American families have experienced a long period of transformations and changes from the socially controlled domain to the private issue in its contemporary perspective. Family is the smallest unit of the society and this institution is in a continuous state of evolution. Traditional form of the family was not common for every epoch, as every period of time had some changes in politics, economy, and society, which influenced the formation the family model. People had to assimilate to new life, overcoming the challenges and forming the families under the influence of the global ideas of the particular historic era. Thus, every epoch in the American history had its typical model of the family, as it was formed under the pressure of the external social, economic, and political changes, stereotypes, and ideas.
The beginning of new Colonial era in America established a certain form of the American family, which was the model of the European culture and institutions, initiated by the first settlers in America. At that period, the concept of a family was strong and essential since individuality cannot survive outside the family. Colonial form of the household significantly differentiates from the contemporary one in the definition of functions, responsibilities, children development, attitudes to love, religion, work, and others aspects of family life. Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg extend the ideas concerning the colonial era of the family life concluding that “the colonial conditions had broadened the family’s functions and responsibilities”. It concerns not only the responsibility for children care but significant influences of economics. Therefore, external social and economic changes outside the family unit influenced the formation of the family as the main source for the personality development. The existence of the personality without the family is impossible. The puritans, who arrived to America, brought a new idea of an institution. The family was never a private unit; it was a part of global political and social community (Mintz and Kellogg). In the colonial period, the father was an absolute head of the household, while the other members had to obey him and work in order to sustain the family. Changes in the economic order and transition to the new political standards initiated significant transformation of the American family during the Civil War period.
The ideas of South-North political and social confrontations developed the tendencies of diversity and racial inequality, which fundamentally influenced shaping the African American and White families. The Civil War era initiated a global evolution of the country from the nation of farmers to the urbanized society. The collision of agricultural South and industrialized North made sufficient pressure on the formation new a habit and a style of life, developing both African American and White families. The institutions of family in African Americans were formed under the pressure of slavery and social segregation. The history of Black families is a part of American heritage. However, they significantly differentiate from European institutions. Family traditions, norms, and rules serve as the background for children home education, which has the impact on formation of the society. They consider themselves as the secondary nation, with hidden desires of freedom, which was possible in the North. The institution of firm American family was lost during the war, which brought not only the material destructions but also the division inside of the family. The subordinated and secondary position of a woman was changed under the pressure of war conditions and motivated them to start their woman rights movement. The final stage of the war and domination of the Union powers launched the era of industrialization.
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The industrialization period changed the role of the family as well as its form into the direction of economic development. The norms and values of the institutions were under the impact of social, political and economic changes after the industrial revolution, which evoked not only America, but also the entire world. The idea of industrial development was a key issue within the family, and the members of the institution started working and living as an economic unit, with the purpose to produce and create goods or services for consumptions (Mintz and Kellog). It affected the sizes of the families, because of the reduction of the birth rate. It was associated not only with the lack of finances but also with the high urbanization. The role of the members was also changed as the man had to work on the factories and spend their most time outside the domestic issues. Hard work on factories, lack of communication, and money increased the level of divorces. Consequently, the era of industrial transformations produced not only economic and social revolution, but also the revolution inside the family and launched a new form of the family, the working class family. The main ideas of changes, economic development and necessity to survive inspired Americans to work on this idea instead of sticking to old Christian standards of a family unity. The darkness of the industrialized epoch changed into bright light of love and respect during the period of companionate families.
