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Childhood in Colonial New England: Resources and Links

Theme: Social Change and Social Reform
Topic: Childhood in Colonial New England
Date: July 10, 2006

Annotated Bibliography: Secondary Sources | Websites and Web Resources

Compiled and annotated by the SALEM in History staff.

Annotated Bibliography

Secondary Sources

Axtell, James. The School Upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

This study of colonial education examines how school, church, family and the greater community socialized children into society.

Avery, Gillian. Behold the Child: American Children and their Books, 1621-1922. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

The author argues that from the colonial period through the early 20th century, the role of children’s literature was not to entertain, but to teach cultural values and mold young minds. “Topics include the early days of colonial publishing, the defenders and detractors of Mother Goose, the influence of Sunday schools and tract societies, the "chaste eroticism" of romantic fiction for young readers, and changing notions of American heroes and heroines.”

Beales, Ross W., Jr., "In Search of the Historical Child: Miniature Adulthood and Youth in Colonial New England," American Quarterly, 27 (1975): 379-98.

Refutes the argument of other historians that children in colonial New England were treated as miniature adults, arguing instead that the colonists recognized distinct life stages of childhood and youth. His sources include colonial writers and ministers and the evidence of colonial laws, which specified milder punishments for the young.

Calvert, Karen. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1800. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

This study uses material culture (portraits, furniture, clothing) to examine how children were treated in early America.

Demos, John P. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

This very readable book is an examination of early American family life, using Plymouth Colony as a case study. The author uses physical artifacts, probate records and official colony records to reconstruct family relationships and lifecycles in colonial New England.

Fass, Paula S. and Mary Ann Mason, eds. Childhood in America. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

This is a compilation of 180 documents including academic and popular primary and secondary sources (and also some pieces of fiction) about childhood in America throughout its history. Edited by a historian and a social worker.

Gildrie, Richard P. Salem, Massachusetts, 1626-1683: A Covenanted Community. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.

A good scholarly overview of Salem in the seventeenth century.

Greven, Philip. The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America. Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 1977.

“Bringing together an extraordinary richness of evidence—from letters, diaries, and other intimate family records of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Philip Greven explores the strikingly distinctive ways in which Protestant children were reared in America. In tracing the hidden continuities of religious experience, of attitudes toward God, children, the self, sexuality, pleasure, virtue, and achievement, Greven identifies three distinct Protestant temperaments prevailing among Americans at the time: the Evangelical, the Moderate, and the General.” – from University Press of Chicago Hawke, David Freeman. Everyday Life in Early America. New York: Perennial, 1988. A rich survey of how early Americans worked, played and lived.

Herndon, Ruth Wallis. Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

This is a fascinating history profiling 40 poor individuals in colonial Rhode Island who were “warned out” (required to leave) the towns in which they were living because they were not legal “inhabitants” and the towns refused to support them. The first chapter profiles mothers and children who were “warned out.”

Illick, Joseph E. American Childhoods. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

This is a synthetic work, making the case for childhood(s) in the American past.  He does a good job of summarizing the present state of the literature but has a much broader scope than early New England.

Jabour, Anya. Major Problems in the History of American Families and Children. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

An edited collection of primary and secondary sources relating to the history of childhood.

Levy, Barry. “Girls and Boys: Poor Children and the Labor Market in Colonial Massachusetts.”Pennsylvania History 1997 64(Special Issue): 287-307.

This article explores the market in child labor, particularly poor orphan child labor, in New England during the colonial period. The author presents evidence from several New England towns, including Salem, that child labor was one of the foundations of economic success for many families.

Main, Gloria L. Peoples of a Spacious Land: Families and Cultures in Colonial New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

In this book, the author compares family life of white European settlers and Native Americans in southern New England in the colonial period. Chapters include those on fertility, child rearing and childhood.

Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Melish studies the presence of slavery in New England, a part of New England history many would rather forget.  Abolitionism is certainly a more noble story but the truth is many New Englander were a part of slavery either through ownership or through the provisioning trade to the slave plantations in West Indies.  Her study is a little late for our purposes but it is one of the few books on African Americans in early New England and does have some mention of family life.

Mintz, Steven. Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

This history uses limited source material to examine the experiences of children in America from the colonial period through the 20th century.

Moran, Gerald F. and Maris A. Vinovskis. Religion, Family and the Life Course: Explorations in the Social History of Early America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992.

Nylander, Jane C. Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860. Reissue Edition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

A series of excellent essays by Nylander, a museum curator and director, describing the customs, traditions, friends, families, and workloads of the "typical" New England household. Chapters on housework, seasons, clothing, food, and holidays document women's work at home.162 period illustrations enliven this useful and intimate study of New England domestic life.

