Discover more from Think of the Children
To Be Of Some Use
Or, the economics of "Anne of Green Gables"
“We thought we’d get a boy. Matthew is getting up in years, you know—he’s sixty—and he isn’t so spry as he once was. His heart troubles him a good deal. And you know how desperate hard it’s got to be to get hired help. We sent word by Richard Spencer’s folks at Carmody to bring us a smart, likely boy of about ten or eleven. We decided that would be the best age—old enough to be of some use in doing chores right off and young enough to be trained up proper. We mean to give him a good home and schooling.”
— L.M. Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables,” 1908
Around the time that 11-year-old Anne Shirley was arriving on the train from Hopeton to Bright River, the purpose and value of a North American childhood was in the midst of a seismic shift.
During the 60-year period between the end of Reconstruction and the start of the Great Depression, there was a “profound transformation in the economic and sentimental value of children” that created a conception of childhood that stays with us a century later: “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”
Sociologist Viviana Zelizer, who I quote above, documents this transformation in her landmark book, “Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children.” And as I read her wonderful book, my thoughts kept coming back to “Anne of Green Gables.”
The book begins with Mrs. Rachel Lynde paying a visit to Marilla Cuthbert, having seen Matthew Cuthbert departing on an unknown errand. Mrs. Lynde is shocked to learn that the Cuthberts have ordered themselves an orphan boy to help around the farm.
“You don’t know what you’re getting,” Mrs. Lynde tells Marilla in horror. “You’re bringing a strange child into your house and home and you don’t know a single thing about him nor what his disposition is like nor what sort of parents he had nor how he’s likely to turn out.”
These uncertainties aside, the practice of taking in a child to benefit from their labor would have been quite common at the time of L.M. Montgomery’s writing (although perhaps not in Avonlea) during the 19th century. “The legitimacy of child labor was essential to early nineteenth-century substitute care arrangements,” Zelizer writes, noting that children in all homes were expected to labor, regardless of their relationship to the adults in the household.
In early America, this might have taken the form of apprenticeship, but as Zelizer details, it also took the form of indentured servitude. Children who became wards of the state were “bound out … during their minority to households in the community where, under formal contract, a child earned its keep with productive labor,” she writes.
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;
— James Whitcomb Riley, “Little Orphant Annie,” 1885
But in 19th-century Canada, a more likely arrangement would have been to take in one of the tens of thousands of “home children” sent to the country from abroad. These children of poor British parents were sent abroad to be cared for. “In Canada most people thought these children were orphans, but this was because in Britain at the time, children whose father had died or deserted them were often called orphans,” writes Patricia Roberts-Pichette for the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa, adding, “Probably less than five per cent of home children were true orphans.”
“Home children” taken into Canadian homes were less commonly bound out under a formal labor contract (and likely no money would have changed hands), but their usefulness was not in dispute. It was expected that “home children” would be capable of learning to work in the home or on the farm, and contribute to the household. Further, Roberts-Pichette notes, “It was also seen in part as an altruistic movement for those Canadian families whose children had left home―empty-nesters who missed the sound of children in their homes—or for families who wanted children but had none of their own,” like the Cuthberts.
So one might think that a “home child” would be just the thing for Marilla and Matthew. But Marilla thought otherwise.
“At first Matthew suggested getting a Home boy. But I said ‘no’ flat to that,” Marilla tells Mrs. Rachel Lynde, expressing a strong (and racially charged) preference for a child who is “a born Canadian.” This preference — and the mix-up that lands the Cuthberts with a boy rather than a girl — helps situate “Anne of Green Gables” firmly among the genre of the “orphan girl story,” which Michelle Ann Abate writes about in “Funny Girls: Guffaws, Guts, and Gender in Classic American Comics.”
Abate notes that the popular orphan girl stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (like “A Little Princess,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” and “The Secret Garden”) nearly always featured "a white, preadolescent girl who hailed from a respectable … family." These orphan girl heroines "found themselves in dire circumstances through no fault of their own and because they hailed from white, middle-class Protestant backgrounds, they were regarded with compassion and empathy rather than blame and condemnation." In Anne’s case, both her parents died of “a fever” — much like Montgomery’s other orphan heroine, Emily Starr, fitting the orphan girl profile perfectly.
