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Cultural Change in Modern World History
Cultural Change in Modern World History

Peter N. Stearns

Peter N. Stearns is Provost Emeritus and Professor of History at George Mason University, USA. He is the author of numerous books on world history including Sexuality in World History (2nd edition, 2017), Globalization in World History (2nd edition, 2016) and Debating the Industrial Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2015). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, Olivia A. O’Neill

Olivia A. O’Neill

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and Jack Censer (Contribution by)

Bloomsbury Academic, 2019

Peter N. Stearns, Olivia A. O’Neill and Jack Censer (Contribution by)

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Book Chapter

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Emotion, the Family, and Culture Change

A More Personal Scale

DOI: 10.5040/9781350054363.ch-007
Page Range: 143–168

All societies, and many groups and organizations within societies, develop a culture around emotions—a set of what one sociologist has called “feeling rules” that are meant to guide individuals in evaluating and expressing emotions.[1] These cultural standards interact with basic physiological and psychological responses in generating actual emotional experience and the social rules that grow up around this experience. Students of emotion debate the balance between intrinsic or “natural” reactions, that form a common element among human beings, and the impact of “cultural construction”—the extent to which different beliefs and values shape distinctive emotional responses. While it is important not to forget the natural or human-universal components, it turns out that cultural shaping plays a significant and sometimes decisive role in defining how particular groups express and evaluate emotions.[2]

Not surprisingly, emotional cultures can vary considerably from one society to the next. This variation, and the comparisons that result, have fueled many anthropological studies over the past century and have generated important findings about the range of emotional priorities human beings can create. Also unsurprisingly—though this discovery is effectively more recent—emotional cultures can also change considerably over time. We have already encountered some examples of emotional change in dealing with organizations, in Chapter 5. In what follows, we turn to a number of important shifts in emotional standards, opening yet another domain for assessing cultural changes—changes that in this case reach deeply into individual and family life.

Interest in changing emotional standards, and the causes and consequences of these shifts, is one of the more significant products of the “cultural turn” in historical and sociological research since the 1980s.[3] A number of research centers have emerged, particularly in Europe and Australia, while specific studies of changes and continuities in emotional beliefs and values have surged, around emotions as varied as fear and nostalgia. But efforts to probe emotions history face some particular challenges. Emotional rules change, but most scholars agree there are also some inherent features of emotion that must also be considered. And while enthusiasm for emotions history has mounted, the discipline that dominates emotions research—psychology—has yet to open widely to a focus on change, preferring instead to center on some of the more standard features of the human experience such as the facial expressions that accompany key emotions. Most important, analysis of emotions history almost always encounters limitations in the available evidence, particularly about “real” emotional experience in the past, that complicate any sweeping conclusions about the nature and impact of change.

This chapter begins with a few quick illustrations of significant shifts in emotional culture, suggesting both the power of this particular facet of culture change but also some of the key questions that emerge. We then turn to a more sweeping and systematic exploration of changes and continuities in the emotional cultures that surround family life, first in the modern Western experience and then in some comparative settings where regional values and beliefs combine with other factors including the influence of modern global standards.

Transformations in the cultural framework for emotional life bring the power of culture change into deeply personal realms, affecting many of the key relationships that inform daily life. In this sense, they relate closely to many of the changes in medical culture explored in the previous chapter—as in pushing into private behaviors and even the evaluation of the physical senses. There are wider implications as well, for example in legal norms, as societies work to incorporate new beliefs about how emotions should be expressed or restrained. As with all the main manifestations of culture change, the process is ongoing, as societies today continue to adjust emotional standards to additional developments. Debate over the emotional impact of social media—in allowing new kinds of emotional contact among distant acquaintances but also in facilitating emotional bullying and vituperation—is just another manifestation, though an important one, of the power of change in this aspect of the human experience.

Illustrating Changes in Emotional Culture

Research on the cultural standards that help shape emotion can follow essentially the same template applicable to other explorations of culture change: it is important to specify the culture that prevailed before change set in, while identifying the timing of any shift; after the change itself is identified, analysis can turn to issues of causation and continuity; and finally, the larger significance of the change can be sketched. Predictably, many key shifts in emotional culture take shape over several decades, sometimes with several identifiable phases in the overall transformation.

Jealousy

At some levels at least, cultural signals surrounding jealousy changed dramatically in the United States between the later nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth, and some of the new cultural framework seems to have persisted since that point.

Two illustrations capture the direction of change. In the nineteenth century, it was possible for a man—assuming he had sufficient money to afford effective legal representation—to argue in court that jealousy was a legitimate excuse for murder, when the victim was an adulterous wife, her lover, or both. Several dramatic trials and verdicts vindicated this defense, around claims that jealousy was an unavoidable response to the unfaithfulness of a wife and that the power of the emotion could overwhelm normal rationality.[4] It was of course noteworthy that wives could not use the same argument, given prevailing beliefs that male passion was harder to control than female so that husbands could not be held to quite the same standards. But the key point was the fact that by the 1920s, just a few decades later, this kind of argument about jealousy as an excuse for murder was being uniformly rejected by American courts. Whatever the power of emotion, judges now ruled, it was incumbent upon men to maintain restraint—just as women were supposed to do.

Around the same time, concern about jealousy among children was beginning to reach unprecedented levels, around the phenomenon psychologists and social workers now labeled “sibling rivalry.” Parenting manuals began to urge the importance of controlling what was now seen as a dangerous but unfortunately inevitable manifestation of jealousy among brothers and sisters, for two reasons. First, the emotion might cause violence among children themselves, particularly when a toddler confronted the arrival of a newborn sibling. And second, if untended childish jealousy could produce an immature adult, incapable of constructive relationships either in marriage or in the workplace. Jealousy could be effectively countered, but only if parents were alert to the problems involved.[5]

An aspect of emotional culture was shifting, in other words, in two ways: first, the problem of jealousy simply required a degree of explicit attention that had not been seen as necessary in the nineteenth century. And second, an emotion that had previously been regarded as trivial or even moderately useful, for example in encouraging marital fidelity, was now vigorously and explicitly disapproved.

Causes of the change are not entirely clear. The rise of psychological expertise, bent on generating new definitions of emotional maturity, played a role; so, quite possibly, did a lower birth rate and a decline of a live-in maid of all work, which increased the direct interactions between parents and children in middle-class households. Growing social contacts between males and females, from schooling and adolescent dating onward, made greater control of jealousy almost imperative, compared to the wider gender separation that had prevailed during the nineteenth century.

And the change had consequences, both in personal evaluations and, of course, in legal norms. Polls from the 1930s onward showed that an increasing number of Americans, from teenagers on up, were eager to claim that they were immune to jealousy, that they recognized the emotion as a sign of immaturity. The effects endured, as a 1990s study found Americans (compared to the French or the Dutch) particularly anxious to conceal any jealousy that they felt in fact, in the face of friends and acquaintances—an approach that had been far less necessary a century before.[6] American jealousy, quite simply, had changed in a number of respects, from law to personal self-evaluation.

Boredom

One of the most intriguing indices of change in emotional culture involves the arrival and then growing acceptance of a new vocabulary, that almost certainly reveals a point at which emotional needs and standards are being redefined. This is the case with a concept that by the later twentieth/early twenty-first centuries would become a vital means of conveying at least a mildly unsatisfactory emotional state: the idea of boredom.

