A Cultural History of the Emotions in the Age of Romanticism, Revolution, and Empire
A Cultural History of the Emotions in the Age of Romanticism, Revolution, and Empire

Susan J. Matt

Susan J. Matt is Chair of the Department of History at Weber State University, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2019


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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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DOI: 10.5040/9781474207034.ch-007
Page Range: 137–156

In the century and a half after 1780, various forces in Western society redefined the family in terms of its emotional functions and responsibilities, even as the importance of family-based production activities declined. This was a fundamental change, at least in principle, that in many ways still sets contemporary Western family expectations apart from the norms that had prevailed previously. It brought its own combination of advantages and disadvantages, as the new standards were translated into actual relationships in courtship, marriage, and parenting. It altered the way a number of specific emotions were framed, from love to grief to guilt. It clearly affected gender roles in the family, with women’s domestic leadership promoted in part because of women’s presumably more benign emotional qualities.

Various observers have commented on the, in some ways, surprising modern success of the family as a traditional unit, despite the pronounced reduction in the economic and productive purposes it served in agricultural societies (Lynch 2003). Obviously, economic criteria for family formation and operation have not disappeared—it’s been noted that most people manage conveniently to fall in love with a partner from their existing socio-economic group. And the family has flourished as well, and, increasingly, as a convenient unit for consumer activities. But the emotional definition of the family that emerged from the late eighteenth century onward plays a key role in its ongoing viability, and in fact it links to consumerism directly as well. While there was no clear plan behind heightened family emotionality, no deliberate recasting to help compensate for the historic shift away from home and family as production base, the two changes were clearly related and both were extremely important.

The emotional framework for family life created during the long nineteenth century would be redone in several ways, beginning in the 1920s, but several key elements survive, including the idea of the family as an emotional center. This further highlights the significance of the considerable transformation in domestic emotional priorities.

The Baseline for Change

Any argument positing a noteworthy shift, as in the rise of the family as an emotional unit, must carefully establish a contrast with what went before. Otherwise the asserted change may be assertion alone. In the case of family emotionality, the need to care is all the greater in that several historians (Shorter 1977; Stone 1983; Trumbach 1978), working in the 1970s and 1980s, exaggerated the novelty of familial emotions, and were appropriately (if excessively) called to task (Pollock 1983). The claim, for example, that one would expect to find, in the premodern Western family, no more emotion than exists in a bird’s nest was clearly misplaced, ignoring both the bio-psychological constants in human emotional experience and actual evidence from premodern families themselves.

Families have always been the center of considerable emotional experience, well before the late eighteenth century. While marriages were not usually formed on the basis of previously established romantic love—serving rather as arrangements negotiated by parents of the new couple, with an eye to establishing the appropriate economic basis for the match—love would often develop after the fact (Gillis 1985). Or on another front: while most families would have to expect the deaths of several children, often soon after birth, this did not mean that such common occurrences did not occasion real grief (Rosenblatt 1983). Letters and diaries make it abundantly clear that parents often mourned the loss of a young child as one of the durable and formative events in the family’s history (Greven 1972; Demos 2000). Families could also serve as frameworks for anger or other intense emotions.

Granting great variability in the real emotional experience of actual premodern and modern families alike, there were nevertheless two or three significant overall differences between premodern patterns and what was developing by the 1780s. First, several particular emotional criteria were redefined—for example, the idea that it was desirable or appropriate to use anger or fear in parenting. In the new emotional context, guilt came to play a much greater role than had previously been the case. And second, the public emphasis on the family’s emotional value, and the many private expectations that were shaped accordingly, were largely novel. In many formulations, as we will see, the family was represented as a desirable emotional alternative to what went on in business or public life (Lasch 1977). Certainly the transformation in definitions of marriage formation—from parental economic arrangement to the formation of romantic attachments by the couple itself—was a crucial indication of the shift in priorities (Lystra 1989). Finally, some legal structures and other public formulations began to reflect the priorities of family emotionality—for example, in the kinds of official publications on good parenting that began to emerge by the early 1900s, or in certain aspects of divorce law. None of this denies important emotional functions of families earlier on, or even certain continuities from premodern ideas, but there were significant transformations.

