Trail End

 Rosa-Maye & Manville Kendrick (AHC Kendrick Collection, TESHS)

 Eads family (SCHS Collection, TESHS)

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site

March 2008 - December 2008

Working Class Children

HISTORICALLY, UPPER CLASS children have been treated better than those of the lower classes, but that is most likely due to a lack of wherewithal (money) rather than a lack of tender parental feelings. In his work Mothers and Fathers in America, author Steven Mintz noted the link between economic security and working class family life:

It is important not to romanticize working-class family life. Although ties to the immediate family and wider kin network tended to be strong, family cohesion stemmed in large measure from the marginal economic existence of many working-class families. The frequency of premature death, irregular employment, disabling accidents, and wages at or below the subsistence line ... required individuals to rely on the family and kinship network for assistance and support. The stresses produced by work and financial marginality clearly took a toll on ... working-class family life.


Until the mid-1800s, most American families were rural in nature. Most men worked their own farms or small businesses, with very few considering themselves an "employee" of someone else. The average woman - nearly always a stay-at-home wife - bore eight to ten children, allowing little time for individual attention. The father was considered the primary parent, and child-rearing books were aimed toward men, not women.

With the urbanization of America in the late 1800s came an accompanying increase in the working poor. Urban families seemed to have many more difficulties than rural ones. Men no longer worked for themselves; they became nameless cogs in giant factories. Their wages were seldom high enough to support a family, so everyone chipped in. Wives took in sewing and laundry or did piecework for local factories, while older children deferred marriage, remained at home, and contributed their wages to the family economy.

Family statistics from the early 20th Century paint a disturbing picture of American home life:

  • Between ten and thirty percent of America's children lived in a single-parent household.
  • By the time they reached the age of twenty, between 35 and 40 percent of all American children lost a parent or a sibling.
  • The United States had the highest divorce rate in the western world.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children spent part of their childhood in orphanages, not because their parents were dead, but because their parents could not support them.
  • Prior to 1940, one in ten American children did not live with either parent.

It was not until the 1920s that the majority of American families consisted of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and children who attended school instead of working. Unfortunately, the hardships of the Depression took a toll on these newly-defined nuclear families. Many were forced to open their homes to both relatives and strangers, while others delayed marriage until they could afford it.


In hopes of bettering their situation, many young people went out on their own. While some found success, others succumbed to the loneliness, vice and crime of the streets, eventually ending up in sweatshops, poorhouses, brothels, reform schools or jail. As Arvel Person noted when recalling his own experiences as a “boy hobo,” this could be a soul-crushing experience: 

You leave home with good intentions and tell your folks you're going to come back a millionaire. You return with your head between your arms. You're broke and dirty and they see right away that you didn't make it. … If I hadn't had hope I would have starved to death by the time I was seventeen.

Younger children could get involved in a variety of money-making schemes, including at least one thought up by the school district. In 1916, the “Fly Committee” of the Sheridan Schools launched an “anti-fly campaign” in which school children were paid a bounty of five cents per 100 dead flies brought in; prizes were also awarded to the child who killed the most flies in a month. At least 75,000 flies lost their lives in the first few weeks of the contest. The campaign was so successful, in fact, that the Fly Committee ran out of bounty money and had to end the contest.

If he didn’t want to catch flies, work on the family farm or in the underground mines north of town, a teenage boy looking for extra cash in Sheridan could sell papers, shine shoes or deliver groceries. Many a young man went to work in the sugar beet fields, while others signed on as trade apprentices in order to become plumbers, carpenters, electricians or plasterers. Few waited until they were out of their teens to make such career decisions.

As for young women, their options were a bit more limited – especially in the years prior to World War One when women were not encouraged to enter the business world. When they needed to make their own way, most girls turned to domestic service. In early 20th Century Sheridan, maids came from a variety of religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Most were daughters of miners who came to Sheridan from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Austria and Scandinavia. They went to work at an early age – some as young as fifteen – and quit at an early age as well, usually to marry and set up their own homes.

Despite the backbreaking drudgery involved, housekeeping was not considered a difficult task – at least not by those who didn’t have to do it! As one newspaper noted in 1914, “It is easy to train young girls to be housekeepers. It is the natural work of women, and many of them love it.” Few maids and housekeepers had formal training and depended upon techniques learned from their own mothers and grandmothers.

Girls and young women could also become child care providers. Eula Kendrick, Rosa-Maye Kendrick Harmon and Diana Cumming Kendrick all employed nurses at some point during their children’s upbringing. Upon the advice of a close friend, Eula hired her first nurse after Manville’s birth in 1900:

And now my dear girl, take an old friend’s advice and keep a good stout nurse girl so that you may give your best self to the babies and husband – when one is worked and worried to the verge of nervous prostration, one cannot turn their sweetest side to the loved ones.


Sanctioned as it was by parents across the country, child labor was a huge problem in rural and urban America throughout the first third of the 20th Century. Children as young as five were sent out of the home to labor as maids, miners, farmhands, factory workers and trade apprentices. In 1900, The New York Times reported that over 1.7 million children between the ages of ten and fifteen were classified by the U. S. Census as breadwinners, “those earning money regularly by labor, contributing to the family support, or appreciably assisting in mechanical or agricultural industry.” The situation worsened in 1918 when World War One caused the nation’s most severe labor shortage ever:

The old temptation of manufacturers of a certain class to keep down production costs by the employment of children has been heightened by the extreme labor need, and at the same time the reluctance of parents to keep their children out of school has been overcome in many instances by unprecedented high wages.

In 1922, the National Child Labor Committee reported that nearly 1,500,000 children - again between the ages of ten and fifteen - were employed in farm work, either at home or "working out." While there were child labor laws in effect throughout the land, only eleven states regulated the number of hours a farm child could work. In fact, farm work was specifically exempted in fourteen states while another twenty-three states didn't mention agricultural labor at all. Said one investigator, "Because of the old conception that country life is idyllic it is difficult to make the average citizen appreciate the fact that rural child labor is fully as flagrant an evil as was ever factory child labor."

In response, social reformers such as the National Child Welfare League pressed for compulsory school attendance laws, additional child labor restrictions, and widow’s/mother’s pensions designed to permit poor children to remain with their mothers – if they had them.

Youngsters to be Proud Of

The Changing Nature of Childhood

 State Historic Site