Childhood in the 18th Century

Childhood in the 18th Century
Elizabeth Monroe: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


James and Elizabeth Monroe had three children, two daughters and one son.  Their son, James Spence, lived only two years. The two remaining, Eliza and Maria, had typical childhoods of the period.  While we don’t have photographs of these children to tell us about their lives, we do have American paintings of children and families that might give us clues as to what their clothes, toys, hairstyles, and some activities were like.


Students participating in this activity will gain some understanding of childhood in the 18th century through a study of paintings of children and families from the period.  They will gain experience in the tasks of observation, comparing and contrasting, synthesizing data, and coming to tentative conclusions about a way of life that is different from their own in some ways, and also similar in some ways.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet. Color copies of five paintings (see below).  Library materials on life in the 18th century; fiction and non-fiction.


1.  If the classroom has equipment that allows projection on a screen from an Internet site, the five paintings below can be shown to the class as a whole.  If not, color copies of the paintings should be obtained by the teacher by printing the paintings and then duplicating them for students.
2.  Students should spend some time studying the paintings, either all of them, or one of them for a small group of students.   On a piece of paper, they should answer the following questions:
  • What are the sights, sounds, smells of the scene?
  • What are the children wearing?
  • What do their clothes tell you about their lives?  Are they well-off or poor?  Do they run around freely? Are they well fed?
  • Are their clothes different from or the same as the clothes of their parents?  What does that tell you about their lives?
  • What objects are in the painting that might give you a clue as to the way they live?  What are their toys? What do they do for fun?
  • What are the children doing in the painting?
  • What sense do the colors in the painting give you about the mood of the children?
  • What do you think they will be doing one minute and then one hour from when the painter is finished?
3.  Students should use library or other materials about life in the 18th century to give them ideas about what they see in the paintings.
4.  Have each child select one of the paintings and write or tell a story about a child in that painting.  What is his or her life like? Is he or she happy or sad?  Why?  How do you think childhood is different now?  How is it the same?  Children can  then share their stories with others and compare ideas.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be extended by using more and different kinds of paintings from various historical periods, or by working with an art teacher to develop different kinds of skills in students regarding drawing, color, composition, etc.

Sources & Resources:

     Aries, Philippe.  Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life.  New York: Vintage, 1965.  [This is a book for teachers to read in which the author deduces changes in the concept and reality of childhood through a study of paintings over several centuries.]

    Library of Congress: Using Primary Sources  

             Boy in a Torn Hat, by Thomas Sully

            The Percy Children, by Gilbert Stuart

            The Peale Family, by Charles Willson Peale            

            A Posthumous Portrait of Mary Griffith          

            The Lincoln Children, by Susan C. Waters

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.