A second complexity must be noted as well. Some of the bases for the more emotional definition of the family began to be set before the later eighteenth century. As always, important historical changes built to some extent on prior changes. For example, Protestantism, in contesting Catholic beliefs that there were holier alternatives to family life and disputing the idea of separate priesthoods and convents, had already called new attention to the importance of the family (Ozment 2011; 1985). By the seventeenth century, Protestant commentators were discussing the need to promote satisfaction in family life—including favorable relationships between husbands and wives—even as they also urged the role of the family in inculcating religious values (Leites 1995). This reorientation helped set the stage for the more explicit interest in favorable family emotions that developed during the eighteenth century.

Economic changes may have contributed as well, particularly as the West European economy became steadily more commercial. One historian has argued that the increasingly competitive relations fostered by growing commerce, as early as the seventeenth century, helped redirect male emotions from same-sex friendships to marriage, where business rivalry would not apply (Leites 1995). Growing consumerism, by the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, may have contributed as well, though there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg causation question here (Campbell 2005). Certainly much of the new consumer interest focused on household items, like more decorative furniture or fancier tableware, and on clothing. Family mealtimes commanded increasing attention, as wives presided over more elaborate serving vessels; and while this development began in the urban middle classes, it was spreading more widely in Western Europe by 1700 (de Vries 2008). Increasing social interactions within the family, as they resulted, might have contributed to new emotional emphases as well. Clothing was relevant particularly in expressing a new sense of style and self that could apply to more romantic courtships. Various aspects of commercial change, in sum, may have helped drive a new valuation of certain kinds of emotions in family formation and family operation.

The realization that some important family changes were brewing before 1780 does not detract, of course, from an understanding that the fuller flowering of family emotionality was still to come. The importance of earlier emotions in family life, even before the incitements to change, must qualify any excessive claims—basic family emotions such as love, grief, or domestic anger certainly did not have to be invented, though they were open to some serious redefinition. The two points—that serious shifts in family context were already underway, and that family emotion was not a totally new invention—operate in a useful tension, as we turn to the factors that more clearly prompted the characteristic adjustments during the long nineteenth century.

Causes of Change

Two general developments combined to generate new attention to family emotionality. The first, relatively easy to identify though long buried in more formal intellectual history, involved further cultural shifts, associated both with the Enlightenment and with early Romanticism and both taking shape clearly in eighteenth-century Europe. The second involved a series of structural changes affecting the family directly, and broadly speaking linked to the first stages of urban industrialization as it affected a growing middle class. Changes here included the growing separation of work from home and specific reactions such as a reduction of the birth rate.

Culture first. Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, Western readers (particularly European, but there were North American audiences as well, as literacy rates continued to climb) were treated to a steady stream of novels emphasizing emotionality and sensibility (Rosen 1998; Barker-Benfield 1992; Ellison 1999). Love fulfilled, love thwarted, grief at death or departure, tender sorrow—these were the emotions that now received pride of place, and they often surfaced in or around family settings. Richardson’s Pamela, for example, involved a virtuous maidservant seized by a wealthy man, who resists his advances but gradually falls in love, triggering a corresponding elevation of sentiment on his part: the result, an improbable but clearly love-based match. Tearfulness was a vital part of these “preromantic” novels, which won a wide, substantially female, readership.

It is impossible to know how much these novels responded to changes in emotional signals that had already occurred, but there is no question that they encouraged further change and a stronger focus on the emotional role of courtship and family life more generally. While romance and death were the most obvious emotional triggers in this genre, there was also new attention to the emotions associated with loving motherhood.

Enlightenment contributions to a new emotional agenda must be teased from a movement that was strongly rationalistic, but there were several relevant components developing in the same decades as the flurry of early Romantic sensibility. Redefinitions of childhood played a role here. Building on the earlier work of John Locke, Enlightenment thinkers disputed traditional notions of original sin, seeing children as untainted, open to education, and responsive to loving treatment by adults. Traditional disciplinary measures more appropriate to the sinful child were opened to new scrutiny, particularly the notion of trying to scare children into obedience through references to death and damnation. The figure of the innocent child, cute and lovable, began to emerge from this ideological shift.

A second Enlightenment contribution, clearly taking hold from the middle of the eighteenth century onward, involved the embrace of happiness. As Enlightenment thinkers defined social and personal goals in increasingly secular terms, and envisaged progress on all fronts from living standards to health, they turned against the emphasis on melancholy that had predominated in seventeenth-century Europe. There was every reason for individuals and societies to expect to be happy, and correspondingly cheerfulness should be projected wherever possible (Stearns 2012a; Kotchemidova 2005; McMahon 2006). Enlightenment happiness, to be sure, was not a particularly emotional category, but it certainly could combine with emotional redefinitions when applied, for example, to family life.

