Parenting Manuals and the 1920s-50s Canadian Family

“Seemingly inconspicuous objects, like parenting books, can actually tell you far more about the history of the world around them then the original authors could ever have intended.”

While perusing the many books that make up the Museum’s little-known reference library for a work assignment, I discovered a small collection of books concerning parenting and child rearing. These books are early incantations of the parenting books that are so incredibly common today. The earliest is from 1926 and the most recent is from 1959. At face value, these books aren’t of much interest to anyone other than prospective parents, of which I am certainly not one! However, knowing that Canadian society changed dramatically from 1926 to 1959, I wondered if any of the changes in healthcare and the social fabric of the country would be reflected in these books (seen below). With the help of a little background research, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much these little books could tell us about the history of Canada.

The five texts examined for this post (Full information here)

The Books: The Normal Child: Its Care and Feeding (1926) and The Care of the Child (1935)

As on might expect, these books overlap in content to a large degree. Looking at where they differ is where we really begin to learn. The two earliest books, from 1926 (The Normal Child: Its Care and Feeding) and 1935 (The Care of the Child), have chapters and chapters on directly caring for the physical health of the child. At the same time, virtually no attention at all is given to the many other facets of raising a child. How should you treat your child, how much affection should you give them? How much guidance? No advice of this kind will be found here. One book manages to dedicate a mere 9 out of 252 pages to the relationship between parent and child and proper parenting attitude. Interestingly, these books contain many sections on preventing and treating diseases like tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. Thankfully, we can be certain that the average Canadian parent has no need to be schooled in how to spot tuberculosis in their children anymore!

The (Brief) History

The History: These early books care only for the physical health of the baby. In 1926, when our earliest book was written, infant mortality rates in Canada were 11%, meaning more than one in ten children never lived past their first birthday. The average household size in 1931 was 4.4 people.[i] The twentieth century would see both of these numbers drop dramatically. One statistic that partially accounts for the high infant mortality rate is the number of births that took place in the home rather than a hospital. In 1926, only 18% of Canadian births took place in a hospital – less than 2 for every 10 babies born![ii]

           When a parent is busy with the healthcare of many children – with a very real risk of one or more of them dying – they don’t have the time to carefully observe their offspring’s behaviour each day to ensure that they are building good character traits and growing up into well-adjusted adults. Hence, parenting books didn’t bother with anything other than the most important info – keeping your children alive!

The Book: Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (1943)

Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, from 1943, focuses more on healthy behaviour rather than healthy bodies. It also touches on the rest of childhood and adolescence beyond infant-hood, which the previous books do not. As such, this book clearly values the use of developmental psychology over medical science. This book is also where we begin to see emphasis placed on what can be called “parenting philosophy;” with a generous heaping of patriotism, the book claims: “The spirit and organization of the family…reflect the historic culture. A totalitarian ‘Kultur’ subordinates the family completely to the state, fosters autocratic parent-child relationships, favors despotic discipline, and relaxes the tradition of monogamy. A democratic culture, on the contrary, affirms the dignity of the individual person. It exalts the status of the family as a social group, favors reciprocity in parent-child relationships, and encourages humane discipline of the child through guidance and understanding.”[iii]

The (Brief) History

In 1943, Canadians were roughly at the midway point of the Second World War. As the previous quotation shows us, even books on parenting advice at this time couldn’t be spared the polemics of the war. This book serves as a transition between the previous decades of large families and high infant mortality rates to the prosperous post-war period of Canadian history, which comes into clearer focus with the next two books.

The Books: Preparing for Motherhood (1956) and Up the Years from One to Six (1959)

The final books are from 1956 and 1959. Preparing for Motherhood is focused almost exclusively on promoting the mental and physical well-being of women while pregnant. This book is an outlier in that it barely includes the child’s well-being, as the reader’s child would not yet be out of the womb! Up the Years from One to Six is a book issued by the Canadian government and provides a well-rounded guide to almost everything a parent might need to know about properly raising their child between the ages of one and six.

