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Age in America

Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present

Corinne T. Field
Nicholas L. Syrett
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Age in America
    Book Description:

    Eighteen. Twenty-one. Sixty-five. In America today, we recognize these numbers as key transitions in our lives-precise moments when our rights and opportunities change-when we become eligible to cast a vote, buy a drink, or enroll in Medicare.This volume brings together scholars of childhood, adulthood, and old age to explore how and why particular ages have come to define the rights and obligations of American citizens.

    Since the founding of the nation, Americans have relied on chronological age to determine matters as diverse as who can marry, work, be enslaved, drive a car, or qualify for a pension. Contributors to this volume explore what meanings people in the past ascribed to specific ages and whether or not earlier Americans believed the same things about particular ages as we do. The means by which Americans imposed chronological boundaries upon the variable process of growing up and growing old offers a paradigmatic example of how people construct cultural meaning and social hierarchy from embodied experience. Further, chronological age always intersects with other socially constructed categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. Ranging from the seventeenth century to the present, taking up a variety of distinct subcultures-from frontier children and antebellum slaves to twentieth-century Latinas-Age in America makes a powerful case that age has always been a key index of citizenship.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-4059-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Sixteen. Eighteen. Sixty-five. In the United States today, we recognize these numbers as key transitions in the life course, precise moments when our rights, opportunities, and civic engagement change—when we become eligible to drive, cast a vote, or enroll in Medicare. Likely, we associate these chronological milestones with more subtle but no less pronounced changes in self-understanding—we recognize ourselves as more independent at eighteen, and worry that we are getting old at sixty-five. But these age markers themselves have a history; at a specific moment in the past Americans determined that eighteen, for instance, was the age at...


    • 1 “Keep Me with You, So That I Might Not Be Damned”: Age and Captivity in Colonial Borderlands Warfare
      (pp. 23-46)

      Father Jacques Bigot was proud of his Acadian missionary work, but desperately worried during King William’s War at the end of the seventeenth century that his youngest and most fervent English converts would be lost to him and their souls lost to perdition. In his annual letter to the Jesuit authorities in October 1699, he wrote about his and his converts’ shared sorrow at the prospect of their being compelled to return to their parents in New England, and therefore to Protestant “heresy.” He explained that according to an agreement between New France and New England, as well as Louis...

    • 2 “Beyond the Time of White Children”: African American Emancipation, Age, and Ascribed Neoteny in Early National Pennsylvania
      (pp. 47-66)

      In 1784, an unnamed free black woman approached the Pennsylvania Abolition Society seeking the organization’s aid in protecting her two teenage daughters’ fragile claim to freedom.¹ The woman and her girls, Charity and Deborah Pero, had been the slaves of Mary Burras in New Jersey until, at the end of the War for Independence, Burras brought them across state lines to Philadelphia. Once there, by virtue of Pennsylvania’s 1780 emancipation law, the girls became entitled to their freedom after six months’ residence. That law, the very first to abolish slavery in the United States, legally freed African Americans born in...


    • 3 “If You Have the Right to Vote at 21 Years, Then I Have”: Age and Equal Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century United States
      (pp. 69-85)

      On the evening of June 27, 1867, delegates to the New York State constitutional convention gathered in the state assembly chamber with a large crowd of onlookers to hear women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony present their case for “universal suffrage,” meaning the enfranchisement of black men and all women on the same terms as white men.¹ Horace Greeley, editor of theNew York Tribune, liberal Republican, and chair of the convention’s suffrage committee, presided as Stanton and Anthony offered several compelling arguments, most importantly that voting was an “inalienable right.” Greeley challenged this natural rights...

    • 4 A Birthday Like None Other: Turning Twenty-One in the Age of Popular Politics
      (pp. 86-102)

      Nineteenth-century American youths lived with a frustrating lack of age boundaries. From the 1830s through the 1880s, men and women in their late teens and early twenties stumbled beyond the old structures of kin and region, into a confusing new world of economic and social uncertainty. Though pushed toward adulthood, few clear age boundaries signified real maturity. Millions of young men puzzled over where “childhood ends and youth begins and where youth ends and manhood begins.”¹ The path was even more muddled for women. Each birthday heightened young Americans’ concerns that they would never achieve adulthood.

      One moment bucked this...

    • 5 Statutory Marriage Ages and the Gendered Construction of Adulthood in the Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 103-123)

      When legislators in California first met in 1850, they passed a statute mandating that a man could marry at twenty-one and a woman at eighteen; below those ages they needed parental consent. California, a relative latecomer to the United States, was following a well-established tradition. From the first moment that colonies, and later states, passed laws regulating when young people could marry, or when they might need their parents’ permission to do so, almost all kept some age gap intact. The gap in ages, even when raised significantly, stemmed from the English common-law ages for marriage: fourteen for boys and...

    • 6 From Family Bibles to Birth Certificates: Young People, Proof of Age, and American Political Cultures, 1820–1915
      (pp. 124-147)

      In late March 1839, Mississippi resident Samuel Robb had just turned twenty, or so he claimed later in court. Although he was not yet old enough to make a legal contract, he cosigned a note with two other men, attaching his name to a $450 commercial debt. At the time, the young man believed his signature was a formality, a favor to two reputable associates. However, nearly a decade later, long after his cosigners had gone bankrupt, Robb was still trying to escape the debt by pleading his age at signing—what was known, in law, as his infancy. His...