Words for boring and boredom originated, in English, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively.[7] They strongly suggested the emergence of a new awareness that an individual was not, for the moment, being adequately served by his environment or his companions or was not utilizing them effectively. The level of stimulation that should normally be expected was simply absent. The new words—and we do not know their specific sources—caught on haltingly, but became increasingly standard fare by the later nineteenth century. Something was changing in the relevant emotional domain, though as we will see the initial deployment of the concept would also shift over time.

The increasing effort to find a word to express inadequate engagement raises fascinating questions about what emotional situation the concept replaced—about the baseline for this particular change. What did people do, how did they feel or express themselves, before the idea of boredom was explicitly available?

There are, to be sure, descriptions of what we would call boring situations in earlier literature: there is one, for example, in a poem by the Latin writer Horace, but with no word attached, so it is hard to figure out what the components of the individual reactions were. The French word ennui is older than boredom, but it does not really describe the same condition. It is quite possible that many individuals, before the late eighteenth century, had a greater capacity to turn off their senses, to endure the lack of stimulus passively, without the need for a term that would suggest that something was missing. Among other things, napping or dozing off was undoubtedly more common than would be the case later on. And, at least in seventeenth-century England and North America, a pervasive belief that some degree of moderate sadness was to be expected in the life of sinning humans may have displaced any need to feel boredom as well. For intensely religious Christians, finally, an appropriate relationship with God might preclude feeling or admitting boredom, but of course not everyone in the English-speaking world acquired that level of engagement. In sum: in this case we know that a new concept suggested emotional concerns that had not previously prevailed, but a precise characterization of the human experience before boredom was an available expression is elusive.

As “boring” and then “boredom” entered the language, the terms clearly suggested the absence of adequate entertainment. Without yet using the word, for example, Charles Dickens attacked a proposal to ban Sunday recreations with the argument that English working people, lacking other pastimes, would be “listless”; and it was Dickens who, in the 1850s, would actually first use the term “boredom.” Others equated boredom, similarly, with lack of adequate sources of diversion. Thomas Gray, writing in the later eighteenth century, thus bemoaned his life at the University of Cambridge: “everything is so tediously regular, or samish, that I expire for want of variety.”[8]

The kind of awareness that made boredom an essential concept flowed, in turn, from two related changes in middle- and upper-class (and initially, particularly male) life. The causes of innovation in this instance are more easily established than the conditions prior to the change. In the first place, as discussed in Chapter 3, many Westerners were gaining an increasing sense of their own individuality, and defining their emotional experience in terms of individual levels of satisfaction rather than their place in a larger community. Not only individuality, but a growing belief that people should normally be, and expect to be, happy and cheerful (in contrast to earlier wide acceptance of a certain degree of melancholy) supported the need for a term that would convey inadequacy. Boredom, in other words, related directly to some of the big cultural shifts in modern Western society.[9] And second, opportunities for consumer pleasures, including access to new kinds of entertainment, gained ground steadily from the eighteenth century onward, one of the big changes in the Western experience that would naturally generate new emotional language and expectations. Many people were increasingly engaged in contemplating and shopping for (and in some cases, stealing) new kinds of home furnishings and new types of colorful, fashionable clothing. By the mid-nineteenth century, urban people gained access to more formal sporting events or popular theater, another shift that would encourage expectations of recurrent stimulation.[10]

Even in this evolving context, boredom initially included some implications that have since been jettisoned, that linked the concept not just to expectations of diversion but to older ideas about good character. Proper individuals should respond to boredom not by blaming others, but by correcting their own habits. And it was vital, as etiquette manuals in the nineteenth century routinely emphasized, that people not be boring themselves—even children should learn to be interesting. By the mid-twentieth century, however, this attachment to individual responsibility was eroding, as “being bored” focused primarily on a person’s sense that there was something missing in the immediate environment, that someone else—a parent or a teacher, for a bored child—should make life more stimulating again. (And authors, of course, should not subject readers to boring books.)

The availability of the concept of boredom, finally, is another case in which changes in emotional standards had consequences. Prompted in part by the steady intensification of modern consumerism, the idea that avoiding boredom was a legitimate personal goal would in turn help generate the growing array of goods and entertainments that have become part of modern urban life in places like the United States. By the twentieth century, boredom criteria could also be applied to other settings—for example, the classroom—prompting teachers to try to make learning more “fun,” or textbook writers to enliven their presentations with more pictures or other diversions. And responsive adults, in societies where boredom was an available critique, sought a growing array of activities that would reassure them that their children were being appropriately entertained, in what was a significant addition to definition of good parenting.

Fear

Suggesting changes in the experience of fear involves one undeniable complexity that sets this emotion off from boredom or jealousy. Fear, as most psychologists would quickly assert, is a basic emotion, an inherent part of the human condition, generating widely recognizable facial expressions, found in every society no matter what the culture. Prospecting for basic shifts in the standards applicable to fear may be intrinsically more difficult, more likely to yield at best limited results, than in the case of more composite emotions.

But there are two approaches worth suggesting, as further illustrations of the potential for culture change in very personal human experience.

First, it is at least possible that a series of modern developments in Western culture—again, focusing on the eighteenth and possibly nineteenth centuries—shifted the susceptibility to fear in some interesting ways. A leading French historian, Jean Delumeau, has thus argued that, in France, the nature of fear changed fundamentally with growing scientific discoveries and their popularization (thanks in turn to growing literacy and ultimately wider access to education), that reduced some of the standard fears that had been associated with religion and magic. Religious leaders and ordinary parents gradually curtailed the explicit use of fear in disciplining children as part of a turn away from an emphasis on sinfulness—the traditional use of various bogeymen, to frighten children into obedience, thus came under explicit attack from leading childrearing experts by the nineteenth century. New lighting devices, and ultimately the advent of electricity, reduced fears of the dark. Delumeau admits that these changes might be complicated by new kinds of fears—for example, growing concern about heart disease and cancer, by the later nineteenth century, as increasingly important causes of death. It remains possible that some systematic shifts both in the sources and even the levels of fear in non-crisis situations deserve attention, either in changing fear levels, or reducing the acceptability of fear, or both.[11]

Second and most definitely: if explorations of sweeping alterations in the nature of fear remain tentative, given the pervasiveness of the emotion, there is no question that significant shorter-term shifts in fear culture provide important insights into changing human experiences. For example, a fear of being buried alive measurably increased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Stories about the phenomenon proliferated—some of them fictional, by authors like Edgar Allen Poe who presumably shared the fear himself, others purporting to be real. A number of individuals shared the phobia, including George Washington who stipulated that he not be buried until at least two days after his death. The fear was so pervasive that a variety of devices were introduced to allow escape hatches or alarms in the most fashionable coffins. Here, then, was a significant change in the incidence of a type of fear, with real personal consequences at least for a number of people in Britain and the United States. Causes of change are less clear: certainly new techniques for reviving people near death emerged by the eighteenth century, that might indirectly stimulate fears as well as expectations. Some uneasiness about the growing claims of doctors and about new burial practices might also have been involved. Finally, of course, this particular fear would subside, by the twentieth century, as part of greater confidence in doctors and hospitals—another change in fear culture at the more recent end of the modern chronological spectrum.