Perley, Sidney. The History of Salem, Massachusetts. Salem, 1924-28.

This three volume set has very detailed information on early Salem and its residents.

Pollock, Linda. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Pollock uses hundreds of diaries from 1500 to 1900 to construct a history of childhood, arguing that much about childrearing remained the same for 400 years.

Sweet, John Wood. Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Sweet tries to write the history of New England from a multicultural perspective.  He focuses more on Rhode Island and takes the story beyond the colonial period, but it is the only work out there that tries to “decenter” the narrative of colonial New England away from the Puritans.  It is very readable and full of good stories.

Websites and Web Resources

"A Day in the Life"
Colonial Williamsburg

This portion of the Colonial Williamsburg website teaches users about the everyday life of women and men in the colonial south. It also includes a wonderful interactive activity where users select items of clothing and dress a character in the clothing appropriate to his/her class, in the process learning about the different types of clothing and their purposes. A version of this activity for younger children is available here:

The “Women’s Clothing” page of the website also includes information colonial-era clothing:

17th Century Colonial New England

This website has a variety of resources on colonial New England, including links to teaching resources, primary sources, bibliographies and other websites.

A Colonial Family and Community: Henry Ford Museum

This is an interactive website that allows students to be “history detectives” while learning about a family in colonial Connecticut. Students use primary sources (maps, journal excerpts, videos of interpreters) to learn about colonial life.

Colonial House: PBS

The “Interactive History” portion of the website for the PBS reality series set in New England in 1628 includes activities on geography and clothing in the colonies.


This is an online journal of colonial history cosponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and Florida State University. Covering topics related to the history and culture of early America (through 1900), this online journal and meeting place for ideas and scholarship was created to bridge the gap between what academic historians write and what the public wants to read. Includes feature articles, reviews, curriculum ideas, explorations of objects and artifacts, and a discussion board serving a wide range of interests and needs among Early Americanists in K-12 schools, museums, archives and universities.

Focus is on the “common-place” or “ordinary” in early America, so not much about great men and Presidents, but rather about ordinary men and women and their world. Great for teachers: In each edition, the “Common School” section of site offers an example and detailed discussion of a classroom teaching experience using primary source material. 

Lesson Plan: Child Life in the Early New England Colonies

Yale University and New Haven (CT) public schools have sponsored a Teachers Institute since 1978. The website of the project ( has dozens of lesson plans for history and social studies teachers. Lesson plans also include a reading list for teachers and students.

History Learning Lab: Old Sturbridge Village

Old Sturbridge Village is a history museum and learning resource that invites all visitors to find meaning, pleasure, relevance, and inspiration in the exploration of New England's past. The centerpiece of the museum is a re-created rural New England town of the 1830s on more than 200 acres of historical landscape. The History Learning Lab on the museum website includes digitized primary sources, historical essays and lesson plans relating to colonial New England. Of particular interest may be photographs of colonial children’s clothing and toys and lesson plans.

Pilgrim Hall Museum

Pilgrim Hall Museum is a gallery museum in the center of historic Plymouth. Through its exhibition of Pilgrim possessions and Native American artifacts, Pilgrim Hall tells the stories of America’s founding and traditions in stirring detail. Included on the website is “The Pilgrim Story,” which combines artifacts with historical information to illuminate the Pilgrim and Native American story. Primary sources include biographies and estate inventories of Pilgrims, historical writings about the Pilgrims and online lesson plans.

Plimoth Plantation

Through its primary living history exhibits, the 1627 Pilgrim Village and Hobbamock's (Wampanoag) Homesite, Plimoth Plantation seeks to re-create the people, time and place of 17th-century Plymouth. Specially trained staff members, painstaking research, period costumes and dialect, authentically reproduced buildings and artifacts are some of the vital components of this unique experience. The Plimoth Plantation website includes historical background essays and online activities for students relating to Plimoth Colony.

Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, 1636-1686.

This is a wonderful source and has been used by many historians to get at the experience of common folk in New England.  It is not unlike the small claims court of today (even the sensationalism of the T.V. versions).  Browse away, you will get hooked.

Strawbery Banke Museum (Portsmouth, New Hampshire)

Step over the threshold of history to life in New Hampshire's oldest seacoast neighborhood. Experience life from the late 1600s to the 1950s in this neighborhood known as Puddle Dock. The site, known today as Strawbery Banke Museum, offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of everyday people who called this area home for nearly four centuries. Includes school programs.

Wenham Museum

The Wenham Museum offers several school programs on colonial life for grades Pre-K to 5.

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