The Enlightenment and early Romanticism were different in tone, uneasy bedfellows in principle, but they could coalesce in generating openness to new kinds of emotional signals and a review of more traditional standards. Young people hoping to find love in courtship might be expressing Romantic yearnings along with an Enlightenment-based interest not only in happiness but in personal freedom from parental authority. It could be a heady mix.

Structural changes associated with early industrialization had a number of emotional implications, at least when interpreted through the new lens created by cultural change. Shifts in birth rates, which began with the urban middle class in countries like France and the new United States, were a case in point. Families began to realize that children were more a cost than an economic asset, when they had to make a growing commitment to formal schooling over child labor. Some historians have argued that parents’ emotional investment in the individual child goes up when there are fewer children in the family overall, and there are abundant signs of this at least by the later nineteenth century (Zelizer 1985; Wells 1985). Which came first—a new emotional commitment which would encourage lower birth rates to maximize children’s well-being, or a shift in family demography first, followed by emotional consequences, can still be debated, but an ultimate connection is highly probable. We will see that during the nineteenth century itself the need for a lower birth rate, and its realization through substantial sexual abstinence, also had an impact on the definition of love in courtship.

Other changes contributed to a new emotional climate within many families. Inheritance remained important, but its priority declined as society shifted from agriculture to industry. Respectable people could now get started in life without waiting for the parental legacy. Gradually, this change in turn operated to reduce tensions between adults and their parents (which had often been severe in preindustrial Europe). The most obvious result, at least in widespread imagery, was the idea of a loving grandparent, particularly grandmother, contributing positively to family emotions rather than serving as a source of tension (Rosenzweig 2005).

The most dramatic overall change in context involved the separation of work from household, the steadily expanding result of the advent of an industrial economy. In the middle class this transition quickly translated into a tendency to remove married women, and often women in general, from the labor force. A French businessman noted in the 1830s how his mother had expected to work, serving as a cashier in the family business (with the family itself living above the shop) (Faucheur 1886). But now that he and his colleagues were new factory owners, they kept their wives at home. Correspondingly, emphasis on the importance of wives and mothers in the family rose steadily, and this proved readily compatible with increasing emphasis on the importance of emotional warmth in the family and, overall, with the family as a vital emotional contrast with the increasingly harsh and demanding world of work (Cott 1997).

Ongoing consumerism continued to contribute to family emotionality, and here too the growing urban middle class was in the lead. A great deal of consumerism continued to be associated with family items, and the mixture could have emotional overtones. By the late eighteenth century, individual wills often specifically granted an item of furniture or clothing to a family member by name—not just children, but cherished nieces or nephews—with the clear implication that the transmission of a cherished object was an expression of genuine sentiment toward the recipient. Family things, in other words, could express love (Stearns 2006; Weatherill 1996). By the early nineteenth century, characteristic family portraits gathered a presumably loving group around a piano—a new but increasingly imperative consumer item for middle-class families, and soon successful artisanal families as well. The object played a clear role in focusing a loving family gathering.

Culture and structure vividly combined. There was no inherent reason for some of the structural shifts accompanying early industrialization to generate greater emphasis on family emotionality; at the very least, the connections can be debated. Moving work outside the home, for example, might simply have reduced the importance of the family (as in some ways it did). But, given the cultural pressures toward seeking love, among other things, a redefinition of family functions toward a greater emotional role made more sense. Courtship shifted still further from making a sound arrangement about property to an effort to find the appropriate emotional basis for marriage. Children, now economically redefined as liabilities rather than assets, gained new functions in contributing to the family’s emotional warmth, beginning with their lovable innocence as infants.


The causes of emotional change did not, of course, bear evenly on all social classes, and they involved important gender differentials as well. Middle-class families, broadly construed, had the greatest access to the cultural underpinnings of this set of emotional changes, and they encountered some of the structures of early industrialization in distinctive ways. They led the charge in reducing birth rates, for example, though gradually other groups would emulate; and while they were hardly alone in experiencing the separation of work and family, they alone, early on, had the resources to respond by systematically withdrawing women from work.