Companionate families were the units, characterized by the romantic relations, love, tenderness, democracy and equality. Mintz and Kellogg characterize such family as follows, “a family had become a private place, a shelter for higher redeeming values and a shelter form the temptations and corruptions of the outside word”. The period of hierarchical relations finished and initiated a new time of democratic family. The majority of marriages were based on love; parents spent more time with their children and children stayed at home longer than during the previous time. The essence of such relations associated with the separations of the spheres. The members of the families had their special affairs to their age, possibilities, and gender. It was an appropriate response to the era of divorces, when the spouses were rather the friends and companions. The beginning of the companionate family epoch was related to the social changes as the time of global and massive industrialization changed into more quite period of intellectual domination in the society. Education, respect toward the gender and equality between a man and a woman in all the spheres of life predominated. Although, that model was not as it is normal for the contemporary society, but it was much better than during the previous time, regarding the status of a woman and gender relations. Nevertheless, the time of relative prosperity of family was roughly interrupted by the global world changes, the depression and the war afterwards.
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The war changed the lives of Americans, traditions of the family and increased the position of the women opening them new social opportunities. The family life faced a complicated global conflict, which insulted America. The citizens felt the pain of the war after the Perl Harbor attack. Thousands of men left their families in order to protect the country. A woman performed the main role in the family and the entire country. The slogans like: “We can do it”, “The more women at work, the sooner we win” affirmed the position of ladies in the world of men. The Rosie the Riveter became a popular idea around the USA (Mintz and Kellogg). The women performed the entire job and responsibilities, which were suitable only for men and understood that they could do it as good as the men did. The war not only destructed the previous prosperity of the American family, but also opened new opportunities for women and gave them a possibility to move further into the direction of improving their social status as well as leading and political positions. At the same time, that epoch brought deep emotional depression and stress, which was further reflected in relation to the family and posttraumatic conditions of husbands after the war. The negative impact of the World War II was as strong as the Great Depression influenced the family life. The era of Depression associates with the deprivation and disorganization the meaning of the family. The reduction of marriages and childbirth were the result of the complicated financial disorders and economic regress in America. The level of divorces was not as high as during the industrialization. However, it was more related to the lack of money and inability to pay for the help of the lawyers. The family institution during the Great Depression and World War was enforced to assimilate to complicated conditions of economy in the country and global stress. Nevertheless, it opened new perspectives and opportunities for formation of advanced ideals of the family, its status in the society and its values.
After the World War, during the 50th era of the economic stability and prosperity, a new form of social unit, a family of Golden Age, launched and evaluated. The events of capitalistic changes, rise of consumerism, super powerful position in the world, the Cold War era, and rights movements changed not only a political and social order of the USA, but also were reflected on the family institutions. Having experienced painful past and crisis, Americans evaluated a new form of happy family life, a model that is more common for the contemporary people, a nuclear family model. From the outside perspective, it was more than perfect, it was utopia. A woman was a perfect wife and man was a perfect husband, the rates of birth increased, and the rates of divorces decreased. Children had to study until they became teenagers. Comparing that model of the family to the contemporarily, all the units were typical and cherished the same ideas and the same practices. The main idea of that was the fear of new depression, economic destruction and world war. The family was like the smallest model of the society, which was the intention for the people of that time. The Golden Age of American family was more artificial than natural in comparison to other periods, as people were inspired to change their country and to create a shelter form outside stresses. Moreover, those ideas were dictated through the television and cinema, since it was the time of prosperity in the area of cinematography. The American family during the 50th was typical, and its members lived under the influence of outside political pressure and economic prosperity.
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Thus, the form of traditional nuclear American family is different from the previous periods of history. The family institutions were formed under the influence of outside economic, political, social, and global world tendencies. That is why each period of time had its particular form of a family with traditions, habits, values, division of responsibilities, and its place in the society. The institution was enforced to assimilate to a new condition and form a new unit in the response to challenges in the society. The epoch of colonization was inspired by the idea of husband domination and old Puritan European traditions, which made the family an essential part of the society. The Civil War era, Industrialization and their consequences brought degradation of family institutions, which were challenged by complicated industrial labor and financial issues. A short period of companionate families enlightened the life of Americans. However, the World War and Depression had new challenges. The beginning of the 50th started the period of a typical American family of the Golden Age, which was the product of global world changes, fear, and economic prosperity.