A further example of significant change in one fear category is more strictly contemporary, with ongoing implications particularly in the United States. By the late 1970s, many American parents became increasingly fearful about the safety of their children. Two horrible and widely-publicized kidnappings and murders (in 1979 and 1981, respectively) combined with changes in television news and programming to create a widespread set of fears. Crime shows proliferated, while local newscasts expanded, embellished by new capacities for “on the scene” reporting that frequently emphasized grieving parents vividly portrayed on camera—even from other parts of the country. The result was a set of broadly shared, and erroneous, beliefs. Polls suggested that by the 1980s parents on average thought that as many as 55,000 children were being abducted by strangers annually—the actual figures were 200–300. In 1982, stories of children poisoned by Halloween candy led to growing restrictions on trick-or treating—even though the stories were untrue. A new fear culture, around child safety, measurably increased parental anxieties and led as well to a number of more restrictive behaviors, particularly in preventing many children from walking to school or using public transportation, in a pattern that still prevails (though amid growing criticism for its limitations on children’s competence) through the second decade of the twenty-first century. Parents who defied the timid norms were criticized as “free range” and irresponsible. Not only parents, but police officers who periodically arrested parents for behaviors like letting their offspring play untended in a local park, reflected a set of beliefs quite different from those that had prevailed just a half-century earlier. Politicians played a part as well, often seeking to exaggerate fears or crime, playing on the new emotional vulnerabilities but extending them as well. Here too, elements of fear culture have a discernible if in this case very recent history, where the analysis of culture change uncovers important shifts in human behavior.[12]

*  *  *

The basic point is clear enough. Emotions are not simply expressions of inherent human responses, even in basic domains such as fear or anger. They are shaped in part by cultural standards that are in turn subject to changes, which in turn in many cases can be explained. The results often affect individual experiences—witness the array of people for a century or more gripped by fears of premature burial—and social institutions (as in the legal standards applied to jealousy claims) alike. Analysis is not uncomplicated—as in trying to work out how boredom was managed before it had a name, or trying to assess longer-term changes in a basic emotion like fear—and the whole field of emotions history is a work still in progress. But a number of specific findings already improve our grasp of human experiences in the past and in several instances, as with the recent changes in parental fears in the United States, help explain key contemporary dilemmas as well.

Application of culture change analysis to emotion helps open a larger domain as well, where developments can be traced in greater detail over the past two centuries, but again with ongoing applicability to the present. Emotional definitions of the family began shifting fairly rapidly from the mid-eighteenth century onward, creating new expectations and practices that have persisted and amplified with time. The results apply well beyond general ideas about the family, to specific practices such as birth control and courtship or mate selection. Culture change intertwines, however, with other factors such as new systems of work and production, creating important questions about the role of beliefs and values in relationship to more objective pressures and opportunities. And, while important issues remain to be explored, the analytical framework expands beyond Western society alone, creating opportunities for comparison and for an assessment of global cultural influences, that again connect culture change directly to patterns in the contemporary world.

Emotional Culture and the Family

Over the past 250 years, the family was substantially redefined in Western culture from an economic and religious unit with some emotional implications, to a largely emotional unit that also shared important consumer functions, with varying religious attachments. This was, again, not a cultural change alone: industrialization and urbanization progressively reduced the family’s production function, moving most jobs outside the home in contrast to the patterns that had prevailed for many centuries in an agricultural economy. But the growing emphasis on the emotional service of marriage and parenthood, involving both mate selection and parent–child relations, guided the new expectations attached to family life, which in turn help explain the institution’s continued viability. Further developments, in emotional culture and the economy alike, in the twentieth century, introduced some additional changes, but without undoing much of the previous reorientation.

Exploring and extending this argument involves three segments. First, the shift in family standards and their intersection with economic change can be spelled out more fully—which is where the culture change patterns can be most confidently defined. Second, more recent changes and adaptations can be sketched, which modify without fully replacing the modern trajectory. Third, the role of cultural changes and continuities in several other societies during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries suggest some comparative issues that extend the range of analysis.

The Rise of the Loving Family: Changes in Western Europe and the United States

By the later eighteenth century, in many parts of the West, new family imagery was emerging that at once heightened the emphasis on romantic love as a crucial basis for marriage, and urged the importance of maternal affection while highlighting the lovability of children. These various qualities emerged in literature and educational philosophy alike, but they were not mere intellectual artifacts. They contributed as well to changes in legal formulations—and where marriage was concerned in some of the new patterns of consumerism, and in novel decisions about birth rates. And they began to affect personal expectations as well, though older standards maintained a considerable hold.

These changes played out against a rather different pattern in traditional Western family life, though historians have quarreled over the precise quality of familial emotions before the cultural transformation began to emerge. There is little question of a baseline that differed considerably from the emotional norms that were clearly gaining ground by the early nineteenth century, but the degree of difference has been a matter of dispute.

When scholarly attention was first applied to family emotions, the temptation to emphasize the huge gap between premodern and modern standards was almost inescapable. Traditional marriages, after all, were almost always arranged by parents, mainly on the basis of economic and property criteria. Couples were joined because the bride’s family could contribute an appropriate dowry that would help establish the marriage on a sound economic footing and perhaps add to the overall standing of the husband and his parents as well. Mutual attraction might develop after the fact, but it was irrelevant and even potentially dangerous to the basic negotiation, and the young people involved had little voice in any event. Children were put to work early, except at the highest levels of society. Most families sought a birth rate that would produce enough child and teenage workers to promote the family economy, but not too many. Child mortality rates were high, which surely constrained the emotional investment in young children; in a few regions, parents did not even bother to name their offspring until they had survived a year or two, because of the uncertainties involved. And while families depended on child workers, they also depended on the death rate lest their resources be overwhelmed by too many survivors. At first glance, the traditional family seemed to be an economic calculation above all, with emotional values subsidiary at best, repressed at worst. Small wonder that one pioneering historian of the British family contended that one would expect to find as much emotion in the traditional family as in a bird’s nest.[13]

This picture was overdrawn. It ignored many standard human qualities that stretch across time, such as grief for a dying infant even in families accustomed to high death rates. And the generalizations drew constructive protests from historians who knew more about the nuances of premodern family life in the West. Marriages might be largely arranged, and property considerations loomed large. And young people were discouraged from forming individual attachments—most social activities occurred in groups, not separate couples. But young people might nevertheless have preferences, and depending on their persuasiveness and parental indulgence these might have some effect; it was also true that Christian tradition held that people should not be married without their consent, though this provision was not always honored. After a marriage was arranged (and sometimes before the ceremony, as a high rate of what are called “prebridal” pregnancies, or conceptions a few months before the wedding, suggests), couples might well develop real mutual attraction. As to affection for children, while parents were constrained by their needs for child labor, and children were sometimes treated cavalierly—for example, with surprisingly little attention to the prevention of accidents—parents often enjoyed playing with their offspring and sincerely mourned the passing of those who died young. The family was indeed primarily an economic institution, sanctioned by the Christian religion, but it often yielded emotional rewards as well.[14]