Figuring out domestic emotional changes for working classes and rural groups remains a challenge for historians, because they did not generate separate prescriptive standards and evidence about actual emotional experiences is sketchy at best. Complicating the situation further was the extent to which middle-class observers assumed that lower-class families, or at least urban families, were incapable of living up to the emotional standards which business and professional groups now found essential.

Thus, through the nineteenth century and beyond, middle-class groups and even some trade union leaders bemoaned the lack of appropriately affectionate treatment of children in many worker families. How, one self-serving argument ran, could really loving parents allow their offspring to work in factories? While material and health conditions among the poor drew the greatest attention, the felt need to inculcate appropriate emotional standards was a key motivation in efforts to advise the lower classes (and, in the United States, immigrant groups) about family life in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The most blatant illustration of perceived class differences in family emotionality involved definitions of mental cruelty as grounds for divorce, in United States law in the later nineteenth century. This was a catch-all category, of course, but it included arguments (mainly by wives complaining about their husbands) that the marriage had become emotionally cold, that the partner had withdrawn active affection (Phillips 1991). In the view of American courts this was a valid concern for middle-class plaintiffs, but not for working-class families who lacked the finely tuned sensitivities for mental cruelty to be an issue.

While unquestionably the push toward new family emotionality saw the middle classes taking the lead, there were signs of change in other classes as well. Middle-class standards could themselves have some influence in setting goals for others. Not only reformist propaganda but also the experiences of domestic help in middle-class households could spread awareness of the new goals of the affectionate family (McBride 1976). Even more important was the fact that the lower classes, as well, encountered important shifts in their own family contexts, which could generate emotional changes in response.

Most obviously, the framework for courtship shifted dramatically, with clear reactions emerging from the later eighteenth century onward. Population growth and industrialization combined to increase the number of lower-class families, both urban and rural, that lacked significant property. Little property, in turn, allowed individuals who were employed to think about serious courtship earlier in life than had been true previously (when it was normal to have to wait until the prospect of inheritance); and lack of dependence on inheritance also reduced parental voice in courtship decisions. Young people, in other words, became freer to act on their own. This meant, even more fully than with the middle class a bit later on, enhanced opportunities for real or imagined romance. Sexual activity definitely went up: we know this through dramatically rising rates of illegitimate pregnancy in what has been called the modern world’s first sexual revolution. Premarital sex might of course substitute for, or even inhibit, actual romance, but surely the emotional and the physical often combined (Shorter 1977).

Later—in Western Europe, by the second half of the nineteenth century—working class families also reduced their birth rate, implicitly if not explicitly emulating middle-class behavior (Seccombe 1993). This was the point at which, thanks to declining child labor and rising school requirements, children in these families turned into economic liabilities. As with the middle classes, lower birth rates might increase emotional attachments to individual children.

Again, the unfortunate fact is that we know less about lower-class domestic emotionality than we do about the middle classes. Patterns of change and continuity were undoubtedly somewhat distinctive. But there were some common directions of change, and in some cases a degree of direct influence by middle-class standards as well.

Gender is far less problematic than social class in discussing the long nineteenth century as a period of rising family emotionality. Both males and females actively participated in the changing valuation of emotion and, as we have seen, women’s domestic status improved in many ways as a result, as they became seen as the family’s leading emotional agent.

By the same token, however, men and women encountered changes in family emotionality somewhat differently. Nineteenth-century middle-class culture tended to argue that women were naturally more attuned to appropriate family emotion than men were. Hence, respectable women could far more easily avoid anger than men, though men too, in principle, were supposed to keep their anger in check in family settings. Mothers had by nature a fund of deep love for children; men were more problematic in this regard.

Conventions of this sort had real impact. Diary evidence suggests that nineteenth-century women worried more about displays of anger in domestic settings than men did. Men had their own issues, however, in that they were supposed to retain the capacity for anger in public settings while curbing it in private; not an easy combination. Men, away from home at work, in any event, may well have had greater problems attuning their emotions to children than women did in this period, as the common wisdom suggested. Gender standards, in other words, could have a self-fulfilling quality (Stearns 1990).

Certainly the standards called for pronounced differences in the emotional socialization of children. Girls were held to much tighter temper control than were boys. They were encouraged to learn not only about love but also about grief, while boys were excused from so much attention. Dolls’ kits for girls, by the 1870s and 1880s, not only included opportunities for displays of cuddling and affection but some of them also came with grief paraphernalia, like black armbands, so that their mistresses could practice this emotion as well. Toys for boys had far different, and less purely domestic, implications (Stearns 1994).

