When Children Weren’t Cherished

Alex Mayyasi leafs through Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child:

Zelizer writes that in 18th century Europe, “the death of an infant or a young child was a minor event, met with a mixture of indifference and resignation.” She quotes a French philosopher of the time who wrote, “I have lost two or three children in infancy, not without regret, but without great sorrow.”

Historians find, for example, no evidence during the period that the English wore or displayed symbols of mourning when young children died and that the French commonly buried young children in the backyard like Americans bury pets today. Colonial Americans called newborns “it” or “the little stranger.” While the death of young children was greeted with sorrow, the next born child often took the name of its departed sibling.

Today that seems shocking, and Zelizer shows how reverence for young life developed in the 1800s. The deaths of young children became a great tragedy, inspiring memorials for young victims, movements focused on child mortality and health, and literature for parents on how to cope with the unbearable loss of a young child. Attitudes reflected this as childhood became the coddled, special time that we consider it today.