Furthermore, though not surprisingly, some important adjustments preceded the bigger changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most notably, the rise of Protestantism prompted new thinking about the family and its members, which ultimately could spill over into Catholic standards as well. While Catholicism had deeply valued the family—marriage was a sacrament—it had also stipulated that celibacy was spiritually preferable, and indeed required in principle of priests and monks. Protestants disputed this; Martin Luther himself pointedly married a former nun. Over time, this higher valuation of the family generated wider commentary about the importance of positive family relationships, including due attention to the well-being of wives as well as husbands. Along with the tentative cultural shift, commercial changes also promoted new attention to family life. Growing economic competition, one historian has argued, caused new tensions in relationships among men, prompting greater reliance on family ties as an emotional alternative. Rising living standards for part of the population supported new family rituals and comforts, such as more elaborate mealtimes and more attractive furnishings.[15] With a context ripe for further developments, it is vital to note that, where the family was concerned in Western society, decisive culture change came first, chronologically, preceding any substantial adjustments in structure. The initial target was marriage, or more properly the choice of marriage partners. The importance of emotional compatibility, or romantic love, began to rise, competing with, and in some cases overwhelming, the more traditional reliance on economic criteria and parental arrangements. More and more young people began to expect to be attracted to their mates, and Western society more generally at least partially responded.

Evidence is wide-ranging, beginning toward the middle decades of the eighteenth century. One of the key targets of rising consumerism was the new eagerness, particularly by young people, for more fashionable, colorful clothing, that would prove attractive to members of the opposite sex. A new type of reading, the novel, began to generate considerable interest in the middle classes, as literacy expanded, and it frequently featured romantic yearnings (and, often, the tragedies that might result if romance was denied). Young people themselves clearly began to resist parental choices, and even take the issue to the courts to escape a contracted engagement; and a number of courts, as in some parts of Switzerland, began to agree that a match was invalid if one of the individuals involved declared that she could never love the fiancé her parents had designated. By the end of the century, a rising rate of illegitimate births clearly demonstrated that parental control over young people’s behavior was loosening, though whether greater love was involved is difficult to determine. Clearly, family formation, and the cultural standards behind it, was beginning to change.[16]

Alterations in ideas about children began to emerge in the same decades, though it is harder at first to pinpoint emotional implications. The same wave of Enlightenment thinking that revolutionized ideas about social hierarchy or individualism or the relevance of modern medicine had a strong impact on concepts of childhood. Beginning with philosophers like John Locke in the late seventeenth century, the idea that children were tainted by original sin was downplayed in favor of seeing the young as “blank slates” whose characteristics, bad or good, could be developed through education. Correspondingly a widespread traditional sense that children were animal-like—which had led among other things to a distaste for seeing infants crawl—was countered by a growing interest in their rational capacities. This cultural upgrade of children was then enhanced not only by the rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—which extended Locke’s findings—but by the new current of Romanticism that extended the belief in children’s innocence and beauty. One late-eighteenth-century pamphlet, by the English Radical Thomas Spence, even went so far as to refer to children’s rights.[17]

These new concepts, increasingly available through popularized reading matter, clearly encouraged some significant changes in adult practices. They promoted interest in education for the young, with some concern for schooling that would go beyond rote learning to encourage individual creative capacities. They stimulated the wider attention to individualism among children that led, among other things, to the new interest in providing children with original names, rather than emphasizing ancestral or Biblical standards or even re-using names that had previously been given to siblings now dead. (See Chapter 3.) They also placed growing emphasis on the importance of active, caring parenting, and particularly mothering. Traditional practices, like wrapping young children tightly in cloth strips—swaddling—or sending babies out to other wet nurses so their mothers could keep working, now came under wide attack, and almost certainly began to decline. Praise for motherhood intensified accordingly, but so did some real and burdensome obligations.[18]

Whether these important shifts yet included a heightened sense of love between parents and children is not yet clear, though at the least they certainly prepared the way. Encouraged by wider intellectual trends—both rationalism and new Romantic interests in sensibility; promoted as well by economic changes that gave some young adults greater earning power, independent of their parents, and also encouraged new consumer displays—a new family culture was being sketched. The culture included the growing expectations of romance and independent choice in courtship, but also embraced new attitudes and practices concerning children.

And from this backdrop, the emphasis on familial love extended steadily in the nineteenth century, particularly (though not necessarily exclusively) in the growing urban middle classes. While elements of the arranged marriage did not disappear—even today, as family sociologists note, most people manage to fall in love with someone in their own socioeconomic bracket—wooing practices developed that emphasized the cultivation of mutual affection and choice and that gave couples some private space. Letters exchanged during courtship often reflect not just affection, but intense passion. The American Bryon Caldwell Smith, pressing Katherine Stephens in letters in the mid-1870s, thus urged: “Oh write, write, I am perishing to see on paper the words—I love you.” Describing that “great passion” that filled him, he sought to distinguish his love from mere sentimentality: “True love is to love with all one’s soul what is pure, what is high, what is eternal.” “To love you seems to be the supreme (goal) of my existence.” And women often responded in kind, like Angelina Grimke in letters to Theodore Weld: “Yes my heart continuously cleaves to you … Why do I feel in my inmost soul that you, and you only, can fill up the deep void that is there?”[19] New words, like “soulmate” (first employed in 1822) reflected the fervor of the new romantic culture.

Expectations of love showed in other ways. By the later nineteenth century newcomers to cities began to take out “lovelorn” ads in newspapers, seeking to find potential partners amid the strangeness of urban life. Their efforts clearly reflected the primacy of affection: many ads specifically disclaimed any particular concern with a potential partner’s economic status, or even physical beauty, in favor of a shared interest in emotional goals. Friendships were also flavored by the new intensity. Many young women, both prior to and during marriage, expressed deep affection to their female friends. Men—often unable to launch courtships until their later twenties, because of the need to establish themselves economically—also expressed flowery language and deep yearning in their letters to male friends, though in this case the connections usually receded after marriage.[20]

Figure 7.1. Heart’s Delight, card from 1890. Source: The Library of Congress.

Love also infused the growing literature on parent–child relations, and particularly the sense that mothers had a power of disinterested love for their offspring that was fundamental both to family life and to children’s positive development. As a publication appropriately called Mother’s Magazine gushed: “Love, flowing from a hidden spring in a mother’s heart … surges deeper and wider as it goes, till neighborhood, friends and country are refreshed by its living waters.” Mother’s love “teaches our hearts the first lesson of love … Around her our affection twine closely as surely, as the young vine clasps itself about the branch that supports it; our love for her becomes so thoroughly a part and portion of ourselves, that it defies time and decay.” Children of a loving mother would come to “revere her as the earthly type of perfect love … they cannot but desire to conform themselves to such models.” While the most obvious target of these values involved mothers themselves, the idea that children had emotional obligations of their own gained ground as well. Obviously, they should respond to mother love with their own deep affection. They were also increasingly urged to be cheerful. References to the importance of cheerful obedience, or simply cheerfulness, almost unknown in the eighteenth century, now increased in frequency as part of the new standards being applied to family life.

Figure 7.2. Mother and baby. From the American Annual of Photography (New York: Tennant and Ward, 1911).

