Childhood on the Farm
Work, Play, and Coming of Age in the Midwest
As the United States transformed itself from an agricultural to an industrial nation, thousands of young people left farm homes for life in the big city. But even by 1920 the nations heartland remained predominantly rural and most children in the region were still raised on farms. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg retells their stories, offering glimpses—both nostalgic and realistic—of a bygone era.
As Riney-Kehrberg shows, the experiences of most farm children continued to reflect the traditions of family life and labor, albeit in an age when middle-class urban Americans were beginning to redefine childhood as a time reserved for education and play. She draws upon a wealth of primary sources—not only memoirs and diaries but also census data—to create a vivid portrait of midwestern farm childhood from the early post–Civil War period through the Progressive Era growing pains of industrialization. Those personal accounts resurrect the essential experience of childrens work, play, education, family relations, and coming of age from their own perspectives.
“A valuable foundation for assessing historically the distinctions Americans make between child and adult, farm and city, work and recreation.”
—American Journal of Play
“A lively and richly illustrated study of rural childhood in the Midwest between 1870 and 1920. . . . Riney-Kehrberg uses the voices of children to tell a story of rural childhood as neither a wholesome experience of close families and healthful environments nor a life of toilsome labor.”
—Western Historical QuarterlySee all reviews...
“A sometimes moving, always engaging evocation of a strenuous path that most children once followed to adulthood.”
—Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
“An accessible, engaging work, deserving of a wide readership.”
—Journal of American History
“A valuable contribution to the history of the Midwest generally, and the history of childhood in the United States specifically. . . . As far as providing a glimpse into the work lives of twentieth-century rural youth, this book is very likely the best that is available.”
—American Historical Review
“Offers a poignant, highly evocative account of farm childhood as viewed largely through the eyes of the children themselves.”
—Journal of Social History
“Through extensive and painstaking research, Riney-Kehrberg has written the story of the children who grew up on midwestern farms between 1870 and 1920. . . . The book is richly illustrated with family photographs and illustrations. . . . This book is a nice compilation of rare and important resources [and is] interesting and well written . . . ”
“Its notes and bibliographies should be a valuable resource for any future consideration of childhood in North America. . . . A major pleasure this book provides are the many quotations from writings of young people.”
—Great Plains Quarterly
“An important contribution to the growing field of children in history, helping to fill the void of rural children in history created by historians who have focused on the urban working child experience.”
—Journal of Illinois History
“Teems with a variety of carefully selected illustrations, nearly fifty in all, showing farm children at work or play. The illustrations [are] often charming or amusing. . . . The book’s detail and illustrations evoke vivid images of an appealing, if sometimes appalling, now-lost world.”
“The volume’s strengths come from careful selection and use of personal accounts; illustrations that tell their own stories; and engaging narrative. [This book] challenges us to think about what it meant to grow up rural while the nation as a whole was becoming something quite different.”
“Takes readers on a journey into the day-to-day lives of rural Midwestern children from 1870 to 1920. Far from a dry historical account, the book contains engaging narratives written by the children themselves. These personal stories, plus period photographs, letters and memoirs, vividly show how children experienced work, schooling, play, adolescence, and family relationships during an era when the nation was moving from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.”
—Des Moines Sunday Register
“Anyone who was ever touched by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books must read Childhood on the Farm. . . . A remarkably poignant and evocative account that resurrects a vanished world.”
—Steven Mintz, author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood
“Finally, country children are heard as well as seen. . . . A thoroughly researched, crisply written, and richly illustrated study of an important but neglected subject that adds a valuable new dimension to the field of rural history.”
—Hal S. Barron, author of Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the Rural North, 1870–1930See fewer reviews...
Steering a middle path between the myth of wholesome farm life and the reality of work that was often extremely dangerous, Riney-Kehrberg shows both the best and the worst that a rural upbringing had to offer midwestern youth a time before mechanization forever changed the rural scene and radio broke the spell of isolation. Down on the farm, truancy was not uncommon and chores were shared across genders. Yet farm children managed to indulge in inventive play—much of it homemade—to supplement store-bought toys and to get through the long spells between circuses.
Filled with insightful personal stories and graced with dozens of highly evocative period photos, Childhood on the Farm is the only general history of midwestern farm children to use narratives written by the children themselves, giving a fresh voice to these forgotten years. Theirs was a way of life that was disappearing even as they lived it, and this book offers new insight into why, even if many rural youngsters became urban and suburban adults, they always maintained some affection for the farm.