Providing a Middle-Class Future
On October 17, 1835, Jacob Elfreth, a Philadelphia bookkeeper and Quaker, placed his oldest son, ten-year-old Joseph, on a stagecoach and sent him off to boarding school. Some days later he wrote to his other children, “ It was a trial to him to leave home but he went away like a man without crying any. I hope he will be a good boy, and then he will be happy and it will be a comfort to his father and mother.” Elfreth ended his letter with the aside, “ I sent him a quart of chestnuts yesterday & a volume of Parleys’ magazine both of which I expect will be very acceptable to him.” 1
This brief account describes significant rites of passage for both Jacob and Joseph Elfreth. For the son it was perhaps his first signifi cant step down the path that would lead to manhood and indepen dence, while for the father it marked the beginning to the end of his childrearing years. Such junctures in the lives of individuals often reveal the nature of beliefs and attitudes that are shaping those lives, and from this passage we are given glimpses into men’s childrearing role in nineteenth-century America. Jacob Elfreth’s decision to send Joseph away to school indicates the desire of a father to provide a proper middle-class future for the child-boys attended school to train for a middle-class occupation, while girls prepared for a proper marriage within their class. Jacob’s expressed hope that Joseph would be “good” represents a reminder of the many hours spent teaching strong moral values to Joseph. Jacob ’s emphasis on his son’s going alone and not crying suggests instruction on proper attitudes toward
masculinity. Central to each of these comments is a fatherly desire to shape his children. Not only can we guess the topics of discussion that probably dominated the departure scene, but we can also suppose that Elfreth used the event (through the letter) to instruct his younger chil dren in the same values. Jacob Elfreth believed that his children needed a strong sense of morality and proper gender identity, along with the right secular knowledge, to succeed in the newly industrial izing America, and thus, like most middle-class fathers during his day, he sought to teach these things to his children.