Emphasis on family love also had other corollaries. The loving parent should refrain from using fear, anger, or shame in discipline, lest they spoil childish innocence and poison the positive qualities of family life. Of course children still needed to behave, but parents should restrain their own emotions in enforcing the rules and should rely wherever possible in positive incentives rather than punishments of any sort. The idea of protecting children’s self-esteem was noted as early as the 1850s. More widely, hopes that the family could be kept free of negative emotions affected discussions not only of parenting but also of marriage itself. It was vital that spouses refrain from anger—and this applied to husbands (who might need to use anger in the workplace, but should keep it in check at home) as well as the more naturally affectionate and sweet-tempered wives. New ideas and rituals concerning outpourings of grief, even and perhaps particularly in the case of deaths of children, linked clearly to the emphasis on the intensity of family love.[22] (See Chapter 6.)

It is impossible to know precisely how many people, even in the middle classes in Western Europe and the United States, bought into these emotional expectations in their own lives. The individuals who poured out their feelings in letters and diaries may have been atypical. Older cultural traditions, including continued visions of children less as lovable innocents than as sinners, persisted without question—as among the ongoing minority of evangelical Protestants in the United States. One historian has argued that uses of fear in discipline continued among most American Catholics (heavily influenced by Irish churchmen) until well into the twentieth century, when change did set in.[23] Even aside from important swaths of cultural traditionalism, many people who aspired to the new emotional goals may have fallen short in practice—as some women, aware that they had sharper tempers than the feminine ideal allowed for, ruefully admitted. Nevertheless the new value system was widely promulgated, not only in novels but in all sorts of family advice, including the emerging genre of the woman’s magazine.

Furthermore, the new emotional culture began to intertwine with actual changes in family practice, even aside from funeral rituals. Most obviously, the innovations furthered, and were furthered by, the growing interest in limiting the birth rate, a crucial change that began to take shape, first in the middle classes, from the end of the eighteenth century onward. There were vital economic reasons for this change: increasingly, industrial economies reduced the number of jobs available for young children, while new laws gradually limited child labor and also insisted on school attendance. These shifts generated several compelling practical reasons to begin to push the birth rate down, as children began to move from a role as economic assets to a source of economic liability.[24] But new beliefs and emotional values may have entered in as well, linking culture change to other factors in helping to explain one of the big modern transformations in human life. Certainly more and more parents became persuaded that children should be educated, which would encourage limiting the traditional birth rate in favor of easier affordability. But did increasing affection for young children also suggest the importance of reducing birth rates in order to promote the ability to invest—for each individual child—the range of positive emotions that were now expected? And there may have been other links between culture change and new behavior as well: one study suggests that husbands, in the American South, newly affectionate toward their wives, urged fewer births in order to limit the risks of maternal mortality, in direct contrast to their eighteenth-century antecedents when husbands evinced scant concern, a fascinating case of specific culture change.[25]

In turn, lower birth rates almost certainly furthered the larger cultural trends. Having fewer children enhanced the emotional connections between parents (again, particularly mothers) and each individual child. It has also been speculated that the requirements of birth-rate reduction, which in the nineteenth century depended heavily on sexual restraint, also promoted some of the emotional intensity that often developed in courtship: normally constrained by Victorian standards of respectability from outright sexual intercourse, many loving couples vented their feelings through unusually flowery imagery.

Finally, when by the later nineteenth century lower infant mortality rates began to mirror the earlier reduction in birth levels, emotional culture was again involved. Most obviously, when families no longer had to expect that one or more of their children would die—a transformation that was completed, in Western society, between 1880 and 1920—emotional investment in individual children would almost inevitably increase still further. At the same time, the promotion of love for children prepared many parents for the change as well, encouraging them to take advantage of new measures that would help keep infants and toddlers alive. As with the birth rate, interactions between culture and demographic change were mutually reinforcing.

The surge in expectations of love—from early childhood through marriage and even, increasingly, into new ideas about grandparenthood—had its downsides. First, it carried clearly ambiguous implications concerning gender. The new emotional culture applied to both genders, and it could raise difficulties for men—for example, in changing emotional gears from work to family life. But the impact on women was particularly complex. On the one hand, the new culture gave women important new powers, in principle and often in fact. They were the “natural” leaders of the family, alone imbued with the deeply loving qualities now essential to family life. Older ideas—that women were by nature more sinful than men—were now displaced. The new courtship imagery also heightened an emphasis on female beauty; one historian has noted that it was in the eighteenth century, in the West, that the aristocracy, and particularly male aristocrats, no longer served as society’s bearers of fashion and beauty, their place taken by women as a gender. But these gains obviously imposed limitations. Measuring up to the new emotional and aesthetic standards took work. Even approximating the ideal mother was no easy task. And the whole imagery increased the widespread conviction that respectable women should largely be confined to the home.[26]

Ideas of familial love—particularly, in this case, in marriage—also generated new opportunities for disappointment. As families became less important economically, with work moving outside the home, opportunities for dissolution and abandonment unquestionably increased. Where people were also encouraged to measure their families as sources of emotional intensity and satisfaction—as centers of happiness—they could also decide that what they had was not living up to expectations. It was no accident that new ideas about divorce accompanied the changing family culture: in France, this shift occurred as early as the French Revolution, though in this case more restrictive rules were then restored. In the United States changes in divorce law emerged from the mid-nineteenth century onward, and the actual divorce rate began what turned out to be steady climb for many decades. Again, a number of factors were involved. But the idea that families should provide a positive emotional environment contributed to support for the laws themselves—up to the point, by the later twentieth century, when the whole idea of a “no fault” divorce capped the effort to release people from emotional distress—and added to the family instability that resulted.[27]

For better or worse—and evaluation can embrace both aspects—the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries unquestionably saw the emergence of a dramatically new family culture. The family’s emotional functions began to replace a waning economic role, a vital shift that actually helps explain why the institution survived as well as it did in the changing environment. Of course the older family culture had included some emotional components, and without question some more traditional ideas survived. But the notion—the hope—of the family as a supremely positive place gained ground quite widely in Western society. For some, at least, this included a sense that the family was different from the outside world, precisely because of its emotional values; becoming what Christopher Lasch referred to, in describing the nineteenth century family ideal, as a “haven in a heartless world.” The culture change, and the expectations and practices it helped generate, was powerful stuff.[28]

And despite all the complexities, assessing this major culture change does allow the basic question to be answered: can culture change cause an increase in something as personal as love and expectation of love? The answer is yes, and indeed the focus both on children and on adults moving toward marriage helped connect the impacts, as children taught to expect and offer love would have distinctive romantic needs as well as they reached adulthood.

Two questions remain. First, for Western society, has the intense family culture that developed in the nineteenth century persisted through the succeeding decades? Even potent culture change does not survive forever, and pretty obviously some significant modifications and challenges to nineteenth century standards would emerge later on. And second, what about the comparative implications? Families in many societies have experienced, mainly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, some of the same pressures and opportunities that began to emerge in the West with nineteenth-century industrialization and urbanization. Have they shared as well in some of the same kinds of cultural shifts? Has the emotional transformation of the family become part of a global pattern?

