History 248 Reading Guide

The Changing Boundaries of Family and Community

Food for Thought:


  • John Demos, “Broadly speaking, the history of the family in America has been a history of contraction and withdrawal; its central theme is the gradual surrender to other institutions of functions that once lay very much within the realm of family responsibility.” [A Little Commonwealth (1970)]
  • Steven Mintz, “[In early] American history one of the basic functions of family law was to articulate and reinforce certain widely held standards and norms about the family....  With the triumph of individualistic, egalitarian, and contractual values, the law tends to reinforce broader individualistic and therapeutic currents in the culture, stressing self-fulfillment and individual happiness as the ultimate social values. As a result, we have almost precisely inverted the values and mode of discourse of our Puritan forebears.” [“Regulating the American Family,”Journal of Family History 14.4 (1989)]
  • Christopher Lasch, “Of all institutions, the family is most resistant to change.” Thus, changes that do occur must have “enormous impact” on its members; and those changes “accompany or underlie changes in economic and political life.” [New York Review of Books (1975)]
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“Yellow Wallpaper,” feminist, grandniece of Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe), “What is here sought is simply to give a general impression of the continual flux and growth of the home as an institution, as one under the same laws as those which govern other institutions, and also of the check to that growth resultant from our human characteristic of remembering, recording, and venerating the past. The home, more than any other human phenomenon, is under that heavy check. The home is an incarnate past to us. It is that very oldest thing, and holds the heart more deeply than all others. The conscious thought of the world is always far behind the march of events; it is most so in those departments where we have made definite efforts to keep it at an earlier level, and nowhere, not even in religion, has there been a more distinct, persistent, and universal attempt to maintain the most remote possible status.... The home has changed much in physical structure, in spite of itself. It has changed somewhat in its functions, also in spite of itself. But it has changed very little – painfully little – dangerously little, in its governing concepts. Naturally ideas change with facts, but if ideas are held to be sacred and immovable, the facts slide out from under and go on growing because they must, while the ideas lag further and further behind.” [The Home, Its Work and Influence (1903)]
  • Jerry Farwell (pastor of the Liberty Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA; pres. of Moral Majority), “Home is a Haven to which I run from the troubles of this world.” [“Family—The Basic Unit,” in Listen America! (Doubleday, 1980): 122-137]
  • Robert Frost, (Poet Laureate of the United States), “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” [“The Death of the Hired Man,” North of Boston (1915)]


  • Kenneth Lockridge, “The New England Town is one of the myths out of which Americans’ conception of their history has been constructed, along with such others as The Liberty Bell, George Washington, and The Frontier. In the way of all [people], Americans have needed their myths. In the way of all myths, these have become true by convincing Americans that their nation has always enjoyed universal democracy, honesty, and opportunity.... An account of the intricate, historical evolution of even a single New England town is a fine way to bring home the lesson that the past is a mixture of often contradictory events whose meaning is sometimes ambiguous.” [A New England Town (1970)]
  • Nancy Grey Osterud, “By the middle of the nineteenth century, the community was not simply a place with which Nanticoke Valley residents identified in their dealings with outsiders; it had become a value that people invoked in their interactions with one another.” [Bonds of Community (1991)]
  • Robert Wiebe describes a fundamental shift in American values that occurred in the years between 1877 and 1920, a shift in values from those of the small town to those of a new bureaucratic-minded middle class. He argues that that shift was necessary if American society was going to face the challenges of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. [The Search for Order, 1967]
  • Jacob Riis (1890), “The one thing you shall vainly ask for in the chief city of America is a distinctively American community. There is none.” [How the Other Half Lives (1890)]
  • Anthony Kaye,“Outside the field of slavery, social historians do not write much about community anymore.” [“Neighborhoods and Solidarity in the Natchez District of Mississippi: Rethinking the Antebellum Slave Community,” Slavery and Abolition, 2002]


  • Nancy Grey Osterud, “If kin often were neighbors, over time neighbors became kin.” [Bonds of Community (1991)]
  • James Borchert, “If many studies of the family suffer from too narrow a definition and frame of reference, the definitions of “community” are so diverse and varied that the word has lost much of its meaning.” [Alley Life in Washington (1980)]
  • Jacqueline Dowd Hall, et. al., “Again and again in our interviews, people chose a family metaphor to describe mill village life.” “To argue that sharing and neighborliness gave substance to the family metaphor is not to suggest that the mill village conformed to an idealized image of family life.” [Like a Family (1987)]