These stories give voice to the changing social attitudes around children and work during this period, but “Anne of Green Gables” demonstrates that this transformation was not simple or immediate. By the turn of the 20th century, public sentiment was starting to shift toward a more protective view of children, particularly those without parents of their own.
Zelizer quotes an 1897 edition of the “Children’s Home Finder,” a publication of a national organization devoted to placing children into free foster homes (not as part of a labor contract), as urging readers not to take a boy “for what you can get out of him, but, rather, for what you can put into him,” such as love, guidance, and education.
But Marilla Cuthbert wasn’t convinced — and she wasn’t alone, either. As Zelizer puts it, “Most applicants [for foster children] were after the best worker, not the most endearing child.” Working homes persisted into the 1920s, “mostly in rural areas, but as deviant exceptions.”
“We want a boy to help Matthew on the farm. A girl would be of no use to us,” Marilla tells Anne sternly when she arrives, sending Anne into “the depths of despair” at the prospect of being less than useful to her new caregivers.
Anne does ultimately prove herself useful to the Cuthberts, but more importantly perhaps, she demonstrates the value of the emotionally priceless child.
“If I had been the boy you sent for,” said Anne wistfully, “I’d be able to help you so much now and spare you in a hundred ways. I could find it in my heart to wish I had been, just for that.”
“Well now, I’d rather have you than a dozen boys, Anne,” said Matthew patting her hand. “Just mind you that—rather than a dozen boys.”
At the end of “Anne of Green Gables,” Anne Shirley looks forward to a “narrow” path alongside which “flowers of quiet happiness would bloom,” where “the joy of sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship were to be hers.” Thus Anne is both economically useful and emotionally priceless — the most valuable she could possibly be.
But the central question of Zelizer’s book is one that I continue to turn over in my mind — a puzzle that remains for me unsolved.
“In strict economic terms, children today are worthless to their parents,” Zelizer writes in her introduction, adding, “They are also expensive.”
Zelizer estimated the cost of raising a child in 1980 to average between $100,000 and $140,000; by 2020, it had more than doubled, and today’s inflation surely makes the cost even higher. “In return for such expenses a child is expected to provide love, smiles, and emotional satisfaction, but no money or labor,” Zelizer writes.
Not everything in this world can be explained in economic terms (probably?), but I nevertheless wonder if we have fully reckoned with the transformation that began over a century ago that placed children’s sentimental value at such a high premium.
Writing in the early 1980s, Zelizer noted the continuing trend away from stay-at-home parenting and suggested that “there may be no place for a useless child” in the homes of working parents. But this proved to be strangely untrue. Instead, we have seen parents — particularly mothers — spending more time, not less, with their kids, while asking kids to do less than ever before.
The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth indicates that it was in the mid-1990s that the number of hours per week spent with children sharply spiked for all parents (although the spike was markedly more sharp for more-educated parents).
And in her 2009 analysis of “Parents” magazine, sociologist Markella Rutherford notes that “in most texts after about 1980 … nearly constant supervision of children is simply assumed. Instead of sending children off to school and activities on their own, parents now spend a considerable amount of time driving children around. And while they are driving the carpool, hanging around during scout meetings and soccer practices, and supervising play dates at the park, parents are monitoring the behavior of their children. … the need for constant supervision is never questioned.”
What is the cost of this intense investment in our children? And what are the benefits? I think we do all of this hoping or believing that our tireless, exhausting investment of hours spent in the car and on the playroom floor and at soccer practice will result in some outcome that will be worth the cost. But I wonder if we have entered a period of diminishing returns, where any increased investment in our children can pay only the most miniscule dividends. What would it look like to even out the balance sheet, even just a little bit?
This has been a very “using my American studies degree” edition of Think of the Children. If you value this newsletter, I hope you’ll consider switching to a paid subscription.