Revisiting the Family Culture: The West in the Past Century

A focus on culture change inevitably raises the question: how long will a new pattern last? The new ideas about love and family that had matured through the nineteenth century had real power, instilled through many stories, rituals, even advertisements and often incorporated in family life itself. On the other hand, the twentieth century would see many great changes in both culture and society in Europe and the United States, which undeniably affected family values. It became harder to define the central threads in the standards of courtship and parenthood than had been the case for the nineteenth century, or at least the nineteenth-century middle class. Nevertheless, many core values persisted amid some adjustments in language and intensity. Modification, not another round of systematic culture change, best captures the patterns that resulted.

Several factors encouraged many people, again both in Europe and the United States, to reconsider elements of the nineteenth-century cultural framework. A few movements urged a return to even older family standards, to emphasize for example an increased birth rate and more traditional roles for women; this was an important element of the Nazi and fascist ideologies.

More important for the twentieth century as a whole was a significant revision of the principal sources of advice on family matters. Advice literature in the nineteenth century, on romance and particularly the transcendent role of mother love, came primarily from moralists, both male and female. After 1900 this source receded in favor of psychological, medical and other trained experts. These, in turn, had a vested interest in reevaluating older standards in light of new discoveries, which would after all form one means of confirming the importance of their expertise. And new interests in healthy psychological balance led to some questions, particularly about the effects of excessive emotional intensity, either from parents or courting couples. The result modified the older approaches to love, and helped explain the changes in language and tone.[29]

Along with this came a pervasive new interest in greater informality, as against nineteenth-century social codes. Here was another source of concern about undue intensity, particularly among adults. Friendships and courtships alike should be more relaxed. This “informalization,” an important cultural current in its own right on both sides of the Atlantic, showed particularly in male–female relationships.[30] Led by new patterns in the United States, dating began to replace the more formal courtship habits of the previous century. Young people interacted farther away from adult supervision, with greater reliance on commercial entertainments.[31] Dating did not contradict a search for love—this could indeed remain the principal ultimate goal—but it encouraged more experimentation and a more casual approach. Particularly in the middle classes, young people were encouraged to “date” a number of different people before ultimately, after schooling was completed, beginning to expect a more durable emotional commitment.

Linked to greater informality and new sources of advice, at least two other trends, intensifying from the 1920s onward, affected relevant emotional culture. Consumerism accelerated steadily. More and more people expressed themselves through growing interests in shopping, acquiring new goods, enjoying a wider range of commercial entertainments. Heightened consumerism did not necessarily distract from commitments to love, but at the least it would urge new forms of expression. Gifts to children, most obviously, became a growing means by which parents might express their affection and through which children themselves would expect parental response.[32] Along with this came a more open interest in sexuality and sexual pleasure. Hardly brand new, and often disputed, this interest would ultimately encourage more sexual experimentation before marriage and sometimes within marriage itself.[33] These developments became particularly obvious as access to birth-control options increased and amid the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, but there were some indications even earlier. And the result, at the least, could complicate earlier definitions of love as the basis for family formation.

From the 1920s onward many people in the United States and Western Europe, for a variety of reasons, rebelled against aspects of nineteenth-century family culture, finding it stifling or unrealistic or both. There is little question that key elements of the romantic emotional standards began to be diluted from the 1920s onward, as part of some significant shifts in family values and structures. Even vocabulary was adjusted. The flowery words used to express intense love in the nineteenth century—whether the focus was maternal affection or courtship—began to sound silly by the mid-twentieth, though they were sometimes still echoed on commercial greeting cards used for birthdays or anniversaries (and it was the early twentieth century, not the nineteenth, that introduced the celebration of a highly sentimental Mother’s Day).

Several new factors entered into what amounted to a review—though not a total rejection—of family emotional ideals.

Signs of partial reevaluation emerged clearly. Purveyors of family advice—both experts and popularizers—began to warn against excessive mother love. Some argued that mothers were imposing too much on their children, particularly daughters, leading to conflict as the offspring reached adolescence and adulthood. Others simply worried that too many mothers thought that love was enough, failing to deal appropriately with children’s health and psychological needs. Most telling of all, however, was a growing sense that mother love could race out of control, harming children’s independence and leaving mothers themselves too tied to their children’s affection. Commentary on the “dangers of too much mother love” dotted the half-century after 1920, easing to some extent only in the 1960s when larger numbers of mothers reentered the labor force. Few commentators attacked the basic idea of maternal love, but the need for balance and restraint contradicted nineteenth-century assumptions that family emotions flowed naturally from women’s nature.

Somewhat similar hesitations now applied to love in courtship and marriage: the basic emotional goal was fine, but it could be overdone. A variety of marriage experts—a new genre that grew steadily in popularity through the midcentury decades, and which included an impressive array of college courses on the subject—worried that love alone could lead to bad choices and a shallow basis for handling the practical demands of family life. Revealingly, by the late twentieth century many couples began speaking of their “relationship,” rather than simply saying they were in love. At the same time, interest in furthering sexual compatibility added a dimension that, while not contrary to a love ideal, competed with older definitions of emotional intensity. Thus a new men’s magazine, Esquire, launched in 1933, ran frequent articles attacking the idea that love should involve “a pair of passion-oozing souls who could merge into a mystical unity,” favoring instead of more hardheaded approach to mate selection, and this approach intensified after World War II and the emergence of more explicit outlets like Playboy magazine. Affection (along with sensuality, particularly in the new men’s periodicals) remained vital, but shared leisure interests and other forms of compatibility were now essential as well. Feminists also attacked aspects of the family emotional model, with particular vigor in the decades after 1950, urging that it trapped women in narrow domestic duties.[34]

While there is no question that the language and definition of family love shifted, key aspects of the basic emotional culture remained. Parents were still expected to love their children and win emotional rewards in turn. An increased birth rate in the middle classes after World War II—the famous “Baby Boom,” particularly important in the United States—showed the power of these emotional expectations, as families devoted considerable financial resources to this unexpected trend. The rise of new leisure commitments, beginning with the hallowed annual family vacation, expressed the desire to express and maintain positive family emotions through novel consumer choices. By the 1990s many parents, fathers as well as mothers, were investing more time in interactions with their children—even more than had been the case during the superficially family-friendly 1950s; here was a clear indication of emotional engagement. The idea that marriage should be the result of “falling in love” continued to burn bright as well, even as specifics shifted somewhat particularly around “necking” or other sexual interactions as part of the growing practice of dating. Even the rising divorce rate testified, in a backhanded fashion, to the power of emotional expectations: many marriages collapsed when one or both parties admitted that they “no longer loved” their spouses. The love ideal even survived into the new age of computer matchmaking services, in the early twenty-first century. Companies like eHarmony—the contemporary version of the newspaper ads that had sought affection a century earlier—based their appeal on helping singles succeed emotionally, even as the services promised more scientific bases for determining long-term compatibility. Thus eHarmony singled out its goals of “love and romantic fulfillment”: “We believe you deserve to find love—true love that comes with a lasting relationship.” The family ideal was alive and well.[35]

Some observers did suggest that the word “love” began to be tossed around rather glibly, compared to the greater focus attached to the emotion in the nineteenth century. Americans, particularly, often gushed about loving all sorts of things: “I love it” became a bit of a catchphrase. The pattern showed the continued validity of love ideals, no doubt, but also some real potential dilution in focus and fervor. Here is a topic deserving further assessment as part of evaluating ongoing culture change in this domain.

