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Childhood Socialization and Companion Animals: United States, 1820-1870

Grier, Katherine C. Childhood Socialization and Companion Animals: United States, 1820-1870, Society & Animals, 1999, Vol. 7, No. 2, 95-120

This paper examines and outlines the arguments for kindness and explores the meanings of kindness that were part of the cultural norm, coined as the “common sense” of middle-class Americans from 1820 to 1870. Three cultural factors-liberal Protestantism, domesticity, and gentility- together created a powerful and long-lived framework for reconsidering animal-human interactions. Before expanding on the linkage between childhood socialization and pet keeping in detail, the writer provides a brief overview featuring Victorian culture in the United States, that which more broadly formed the basis for changes in popular attitudes about animal treatment. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, economic and cultural changes together fostered what has been cited as a “coherent and remarkably vibrant” middle-class American. The Victorian culture in America grew out of a flourishing culture of professionals, white-collar workers, and independent proprietors and their families in cities and towns were no longer shaped by the traditional family-based economy of pre-industrial agricultural life. With this change gender roles shifted – patriarchal families in the eighteenth century deferred to fathers for childhood correction instead enacted their economic lives outside their households in the nineteenth century. The roles of their wives also evolved as mothers in the new kinds of households now bore the principal responsibilities of child rearing and socialization rather than being a means of a unit of economic production.

Middle-class people in the northeastern United States, where new culture first became a social force, began to embrace a recently articulated form of evangelical Protestantism. This relatively liberal form presented as an alternative to orthodox Calvinism, argued for the importance of emotion over complex theology as the source of faith, successfully attracted new adherents. It also encouraged belief in the efficacy of the individual will and in the possibilities of individual and social progress which demanded the discipline of personal self-control. The passionate man was seen as dangerous not only to himself but also to other innocent beings, bringing along with him the manifesting passions of violence toward dependent others. This perspective, adapted from eighteenth century moral philosophy, was extended to encompass both humans and animals sufferers by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Evangelical publications for children found the lives and sufferings of animals at the hands of uncontrolled humans especially useful for lessons on practicing the self-discipline of true Christian principles of love and sympathy.

Kindness to animals also became an integral part of the ideal labeled by one minister, the “Eden of Home,” a metaphor that for some authors explicitly encompassed idyllic relations with animals. This introduces the next factor shaping new attitudes toward kindness, the powerful cultural construct that historians now label “domesticity.” Domesticity had developed as a cultural construct, as it made the individual household the primary medium for creating the self-disciplined adults who could live the theology of liberal Protestantism. Along with the greater responsibility for child rearing, the conventions of domesticity intimated that, as each woman presided over her home, she shaped the kind of power she wielded in her home. Mothers now were traditionally present to oversee their children constantly and closely and knew better how to influence their young minds. A mother’s conventional attributes were now meant to guide family members with more sentiments of nature, gentleness, and the capacity for deep maternal devotion which influence the environments of the home. Domesticity also drew on the new theology connecting Heavenly order and Earthly social order through the family. Therefore, kindly human stewardship of companion animals at home metaphorically represented the relation of a loving God to humankind.

The middle-class theology of feeling and self-discipline and the cultural ideal of domesticity also dovetailed nicely with a broadly secular ideal, gentility. This was the standard of personal excellence that Anglo-American elites fostered during the eighteenth century and that continued to define “good society” throughout most of the nineteenth century. Advocates of kindness argued that improved treatment of animals was evidence of genteel benevolence and a standard of good upbringing and character.

A central tenet of liberal advice literature published for parents in the first half of the nineteenth century was the gradual growth of infants into independent moral agency and introduced the learning of the “law of human kindness”. Authors informed their parental readers that infants had “natural feelings of kindness,” lacking only the experience and discipline parents could provide. This view of children as innocent, good-hearted beings was part of a profound change in American attitudes toward child rearing. Between 1820 and 1870, middle-class Americans became convinced of the role non human animals could play in socializing children into the virtues of kindness and sympathy. The domestic ethic of kindness focused especially on the implications of kind or cruel treatment of animals within that context. Animals in and around the household were a means for training children into self-consciousness about, and abhorrence of, causing pain to other creatures including, ultimately, other people. In an age where the formation of character was perceived as an act of conscious choice and self-control, cruelty to animals was understood as a problem both of individual or familial deficiency and of good and evil. The ideologists of kindness also argued that childhood cruelty to animals had to be understood fundamentally in gendered terms as a problem of raising boys and that failing to raise boys into kindness had worrisome consequences for families as well as for society. Socializing children to be kind to animals became an important task of middle-class parenting. Pet keeping, an activity long interpreted and tolerated as a personal indulgence, was transformed into a practical and even morally purposive act. Kindness to other sentient beings became a manifestation of sentiments that respectable people valued on multiple counts and thus became a marker of middle-class identity. For the rest of the nineteenth century, these underlying premises of arguments on behalf of animals helped shape the humane education movement.

