How Not to Parent Very Large Families: An Old Bachelor’s View

Young characters in eighteenth-century children’s books have a reputation for being preternaturally well-behaved goody-goodies.  That stereotype probably contains some truth, but we don’t have to dig very hard to find contemporary writers besides Jane Austen who showed that not all  adults were natural managers of children and households. Descriptions of parents in over their heads turn up in magazine essays and I ran across one in the July 1799 European Magazine.  “The Wanderer” number 15 was supposedly contributed by a cranky bachelor, but is actually the work of Joseph Mosher (1748-1819), one of the magazine’s regular writers.  It’s a fascinating mash-up of half-examined gender expectations, details about the material culture of childhood, and stereotypes about “savages” that were thought comical then.

Before telling about his dinner at the home of his boyhood friend Frank Homely, “Solus” the bachelor gives the backstory.  Years before he and Frank both fancied Rachel Barnaby, a farmer’s daughter, but Frank won her heart in just two months. Luckily Solus never revealed his passion and left England almost immediately after his disappointment for fourteen years.  Shortly after his return, Frank sent him an invitation to visit his lovely wife and their little family of seven sons and seven daughters.  Solus anticipates the pleasure of being entertained by an affectionate, rational couple who preside over an elegant establishment where the children are seen and heard when only when admitted to the company.

I repaired to Mr. Homely’s house, and was shewn into his study, which, instead of being furnished with books and maps, was strewed round with go-carts, dolls, whistles, penny trumpets, and “cheap publications.”  I  thought this rather strange furniture for a library….Scarce had I made this reflection, when my ears were alarmed with a tremendous sound, which, ascending the stair-case, and bursting open the study door, exhibited four of my friend’s sons and six of his daughters, shouting like wild Americans, with their arms strongly fastened with cords, and urged forward by another of the hopeful race, who brandished a whip over his head;…this gentle pastime, it seems, they called “playing at horses.”  The infant banditti had paced round the room, and thrown down three chairs in their progress, when the second horse in the team fell down, and was dragged by his playful associates along the floor, in spite of his angry cries and remonstrances. 

The floor sounds as if it were ankle-deep in inexpensive toys, the baby walkers (i.e. go-carts), and chapbooks (i.e. “cheap publications”), giving the impression that children took over their father’s library long before. If any further proof were necessary, eleven of the children burst in, as noisy as “savages” ( as Native Americans were then erroneously considered), pretending to be a team of horses drawing a carriage.  It sounds as if the coachman was applying his whip to his siblings’ backs to make them go faster around the room.  Their lack of respect for property provokes Solus to compare them as well to a lawless band of robbers (i.e. “infant banditti).  Of course, their play ends in tears and roars.

It required all the authority of their father to quell this hideous din, who shortly made his appearance; and notwithstanding the increased wrinkles on his brow, welcomed me with a cordial shake of the hand, and led me upstairs to the drawing room, to introduce me his wife. The drawing room had discarded all superfluous ornaments, and boasted a negligence and plainness that Diogenes might not have been ashamed of. In one corner two mischievous urchins had torn open a new pack of cards, and were building houses with them. In another stood a cradle and cawdle cup; while rush-bottomed chairs, backboards, steel collars and stocks, usurped the place of candlelabrums, silk hangings, and mirrors. 

A drawing room is supposed to be a handsome space where adults socialize, but at the Homelys it has been childproofed (i.e. emptied of furniture and objects needing protection from clumsy, careless, high-spirited members of the family) and is instead full of more the children’s things that belong more properly in the nursery.  Equipment for improving posture like backboards, steel collars and stocks indicates parental aspirations that their children to carry themselves with fashionable grace.  Could their resting place on the floor betray the little victims as having taken the first opportunity to throw off the wretchedly uncomfortable things.?On my entrance, Mrs. Homely shook two children from her lap, and one from her shoulder, and arose to welcome me; exhibiting to my astonished view the once slender Rachel converted into a broad clumsy dame, with all the marks of premature old age.  After the usual ceremonies I took my seat, and now my torments commenced.  One child fastened my button with packthread to the back of the chair; another pierce the calf of my leg with a black pin; while a third insisted upon mounting behind me, and swinging by my pig tail.  I bore these tortures with the firmness of an American captive, hoping that the call to dinner would put an end to my sufferings.

Solus’ observations here must test many modern readers’ notions. While it is natural to be taken aback when seeing an old acquaintance changed almost beyond recognition, Solus’ description of Rachel’s body after bearing so many children seems ungentlemanly and unkind.  Comparing himself to a hostage tortured by Native American captors is now inappropriate, even if the Homely’s children were misbehaving.  Certainly, they ought to be have been stopped by one of their parents.

But my expectations were vain… though I confess my sufferings were alleviated by observing that the rest of the company came in for their share.  Mrs. Homely sat at the head of the table with a rickety child on her knee, and insisted, like an indulgent mother that she was, that none of her numerous brood should seat themselves at the board, which caused all the dine and disturbance that I expected.  Two butter-boats were overset on the satin breeches of Mr. Deputy Maroon; the immaculate muslin of Miss Bridle was fated to receive the contents of a wine glass; and, to complete the calamity, a fine leg of pork was entirely flayed, that the children might devour the skin, under the significant name of crackling.  My friend, not quite reconciled to matrimonial trammels, seemed rather disturbed at this scene of folly and confusion; but his help-mate, who had long buried politeness, and even decency, in the vortex of one instinctive passion, love for her offspring, was delighted with the bustle, and “would not have the poor things snubbed for the world.”  She looked round upon her distorted brood with exultation, even priding herself upon their defects, and appeared to think that she had obtained a dispensation from rule and reason from the sole circumstances of having favoured the world with fourteen children.

