Old Time Parenting & Family Advice

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to find advice our ancestors gave and lived by. Mary is a genealogist, author, and editor with a strong technology background who has written and collected some of the funniest, quirkiest, or most touching sayings about genealogy that she’s encountered in her career as a family historian. Please attribute this article if sharing.

Ever curious about families and the advice they heeded (or ignored), I recently turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to learn more.

Was the advice our ancestors read about and shared much like today – or were there huge differences in opinions? I’ll let you be the judge if we should follow any of this advice today. Some of it may be surprising!

Advice to Girls, Men and Parents (1840)

Photo: “Dressing the Bride,” stereo photo, 1907
Photo: “Dressing the Bride,” stereo photo, 1907. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Among advice to a wide variety of types of people, you’ll find thoughts in this 1840 newspaper article for young girls, young men and parents.

  • Advice to young girls: Never marry a boy whose mamma is afraid to have him go on the water, or whose papa cannot tell the difference between the toothache and the lock-jaw.
  • Advice to young men: Have it fairly understood before you wed, whether you intend to marry an individual, or an entire family.
  • Advice to parents: Do not let a silly ambition hazard the happiness of your children, nor your chagrin at the discovery of your own folly betray you into a violation of your obligations.
Advice column, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 12 December 1840
Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 12 December 1840, page 1

Advice on Schooling (1875)

Photo: “Girls in Classroom Viewing Stereographs through Stereoscopes,” stereo photo, c. 1908
Photo: “Girls in Classroom Viewing Stereographs through Stereoscopes,” stereo photo, c. 1908. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

This good idea is short and succinct, and I feel certain most of us would agree that parents should occasionally visit the public schools.

An article about public schools, Iola Register newspaper article 30 October 1875
Iola Register (Iola, Kansas), 30 October 1875, page 4

Advice on Training Children (1879)

Photo: “The Wedding March,” c. 1906
Photo: “The Wedding March,” c. 1906. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

This 1879 newspaper article advised that “in the good old times”:

“Girls and boys did not marry with the idea that they would try it awhile, and if not suited get a divorce. Neither did our ancestors call out in despair for a ‘child-tamer’… I can give advice on this subject of training children. Learn to train yourself first. Set your children a good example; never lie to them…”

Advice column, Oregonian newspaper article 7 July 1879
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 7 July 1879, page 4

Advice for Boys at Night (1889)

Photo: “West Front of General Post Office, with South Portico of Patent Office,” Washington, D.C., stereo photo, 1859
Photo: “West Front of General Post Office, with South Portico of Patent Office,” Washington, D.C., stereo photo, 1859. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In reading this next newspaper article, I found it interesting that it refers to visits to the post office in the evening – but perhaps it makes sense that mail would be picked up after working hours. Apparently, children would go to watch and end up creating a disturbance, “scuffling and yelling like savages” – resulting in this next advice.

The author, resorting to sarcasm, says that the adults trying to do serious post office business are getting in the way of the boys’ “rights” to engage in their roughhouse play:

“A public indignation meeting should be held and resolutions passed condemning this intrusion upon the rights of the boys. And if after this their rights are not respected, it perhaps would be a good idea for parents to keep their boys at home nights.”

An article about the post office, Pullman Herald newspaper article 12 October 1889
Pullman Herald (Pullman, Washington), 12 October 1889, page 4

Housework (1892)

Photo: “The Young Housekeeper – Washing Day,” stereo photo, c. 1870
Photo: “The Young Housekeeper – Washing Day,” stereo photo, c. 1870. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Then there is housework – in the past, more relegated to women than men. This 1892 newspaper article advised:

“It would be a good idea for mothers to give daughters lessons in housework and to exact from them the performance of certain household duties each day. If this was more generally done there would be far less incompetency in the home and more happiness in general life. Work is a blessing in almost any form.”

An article about housework, Jersey Journal newspaper article 19 August 1892
Jersey Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey), 19 August 1892, page 2

Mother-in-Laws (1895)

Photo: “Emlen Cresson, His Mother Sarah Emlen Cresson, His Wife Priscilla Pritchett Cresson, and His Mother-in-Law Mrs. Edith Hatten Pritchett,” c. 1844
Photo: “Emlen Cresson, His Mother Sarah Emlen Cresson, His Wife Priscilla Pritchett Cresson, and His Mother-in-Law Mrs. Edith Hatten Pritchett,” c. 1844. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Finally, this last piece of advice applies today. Although mothers know much about their sons:

“It would be a good idea for mothers-in-law to let their daughters-in-law alone where domestic matters are concerned, unless their advice is asked.”

An article about mothers-in-law, Middletown Transcript newspaper article 10 August 1895
Middletown Transcript (Middletown, Delaware), 10 August 1895, page 5

I had a lot of fun with this article, so if you are looking for activities to engage the students in your life, I can recommend having them look up more of our ancestors’ advice in old newspapers. It will certainly drive a lively conversation at the dining table – and maybe help them look at their ancestors in a different light.

If you have any “old time” advice that passed through your family, please leave a comment.

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