The (Brief) History

These 1950s books make parenting philosophy their main focus, with physical health taking more of a backseat role than seen in the earlier books. This is indicative of two major shifts in Canadian family life: decreasing infant mortality rates and shrinking family size, as mentioned earlier. By 1959, infant mortality rates in Canada had dropped from 11% to 3%.[vi] Countless medical advances made this decrease possible (vaccines, etc.). Remember how in 1926 only 18% of Canadian births took place in a hospital? By 1940, that number had jumped to 45%.[v]

           Not only were more children surviving, but there were less and less children in every family. By 1961, the average family size was 3.9 and falling rapidly (compared to 4.4 in 1931).[vi] With less children to look after and the death of a child far less likely, investing less time in learning about physical health and more time in personality and behaviour actually became a worthwhile endeavor.

A StatCan graph showing the changing (for the better) statistics in Infant Mortality rates in Canada, 1926-2011 (Source)

           Preparing for Motherhood put it best even back in 1956: “The pattern of the family is changing, notably in the way of becoming smaller and more compact. A generation or two ago young married couples were commonly in touch with a wide circle of parents, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Today they are likely to set up housekeeping in a small apartment hundreds of miles away from their nearest relatives, and quite possibly they won’t even know their next-door neighbours. Socially speaking, they are isolated…”[vii]           

Despite these overall trends, the 1950s was the Baby Boom, a brief period of extremely high birth rates in Canada and other countries; hence the government-issued parenting book, to ensure standardised knowledge was reaching the many new parents of the nation.

Conclusion

Moments like these are what make history such an exciting field to study: seemingly inconspicuous objects, like parenting books, can actually tell you far more about the history of the world around them then the original authors could ever have intended.

It’s worth mentioning that this blog post would not have been possible without the Museum of Health Care’s reference library. For inquiries about texts, questions about research or to access the library (always free), contact the Museum of Health Care via our website.

Three of the many shelves of health-care related texts in the Museum of Health Care Reference Library, all free to access! (Contact us to learn more)

About the Authour

Victor Drazilov

(Public Programs Assistant, Summer 2020)

Victor is a second-year undergraduate History student at Queen’s University, specialising in the intellectual and cultural history of the modern era. He is spending his 2020 summer as a Public Programs Assistant with the Museum. Due to the global pandemic and local quarantine situation, he has been adapting to his position by working offsite, helping to develop new walking tour scripts and improving the Museum’s online engagement.


Citations

[i] “The Shift to Smaller Households Over the Past Century,” Statistics Canada, last modified May 5th, 2018, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-630-x/11-630-x2015008-eng.htm.

[ii] Wendy Mitchinson, Giving Birth in Canada, 1900-1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 173, https://books.google.ca/books?id=GoBa8ZHCOTYC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[iii] Arnold Gessel and Frances L. Ilg in collaboration with Louise B. Ames and Janet Learned, Infant and Child in the Culture of Today: The Guidance of Development (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1943) 9-10.

[vi] “Health Status of Children,” PDF File, Statistics Canada, 1999, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/82-003-x/1999003/article/4932-eng.pdf?st=bjdZThbW.

[v] Mitchinson, Giving Birth,173.

[vi] “Shift to Smaller Households.” Statistics Canada.

[vii] Samuel R. Meaker, Preparing for Motherhood: A Manual for Expecting Parents (Chicago: The Year Book Publishers, Inc. 1956), 10-11.

Books Mentioned in this Article:

Brown, Alan. The Normal Child: It’s Care and Feeding. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited, 1926.

Department of National Health and Welfare, Ottawa, Information Services Division. Up the Years from One to Six. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1959.

Gessel, Arnold, and Frances L. Ilg in collaboration with Louise B. Ames and Janet Learned. Infant and Child in the Culture of Today: The Guidance of Development. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1943.

Goldbloom, Alton. The Care of the Child. Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1935.

Meaker, Samuel R. Preparing for Motherhood: A Manual for Expecting Parents. Chicago: The Year Book Publishers, Inc., 1956.

Further Reading:

https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality#child-mortality-around-the-world-since-1800

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/dont-think-of-ugly-people-how-parenting-advice-has-changed/275108/

https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/91f0015m/2014011/02-eng.htmhttps://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/82-003-x/1999003/article/4932-eng.pdf?st=bjdZThbW

https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/91f0015m/2014011/02-eng.htm


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