In 1820, the most fundamental premise of these arguments, that cruelty to animals predicted cruelty to humans, had already been an old argument. The argument resurfaced throughout the era in discussion in light of middle-class culture’s special concerns, particularly a preoccupation with controlling an apparent masculine propensity for violence. In reviving the ancient argument that animals in and around the household were moral exemplars, even tutors, household pets not only became individuals but were valued as teachers in the utilitarian sense. The cultural norms during this period fostered a special emphasis on feeling- not only distaste for pain but also the ability to love the household pet. The animals had now been transitioned from merely animals in the house or household pets to animals with more positive connotations attached with value- the faithful dog, the maternal cat, and the bird family all of which made the emotional structures of the middle-class family perfectly natural and part of the norm. By 1868, Hale, the influential editor and author of the era announced that parents could best foster kindness in boys by actively encouraging, rather than simply tolerating or even forbidding, the presence of companion animals in their households. It is proposed by the author that this correspondence could be interpreted to mean that such sentient creatures, precisely because of their moral and emotional capacities, were also viewed as worthy of particular kindness and care. During this period, the expansion of influential printed media and didactic children’s literature was widely distributed in which provided a means for re-establishing the foundations of childhood socialization and kindness to animals. The arguments appeared as advice in books and periodicals for youth, and even in the imagery of Sunday School lesson prints and picture books. Authors and editors, including some of the era’s most prolific authors, produced a steady stream of productions which stressed kindness to humans and animals for both children and adults.

Because of the direct connection between the moral environment of the individual household and that of the larger community, how children treated animals predicted how, as adults, they would treat other human beings. The practical belief was that the cruel child became an even worse adult was prevalent. This argument is discussed by the author, as sociologist Arluke and his collaborators observed that cruelty to animals is a prelude to cruel treatment of other humans-termed as “violence graduation hypothesis”.

Even the treatment of insects and other “lower animals” had become important precisely because that treatment seemed so trifling since it was perceived to easily become what was called a “habit of cruelty.” A few prominent authors of advice books promoted pet keeping because an “early habit of fondness” led to a lifelong pattern of kind behavior to animals. The practical view that a thoughtless and small act of cruelty led to a more dangerous habit drew on the debate about passions. This debate was the foundation of antebellum reform efforts against both public and private corporal punishment. The debate peaked between the 1820s and 1850s in widespread public criticism and in the final abolition of public execution. Critics argued that the repeated sight of suffering hardened and debased both the actors and onlookers who, unable to intervene, experienced a weakening of natural sympathy. Even worse, despite the presence of a moral sense, taking pleasure in violence was still a latent human passion that quickly became an addiction, demanding more and more cruelty to satisfy itself. And in the home, sparing children corporal punishment and intervening against their own small acts of physical violence was vitally important. Nineteenth century writer Sigourney is cited as promoting that although she was not certain when early childhood lessons of kindness were actually absorbed, intervention during “infancy” (defined in those days as before the age of six or seven) was essential. Thus argument that violence against animals represents violence against families had also been established. Boys seemed to be developmentally prone to cruelty, and much attention was the male playing its part in the systemic implementation of violence. This analysis of boys’ “thoughtless” violence toward animals and the urgent argument that intervention during childhood was critical could not have been inspired by parental observation of rough play alone. The author reminds the reader that we should remember that violence enacted against animals in public spaces was routine in both rural and urban America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – and almost all of it was committed by men. Such violence became newly “visible” to the eyes of sensitized people, and it may have inspired the search for the meanings behind the violent acts of boys and the connection between the violence of boys and the more dangerous violence of men. The most shocking behavior of adult men could apparently be explained only by suggesting a “hardening effect” in presumed past behavior. This can be viewed as an alarming thought, especially since masculine brutality seemed to apply to so many kinds of victims, including women and children. Further, reform efforts against corporal punishment had actually reached their cultural limits in the discussion of wife beating and child abuse. Antebellum reformers could not bring themselves to advocate legal restrictions against parents’ traditional rights to discipline children. Ironically, domesticity’s idealized views of relations within families “posed a crucial ideological barrier to widespread public discussion of wife beating”. Even animals, although no longer punished in the same ways as criminals, were not viewed simply as the passive recipients of human tenderness. At a time when moral philosophers were insisting that animals, whatever their capacity to feel pain, were “destitute of any moral faculty,” a strong movement of traditional thought had suggested that household animals were indeed moral actors. While the philosophical viewpoints of animals’ emotions and characters helped to embed them more deeply into the fabric of household routine, they also served the ideological function of the middle-class family life. Pets today are expected to help instill a general sense of responsibility, regardless of the caretakers’ gender. Between 1820 and 1870, pet keeping was explicitly meant to help create good men in a culture that worried a great deal about the nature of manhood itself.

Summary by Effie Heotis


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