Other new issues unquestionably emerged, particularly from the late twentieth century onward. Throughout Western society, in part because of economic pressures, marriage ages rose and increasing numbers of people dispensed with marriage altogether, either living alone or as unwed couples. More and more births—up to 40 per cent, in some Western countries—now occurred outside marriage as well, and single parenthood expanded even as the birth rate itself dropped well below earlier twentieth-century levels. Married couples now began to report higher levels of happiness if they were childless, as costs and anxieties associated with parenthood intensified. These patterns raised some basic questions. Was the older emotional ideal, despite its persistence, now being challenged by more individualistic consumer and professional goals that were competing with the family itself? Or did the variations largely reflect more practical problems, like income inequality or urban housing costs, that limited family options for some groups without really changing basic values? Cultural standards alone had never defined all aspects of family life, and by the twenty-first century they were clearly interacting with some novel factors.[36]

The Comparative Context: A Final Challenge

The rise and evolution of a new family emotional culture was a vital component of Western history from the later eighteenth century onward, a clear indication—despite complexities at various points—of the importance of culture change in shaping key aspects of personal life. If only because of the power of the West in the world during much of this same period, the new emotional standards inevitably had some degree of global impact. At the same time, at least by the twentieth century, a growing number of societies faced some decisions—for example, about family size—similar to those Western countries had encountered slightly earlier. These, too, could affect family standards. A core question emerged: were family emotional goals beginning to shift in similar directions, across regional lines; or would different kinds of cultural adjustments meet the needs of many societies?

Inevitably, patterns were complicated, involving both common adjustments and some explicit distinctions. Further, comparative research on these aspects of culture change and continuity is still in its infancy, permitting some suggestions but not, as yet, definitive statements.

Pressures to reconsider traditional definitions of childhood mounted steadily, as reformers and, increasingly, ordinary families alike realized the importance of education. By the later twentieth century common global definitions of children’s rights also included a commitment to education, which could further this aspect of culture change. As early as 1872, in Japan, reformers pushed through a universal education requirement which, though it encountered some brief resistance, fairly quickly converted early childhood into a time for schooling rather than work. A century later, an ordinary Mexican woman, interviewed at a birth-control clinic, expressed her commitment to having fewer children, despite resistance both from her husband and from her Catholic priest: “The main thing that makes the times different, I think, is the control women have over the number of children in the family … I want only two or three children. I don’t want six children to grow up like me, without an education … I want my children to go to school and … to be independent and proud of themselves.” Spurred by these new commitments, the birth rate began to fall in almost every region, though timing varied. How much did this reflect not only a new belief in education, but a new level of affection for children themselves? And how much did the birth-rate reduction, as earlier in the West, promote more emotional investment in children and a greater reliance on the emotional service of the family?[37]

Ideas about courtship could change as well, though the evidence is more scattered. Urbanization—another common global pattern by the twentieth century—inevitably disrupted some arranged marriage patterns, simply because young people were farther away from parental control. Reformers, sharing some human rights commitments, often worked to promote freer choice among marriage partners, for example by attacking contracts for child brides. Western culture, in the form of movies and TV shows, won a wide global audience—Hollywood was the leading world movie center as early as the 1920s—and this could promote new ideas about courtship and romance. Even international tourism, accelerating after the mid-twentieth century, could expose people to different habits and expectations in courtship and marriage. In China specifically, the cultural impact of the communist revolution in cutting into parental authority furthered courtship changes as well, as discussed earlier in Chapter 4.[38]

All of this unquestionably promoted some shared pressures on traditional family cultures, for parents, children and spouses alike. As China, for example, drastically limited its birth rate after 1978 and began to generate a larger urban consumer culture (in the wake of the Cultural Revolution), some young people began to engage in new patterns of dating, suggesting a growing interest in romance. Parental commitment to individual children undoubtedly increased, as family size shrank. Marriage age began to rise in most regions, reflecting economic pressures including housing costs but potentially encouraging new emotional commitments once the young adults did begin to seek a mate.

Japan faced an intriguing cultural challenge as early as the 1920s. A set of well-publicized cases in 1921 highlighted women who defied their parents to marry the men they loved or, in some cases, committed suicide rather than give up their beloved. Widespread press coverage included conservative attacks on this emotional disruption of parental authority and family stability, and considerable approval of the new emotional goals. Obviously, the discussion reflected the influence of Western culture, but most scholars emphasize spontaneous Japanese reactions to new conditions such as urbanization; this kind of emotional culture change may be largely a response to objective circumstances, but nevertheless has its own huge impact on family life. It is also important to note that the Japanese version remained somewhat different from the Western idea of love, for example, in placing less emphasis on individual emotional fulfillment and offering more willingness to compromise with parental concerns.[39]

On the whole, however, and granting many regional distinctions, evidence suggests that most societies in fact sought to accommodate family change, including new cultural standards for children, with more incorporation of prior traditions than had occurred in the West. Straws in the wind: a poll taken in India, in the early twenty-first century, revealed that two-thirds of the population believed that arranged marriages were better than romantically arranged commitments—even though urbanization generated some practical constraints. Lebanese families in the late twentieth century worked to teach their children about the importance of education and achievement, but they coupled this with firm—and fairly traditionalist—messages about the primacy of the family cohesion and kinship and neighborhood relationships over purely emotional goals.[40]

Clearest evidence of a distinctive pattern of change and continuity in family life comes from East Asia. Change is unmistakable, in a region that has industrialized rapidly: families have become smaller, education is vital for children, formally arranged marriages have receded (a process encouraged by revolution, in the Chinese case, as we have seen). All of this reflects changes in cultural standards as well as family practices. But the importance of the cohesive family unit, over individual emotional fulfillment, continues to predominate, reflecting—in the view of most observers—less culture change than has occurred in the West, and particularly less change toward seeing the family as a nexus of individual emotional expectations. Children thus are disciplined differently from Western patterns. Whereas Western parents tread carefully around disciplinary issues, preferring positive incentives to punishments that might jeopardize family harmony, East Asian parents resort more directly to shaming, where children are threatened with denial of affection unless they fall in line. An early twenty-first century poll, asking about the validity of strict shaming, thus saw literally no American parent in agreement, compared to 49 per cent of parents in Taiwan. Courtship characteristically occurs later in East Asia than in the West (despite similar ages of marriage), and individuals less commonly date a number of different partners in search of romance, preferring a stable commitment.[41]

Comparison is always complicated, particularly around issues like family culture and emotion. And change continues: contemporary East Asia families are beginning to experience more divorce (though rates are still far lower than in the West), and more individuals are not marrying at all despite professing strong family values. It is certainly possible that, a decade or so hence, differences between regional family cultures may have narrowed still further. For the moment, however, it does seem likely that the Western experience of sweeping changes in emotional standards around marriage and parenthood helped generate somewhat different family experiences from the more selective cultural and practical shifts in regions like East Asia. Both patterns “worked,” in the sense of producing families and individuals functioning in a modern social and economic environment. Both patterns permitted fundamental alterations, such as the shift of children from work to schooling. But significant distinctions persisted as well, both reflecting and encouraging different kinds of family cultures.