    • 7 “Rendered More Useful”: Child Labor and Age Consciousness in the Long Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 148-165)

      Manufacturing, Alexander Hamilton famously wrote in 1791, could save children from the throes of idleness. Indeed, he declared, by working outside the home, “women and Children are rendered more useful and the latter more early useful by manufacturing establishments, than they would otherwise be.” A century later, Hamilton’s cheerful predictions with regard to young people were both true and increasingly becoming anathema in polite society. The nineteenth century had witnessed rapid growth of remunerative labor for young workers outside the household, but at the same time middle-class reformers had mounted a long campaign to regulate and, in more extreme cases,...

    • 8 “A Day Too Late”: Age, Immigration Quotas, and Racial Exclusion
      (pp. 166-184)
      YUKI ODA

      In 1921, immigration authorities in New York excluded Freda Berman, a ten-year-old from Poland. Her father had lived in the United States since 1914 and sent for her after World War I, but the Polish quotas were full upon her arrival, and she was excluded for oversubscription and for not being a child of a U.S. citizen.¹ In 1924, immigration authorities in Seattle excluded a ten-year-old boy named Chin Bow from China. His father was a U.S. citizen, but Chin Bow was excluded because he was an “alien ineligible to citizenship.”² Exclusion of these two young people reflected how the...


    • 9 Age and Retirement: Major Issues in the American Experience
      (pp. 187-208)

      Age and retirement. Two peas in a pod? Jack and Jill? “Love and Marriage” (“you can’t have one without the other”)? In a sense, yes. Even in affluent America, and with the exception of the wealthy, the injured, and the bored few, most people retire from work late in life. Moreover, in the second half of the twentieth century, retirements spiked at two ages: at sixty-two, when Social Security benefits became available for men under 1961 amendments to the original Social Security Act; and at sixty-five, when full retirement benefits were available under the original legislation and corporate mandatory retirement...

    • 10 “The Proper Age for Suffrage”: Vote 18 and the Politics of Age from World War II to the Age of Aquarius
      (pp. 209-236)

      “Should 18-year olds be allowed to vote?” Were young people best characterized as unruly, impulsive rebels or as responsible, politically and socially conscious agents of democratic change? What age marked the turning point between youth and adulthood? The American public began discussing these questions during World War II, and more vigorously debated them between 1968, when a range of activists, organizations, and politicians initiated a concerted campaign to lower the voting age, and 1971, when the states ratified the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. But if questions about “the proper age for suffrage” sparked sometimes-heated conversations about age, citizenship, and...

    • 11 “Old Enough to Live”: Age, Alcohol, and Adulthood in the United States, 1970–1984
      (pp. 237-258)

      When Harvard University student Stefan Muller turned twenty-one in March 2011, he woke up feeling like much the same person that he had been the day before. The arrival of his birthday, in other words, had not altered his personality or otherwise changed who he was. Nonetheless, Muller felt as though his life had been transformed, and in a blog post that he wrote a few days later, he compared turning twenty-one to having “a weight lifted from my shoulders.” After years of waiting, Muller had reached the minimum legal drinking age. He could now order a drink in a...

    • 12 Age and Identity: Reaching Thirteen in the Lives of American Jews
      (pp. 259-281)

      Adolescence is critical in the modern Jewish life cycle, in a way that is heightened from earlier historical periods. In earlier times, when Jews lived on their own land, and later became an outsider people residing in Christian and Muslim societies, young Jews generally grew up, as did their neighbors, to live lives more or less like those of their parents. In this context of slow cultural change, reaching early adolescence was an age of majority marker in Jewish law, and to some extent seen as a stage in psychological development. Modern times changed the experience of Jewish adolescence. Dramatic...

    • 13 A Chicana Third Space Feminist Reading of Chican@ Life Cycle Markers
      (pp. 282-300)

      Latinas coming of age in the 1960s, as I did, faced numerous conflicts of identity and of allegiance. The way that our community celebrated a young woman’s coming of age, for example, was often suspect by the hippie thinking of most of us who were protesting the Vietnam War, joining the farmworker movement for social justice, and questioning the established order of things in general. Despite this cultural dissonance, a point that Michele Salcedo makes in the introduction to her bookQuinceañera!, we still held onto the traditions; we still celebrated ourquinceañerasand helped each other come of age...

    • 14 Delineating Old Age: From Functional Status to Bureaucratic Criteria
      (pp. 301-320)

      Age-based criteria have paradoxical effects on defining later life, especially in modern times. Years matter in planning retirement decisions, determining Social Security benefits and health care resources, and qualifying for discounts in public transportation, movie tickets, and food stores. Gerontologists meanwhile claim that chronological age per se is a poor predictor of most pertinent bio-medical-psycho-social-spiritual dimensions of aging. In the wake of the Longevity Revolution, policy makers, media experts, and welfare agencies question the utility ofchronological agein categorizing the potentials and needs that accompany advancing years. No compelling alternative has yet to replace chronological age as a delineator.¹...

    (pp. 321-324)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 325-338)