A History of the Family

By Tim Lambert

The Family in The Ancient World

Most children in Ancient Egypt did not go to school. Instead, boys learned farming or other trades from their fathers. Girls learned sewing, cooking, and other skills from their mothers. Girls from well-off families were sometimes taught at home. When a father died his sons inherited his property. The oldest son was given a double share. Daughters could only inherit property if there were no sons. However, if sons inherited an estate they were expected to support the women in the family.

In Greece when a child was born it was not regarded as a person until it was five days old when a special ceremony was held and the child became part of the family. Parents were entitled, by law, to abandon newborn babies to die of exposure. Sometimes strangers would adopt abandoned babies. However, in that case, the baby became a slave. Girls married when they were about 15. Marriages were often arranged. However, women could divorce their husbands.

In a wealthy Greek family, women were kept apart from men. They were usually confined to the back or upper part of the house. In a rich family, the wife was expected to run the home and very often manage the finances. However rich women would normally stay indoors and send slaves to do the shopping. Poor women, of course, had no choice. They might also have to help their husbands with farm work. Women, even rich ones, were expected to spin and weave cloth and make clothes.

In Rome, men and women were allowed to divorce. Roman women were allowed to own and inherit property and some ran businesses. However, most women were fully occupied with looking after children and doing tasks like spinning wool for the family.

The Family in the Middle Ages

Saxon women were allowed to own and inherit property and to make contracts. However, most Saxon women had to work as hard as the men spinning and weaving, preparing food and drink, and performing other tasks.

In the Middle Ages, women worked hard. They spun wool and they did cooking and cleaning. Women washed clothes, baked bread, milked cows, fed animals, brewed beer, and collected firewood as well as looked after children!

Children from noble families saw little of their parents. When they were very young nurses looked after them. When they were about 7 they were sent to live with another noble household. Boys became pages and had to wait on lords and ladies. They also learned to fight. At 14 a boy became a squire and at 21 a knight. Girls learned the skills they needed to run a household.

In upper-class families, young men and women did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriage for them. Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool. Children were expected to help the family earn a living as soon as they were able.

The Family 1500-1800

In the 17th century, both boys and girls from well-off families went to a form of infant school called a petty school. However, only boys went to grammar school. Upper-class girls (and sometimes boys) were taught by tutors. Middle-class girls might be taught by their mothers.

During the 17th century, boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them, girls were taught subjects like writing, music, and needlework. (It was considered more important for girls to learn ‘accomplishments’ than to study academic subjects). As usual poor children did not go to school. By the age of 6 or 7, they were expected to do some jobs e.g. scaring birds away from newly sown seeds. However at least when they were not working they could play the same games children had played for centuries.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, most women were housewives and they were kept very busy. Most men could not run a farm or a business without their wife’s help.

In those days most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A Tudor housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family’s bread and brew their beer (it was not safe to drink water).

She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat, and making pickles, jellies, and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers). Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the family candles and their soap. The Tudor housewife also spun wool and linen.

A farmer’s wife also milked cows, fed animals, and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also took goods to market to sell. On top of that, she had to cook, wash the family’s clothes, and clean the house. The housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family’s illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor.

The Family in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century the textile industry in Britain boomed. However, children who worked in textile mills often had to work 12 hours a day. However, from 1833 (when the first effective act was passed) the government gradually restricted the hours children could work in factories.

In the 19th century married working-class women often worked – they had to because many families were so poor they needed her earnings as well as her husbands. Many women worked at home finishing shirts or shoes. Others made boxes or lace at home.

In the 19th century, families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.

In the early 19th century the churches provided schools for poor children. From 1833 the government provided them with grants. There were also dame schools. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. However many dame schools were a childminding service. The state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. The Forster Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children.

For working-class women in the 19th century, life was an endless round of hard work and drudgery. As soon as they were old enough they worked. Some worked in factories or on farms but many women were domestic servants or laundresses. In the 19th century, many women worked at home finishing shirts or shoes. Married working-class women often worked – they had to because many families were so poor they needed her earnings as well as her husbands.

The Family in the 20th Century

Things greatly improved for most children during the 20th century. They became much healthier and better fed and better clothed. They were also better educated. Until the late 20th century teachers were allowed to hit children. Corporal punishment was phased out in most primary schools in the early 1970s. The cane was abolished in state secondary schools in 1987. It was finally abolished in private schools in 1999.

In Britain, in 1987 the Family Law Reform Act gave children born outside marriage the same legal rights as children born inside marriage.

In the mid-20th century, most married women did not work outside the home (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century, housework was so time-consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time, the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew to create more opportunities for women. So the family continues to change.

Last revised 2024