tribe of Indians, (New York: The Author, 1829; digitized by Project Gutenberg).

Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War, (New York: John S. Taylor, 1837; digitized by Davis Library, UNC-CH).

John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England, (London, 1855; digitized by Davis Library, UNC-CH).

George Copway, The life, history, and travels, of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway), a young Indian chief of the Ojebwa nation, a convert to the Christian faith, and a missionary to his people for twelve years, (Albany: Weed and Parsons, 1847).

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, (Auburn: Derby And Miller, 1853; digitized by Project Gutenberg).

Samuel Ringgold Ward,  Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: His Anti-slavery Labours in the United States, Canada, & England, (London: John Snow, 1855; digitized by Davis Library, UNC-CH).

Back Hawk, Autobiography Of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Or Black Hawk, (Rock Island, Illinois: JB Patterson, 1882). 

[1] Riley, 14.

[2] Brett Carroll, “‘I Must Have My House In Order’: The Victorian Fatherhood Of John Shoebridge Williams,” Journal of Family History, Vol. 24 No. 3, (July 1999) 275-304

[3] Claudia Nelson, Invisible Men, 3.

[4] Julie-Marie Strange, Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 41-81.

[5] Strange, Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 19.

[6] Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) 259.

[7] Stevenson, Life in Black and White, 261.

[8] Stevenson, Life in Black and White, 268.

[9] Stevenson, Life in Black and White, 287.

[10] Stevenson, Life in Black and White, 288.

[11] Stevenson, Life in Black and White, 288-89.

[12] CaVar Reid, “Railroading Black Families: African American Men, Family, and Labor in Post-Emancipation Georgia,” PhD Dissertation, (University of Michigan, 2016) 31-32.


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