Conclusion: Culture Change and Emotional Life

Culture change, whether sweeping or selective, has a profound influence on personal life and daily institutions like the family. It combines, of course, with inherent human needs and capacities. It interacts with other social institutions, such as educational policies or religious practices. But just as anthropologists have shown how widely emotional cultures can vary, so it is becoming increasingly clear that degrees of change can be surprisingly great. Whether the issue is a new impatience with boredom, or the insistence on measuring a marriage in terms of love, change can be fundamental, affecting not only individual experience but also wider behaviors such as consumerism or divorce.

Analysis of culture change around emotions has its challenges. It is far easier to gain a sense of shifting standards than to be sure how many people really embrace them in their personal lives, for example in decisions about whom to marry or how to treat one’s children. Institutional results—like new divorce laws—are more readily measured than the emotional reasons individuals choose, or resist, their use. Certain reactions—like fear—may be more resistant to large cultural shifts than more social emotions such as jealousy, though cultural standards can and do alter in both cases. Comparative issues, which can help pinpoint degrees of culture change and their impact, have yet to be systematically explored.

Interrelationships between causes and impacts are particularly tricky, where culture change mixes with other factors to generate new behaviors. We simply cannot be sure how much, for example, new standards about parental love preceded reductions in birth rates—in the West or in other regions—and how much followed from the same reduction, as parents could increase their emotional focus on the smaller number of children they did have. How much do perceptions of waning love explain characteristic rising divorce rates in modern societies, as opposed to other issues? We know the connections exist, linked to significant shifts in family life, but the balance is hard to assess.

Yet with all the challenge, and the many opportunities for further research, the significance of culture change in the emotional domain, and the nature of several important modern adjustments, is well established. Past examples are intriguing, and provide some sense of the human capacity for change—but also the impulse to resist. Yet culture change also spills into contemporary concerns, around the role and future of family life, or the current levels of fearfulness in sectors of American society. There is every reason to add emotional experience to the framework of culture change, exploring directions, causes, continuities and impacts in past and present alike.



[1] Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012).
[2] James R. Averill, “The Social Construction of Emotion, with Special Reference to Love,” in The Social Construction of the Person , K. J. Gergen and K. E. Davis (eds) (Berlin: Springer, 1985).
[3] Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns, Doing Emotions History (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014).
[4] Robert M. Ireland, “The Libertine Must Die: Sexual Dishonor and the Unwritten Law in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” Journal of Social History 23 (1989): 27–44.
[5] Peter N. Stearns, Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History (New York: New York University Press, 1989).
[6] Peter Salovey, The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy (New York: Guilford Press, 1991).
[7] Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
[8] Patricia Ann Meyer, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
[9] Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).

[10] John Brewer and Ray Porters (eds), Consumption and the World of Goods (New York: Routledge, 1993) ; Peter N. Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[11] Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th–18th Centuries (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990) ; Joanna Bourke, Fear: A Cultural History (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker Hoard, 2006).

[12] Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) ; Ruthann Clay and Peter N. Stearns, “Revisiting the Fearful Parent: the Crucial Decade,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 11 (2) (2018): 248–247 ; Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[13] Lawrence Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) ; see also Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

[14] Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent–Child Relations from 1500–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983) . It is also worth noting that there was an aristocratic literary tradition, from the later Middle Ages, that stressed a platonic type of courtly love, though there is not much evidence that it significantly affected actual emotional standards.

[15] Edmund Leites, The Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) ; John R. Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) ; Mary Hartman, The Household and the Making of History: A Subversive View of the Western Past (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) . Other factors merit attention. The European family emphasized relatively late marriage ages outside the upper class, which may have produced more insistence on choice of partner independent of parental preferences. Lower-class interest in romance, given freedom from property constraints, may have set some precedent as well.

[16] Colin Campbell, Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1987) ; Shorter, Making of the Modern Family.

[17] Peter N. Stearns, Childhood in World History (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[18] Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Basic Books, 1975) ; Elisabeth Badinter, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011).

[19] Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) ; Peter N. Stearns, American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style (New York: New York University Press, 1994) ; Steven Seidman, Romantic Longings: Love in America, 1830–1980 (New York: Routledge, 1991) .

[20] Pamela Epstein, “Advertising for Love: Matrimonial Advertisements and Public Courtship,” in Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns (eds), Doing Emotions History , (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 120–140 ; Linda Rosenzweig, Another Self: Middle-Class American Women and Their Friends in the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 1999) ; E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993) ; see also Rotundo, “Romantic Friendship: Male Intimacy and Middle-Class Youth in the Northern United States, 1800–1900,” Journal of Social History 23 (1989): 1–25.

[21] Google Ngram Viewer.

[22] Stearns, American Cool.

[23] Timothy Kelly and Joseph Kelly, “American Catholics and the Discourse of Fear,” in Peter N. Stearns and Jan Lewis (eds), An Emotional History of the United States , (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 259–282 ; Philip J. Greven, Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (New York: Vintage, 1992).

[24] Peter N. Stearns, The Industrial Turn in World History (New York: Routledge, 2016) ; Ansley J. Coale and Susan Cotts Watkins (eds), The Decline of Fertility in Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[25] Jan Lewis, “Mother’s Love: The Construction of an Emotion in Nineteenth-Century America” in Andrew E. Barnes and Peter N. Stearns (eds), Social History and Issues in Human Consciousness (New York: New York University Press, 1989), 207–229.
[26] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18 (2) (Summer, 1966): 151–174.
[27] Robert L. Griswold, Family and Divorce in California, 1850–1890: Victorian Illusions and Everyday Realities (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982).

[28] Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York: Basic Books, 1977) ; Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking, 2005).

[29] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979) ; Stearns, American Cool.

[30] Cas Wouters, Informalization: Manners and Emotions Since 1890 (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2007).
[31] Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
[32] Gary Cross, Kid’s Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[33] John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America , 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[34] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton and Co. [1963] 2013) ; Simone de Beauvoir, Simone de Beauvoir: Feminist Writings , Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann (eds) (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015) ; Stearns, American Cool.

[35] http://www.eharmony.com/ Note also the late-twentieth century decision, in the gay movement, to press for marriage rights that provided another extension of the drive for love and romance; George Chauncey, Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate over Gay Equality (New York: Basic Books, 2004) . See Chapter 8, below.

[36] Michael Dunlop Young and Peter Willmott, The Symmetrical Family (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).

[37] Perdita Hutson, Third World Women Speak Out: Interviews in Six Countries on Change, Development, and Basic Needs (New York: Praeger, 1979), 78–79 ; Joseph M. Hawes, The Children’s Rights Movement: A History of Advocacy and Protection (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991).

[38] Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Gender in History: Global Perspectives , 2nd ed. (Malden, Mass.; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
[39] Mark Jones, “The Year of Runaway Love: Emotion and Opportunity in 1921 Japan,” Conference paper given at the History of Emotions meeting, June 1–2, 2018, George Mason University.
[40] Suad Joseph, “Teaching Rights and Responsibilities: Paradoxes of Globalization and Children’s Citizenship in Lebanon,” Journal of Social History 38 (4) (Summer 2005): 1007–1026.

[41] James M. Raymo, Hyunjoon Park, Yu Xie, and Wei-jun Jean Yeung, “Marriage and Family in East Asia: Continuity and Change,” The Annual Review of Sociology 41 (2015): 471–492 ; Peter N. Stearns, Shame: A Brief History of Shame (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017).