After surviving a meal so disorderly, Solus was entitled to be exasperated and disappointed.  And yet it seems incredible he would cast Mr. Homely as the victim of his wife’s failure as a mother. The figure of overly fond mother who does not restrain her children’s unmannerly and self-destructive behaviors goes back in English literature at least to the seventeenth century and usually the father is not considered an equally guilty party to the spoiling of the children.  When the wife’s parenting makes life miserable for everyone in the house as well as anyone who visits them and the father does nothing to correct the course, then he has failed his children as much as she has.

Although Mosher’s essay contains distasteful stereotypes, he also points the finger at some very familiar shortcomings parents can fall into when outnumbered by their offspring and overwhelmed by their energy.  Gentle readers of this blog may have experienced something like dinner at the Homelys  while trying to enjoy a quiet meal in a nice restaurant or catch up with friends in their apartment on a night no babysitter was available.  Perhaps they know someone who has been provoked to write to an agony aunts for advice about how to alleviate the miseries of such social situations.

Picky Child Eaters Before Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

According to Jennifer Traig, author of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, there is very little evidence in the historical record for “concerns over children refusing what they were given” to eat much before the 1880s.  That makes Betty MacDonald a seeress when she invented “The Picky-Eater Cure” in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1957). This cautionary tale zeroed in the sin of Will Pemberton,which was eating nothing but boiled noodles.  His distraught parents consulted Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and came home with magic crystals, which when sprinkled on Will’s dinner, turned everything on the plate into his favorite (only) food.  In time Will grew tired of nothing but boiled noodles and was forced to dig into other dishes. Before Will, there was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Suppenkaspar, who would not eat his good soup and wasted away for lack of nourishment.  The marker on his grave was a  tureen, naturally.Picky eateritis is surely a disease of affluence, but the condition’s psychological aspects must be of equal importance.   Casual observation suggests that the child who turns down what’s on the plate is a child who knows full well that there are plenty of options in the refrigerator that are more to his liking.  So begins a battle of wills between child and parent, the child reasonably confident that his mother-combatant will throw down her lance rather than let her baby go hungry.

Let’s suppose that abundance of choice is at the heart of picky eateritis.  Then there ought to be evidence in the literature of parenting before 1880s that elite parents were tussling with children at mealtimes.  I didn’t find a Will or Kaspar in my quick and unscientific survey of late eighteenth-century sources, partly because the experts were concerned chiefly with the diet of infants and toddlers.  Among the problems that did preoccupy them were the prevention of letting children consume too much sugar or drinking wine and spirits.

There being no fast foot industry to point the finger at, the blame for getting children off on the wrong foot fell squarely on the shoulders of adults. In 16th edition of Domestic Medicine (1798), Dr. William Buchan thought the practice of sweetening babies’ food with sugar encouraged them to overeat: “Their excesses are entirely owing to nurses.  If the child be gorged with food at all hours, and enticed to take it, by making it sweet and agreeable to the patate, is in any wonder that such a child should in time be induced to crave more food than it ought to have?”   Some parents, he observed disapprovingly, “teach their children to guzzle ale, and other fermented liquors, at every meal.”  Buchan’s advice was considered sufficiently authoritative to have been regularly repeated or plagiarized.

The good news was that sensible mealtime management was possible to establish and maintain, even before children could comprehend why restraining their appetites for certain things was good for their health.  Richard Edgeworth and his co-author/daughter Maria discussed this topic in Practical Education (1798-9), an late eighteenth-century forerunner to Dr. Spock, based on their experience raising a brood of twenty-two: “if they [children] partake of the usual family meals, and if there are no whimsical distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome dishes, or epicurean distinctions between rarities and plain food, the imagination and pride of children will not be roused about eating.  Their pride is piqued if they perceive, that they are prohibited from touching what grown up people are privileged to eat….  In families where a regularly good table is kept, children accustomed to the sight and taste of all kinds of food, are seldom delicate, capricious, or disposed to exceed.”  The thrust of the passage is that children observe the food preferences of adults and are likely to imitate them.  Picky children pick it up from picky adults.

A mother of twelve, Mrs. Trimmer weighed in how to get children to eat in An Essay on Christian Education, which was published in installments in her children’s book review journal, The Guardian of Education (1802-1806).   She made a couple of observations which sound as if they were based on long experience with little people: “Children are generally averse to food which they have never tasted; and, in this case, the difficulty is to get them to taste everything.”   Another interesting remark she made was that “it is next to an impossibility, except in a very secluded situation, to keep a child in ignorance of the taste of rich cakes, &c. &c. and when these are placed before him in profusion, and set out too in the most inviting manner, they are real temptations.”   True words, indeed,

Did children’s book authors portray children who were bad eaters as negative examples?  Yes, indeed.  Here is the opening of “The Boy with the Sweet Tooth” from Profitable Amusement for Children (1802):   “Luke Lickerish was so very fond of sweet things, that, whenver his father or mother gave him a few pence, he immediately ran to the grocer’s or confectioner’s, and bought barley-sugar, licorice, sugar-candy, or something else of the sweet kind.  Besides, at breakfast and tea-time he always watched the sugar-basin; and, whenever he was his mother’s back turned, he slily filched three or four lumps of sugar, thrust them into his pocket, and afterwards ate them in private.  By continuing every day to eat such quantities of sweets, he injured his health very much and spoiled his appetite, so that he seldom relished his meals, ate very little of wholesome food, and was growing very thin, weak and puny.”

Luke sounds a lot like children now who crave heavily sweetened cereal, marshmallows, and Swedish fish.  Perhaps children who do not know hunger haven’t changed as much in certain respects as popular historians suppose…