Pudd'nheads: Childhood in Colonial America

Pilgrim and Puritan colonists had children, and though it would be hard to tell from historical records, so did indigenous families and enslaved Africans.

Pudd’nheads: Childhood in Colonial America examines the unique aspects of childhood between the late sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. The presentation explores birthing and childrearing practices, parenting, children’s health and education, naming, gender, play, and rites of passage.

Compare and Contrast Infant and Child Care for the 3 Cultures

Puritan babies were nursed for 18 – 24 months. Cradles in Colonial America were long and narrow. The purpose was that a child wouldn’t be able to curl up, but would have to stretch out its legs. This was thought to help a child get ready to walk. The belief then was that a baby wouldn’t learn how to walk on its own, and so it had to be taught. Swaddling also straightened out a baby’s limbs.

Native American children were nursed until age 3 and often until age 5 or 6. Born on an average of 4-year intervals, babies received extended breast-feeding and the attention of their mothers, who carried them on their backs. They were allowed to crawl when they were ready, and to run about freely. These children weren’t disciplined with corporal punishment. Instead, they were shamed by the tribe.

For enslaved children, infant and child mortality rates were twice as high as among southern white children. A major contributor to the high infant and child death rate was chronic undernourishment. Most enslaved infants were weaned early, within three or four months of birth. Then, they were fed gruel or porridge made of cornmeal. Slave owners showed surprisingly little concern for slave mothers’ health or diets during pregnancy. They provided pregnant women with no extra rations and employed them in intensive field work even in the last week before they gave birth. Enslaved mothers suffered high rates of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and deaths shortly after birth.

Pudd’nheads provides fresh historical perspectives on key features of children’s lives. Without a doubt, the lives of Native American children, Enslaved children, and Puritan children differed greatly.

For example:
  • The permanent Puritan magical cure for bedwetting was to take the child to the churchyard and have him/her urinate upon the grave of a child of the opposite sex.
  • Native Americans had superstitions that warned pregnant women not to eat seagulls because they caused crybabies.
  • Enslaved children were often required to swallow worms they failed to pick off of cotton or tobacco plants!

Velya Jancz-Urban – author, teacher, and creator of The Not-So-Good Life of the Colonial Goodwife – has partnered with her herbalist daughter, Ehris Urban, on this unique presentation. Pudd’nheads: Childhood in Colonial America is similar to The Not-So-Good Life of the Colonial Goodwife in that it is funny, sad, sweet, and shocking.

Dive deeper into our history. There was much more to childhood in Colonial America than hoop rolling and horn books!

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