Gendered emotional life for the nineteenth-century middle classes embraced at least one other differential, less closely linked to the more familiar aspects of gender conventions. Both men and women formed emotionally intense friendships in their youth, prior to the age at which courtship was possible. The friendships were deeply important to many men, who for economic reasons had to wait longer for courtship than did women. Many men wrote passionate letters to each other, embraced frequently, and showed every sign of intense emotionality in friendship during their twenties—much as women did, in their late teens and early twenties. For both genders, a heightened emotionality in friendship during the nineteenth century both expressed intense emotions learned in the family during childhood, and prepared for the emotional intensity expected of adults. But there was a revealing difference. Men largely dropped their friendships when they began courtship, relying on wives and family for the emotional outlets they required from that point onward. Women, however, more commonly retained strong emotional ties with friends, either in addition to those formed with husbands and children or as compensations for disappointed emotional expectations once their families were formed (Rotundo 1989; Rosenzweig 1999; Smith-Rosenberg 1975).

In sum, while both genders actively shared in the emotional redefinitions of family life, they did so amid important distinctions in culture and in experience alike.

Finally, regional differences need attention, within the larger framework of transatlantic Western civilization—though here too, as with social class, further research and in this case explicit comparative analysis are still desirable.

The basic factors prompting family emotionality were widely shared across the West, in terms of common types of reading and other cultural prompts, and the impacts of early industrialization. Chronologies varied a bit, particularly in terms of industrialization’s advent or the beginnings of birth rate decline, but common processes ultimately emerged. There was also a good bit of mutual influence, for example, in new ideas about children’s innocence and lovability.

But specific regions also showed some variability. Catholic countries like France, on the whole, placed somewhat lower emphasis on women’s emotional leadership in the family, though even here there was substantial new emphasis on maternal warmth (Smith 1981; Yeo 1999). New emphasis on familial grief was also more muted, in favor of greater reliance on established rituals. While interest in emotional happiness rose everywhere, the attachment to manifestations of cheerfulness and a hope for cheerful children accelerated more rapidly in the United States than in Europe, at least after 1800, as European travelers themselves routinely noted (Stearns 2012a). In this case, prior cultural traditions were not clearly involved; in the eighteenth century, Americans had been at least as likely to apologize for undue levity as had Europeans, though it was in the New United States that a right to happiness was first politically enshrined. Possibly a desire to please children, also noted by European observers, contributed to the devotion to familial cheer. Again, there are a variety of comparative issues that await additional analysis.

The Key Changes

The central change, within the overall intensification of the family as emotional center, obviously involved the growing emphasis on love in virtually all aspects of familial relationships, from courtship to grandparenthood. But the centrality of love had other implications, at least as commonly interpreted, spilling over into redefinitions of domestic anger and fear, but also into a heightened experience of grief. The new emphasis on guilt had some distinct bases in reconsiderations of discipline more generally, but was clearly tied to love as well through the threat of emotional deprivation. Finally, the push for happiness, though also linked to familial love, also touched on other facets of family change, such as a historic reevaluation of the importance of children’s obedience.


New interest in love began to emerge from the later eighteenth century onward. Already in the 1750s law courts in some places, such as Neufchatel, Switzerland, began to rule in favor of young people, particularly women, who contested a parentally arranged marriage on grounds that they could never love the mate that had been selected (Trumbach 1978). Christian law had long contended, in principle, that marriages must involve the consent of the partners, so this kind of ruling was not a total innovation. But basing arguments on emotional expectations was a new element, both reflecting and encouraging novel expectations in this arena.

New interest in mother-love also emerged in the eighteenth century, but it was carried much further from the early nineteenth century onward. Here was an emotion, Victorian advice-givers argued, that could sustain the family as a whole, for from it a host of loving relationships could develop. Thus in the United States a Protestant minister, John Todd, argued in 1839, that “God planted this deep, unquenchable love for her offspring in the mother’s heart.” From it, children’s reciprocal love would automatically develop. Love and morality intertwined in this new family context: “It is the province of the mother [both] to cultivate the affections [and] to form and guard the moral habits of the child.” Catharine Sedgwick, one of the most influential prescriptive writers in the early nineteenth century in the United States, drove the point home. “The mother holds, as it were, the hearts of her children in her hand.” She offers “disinterested love . . . ready to sacrifice everything at the altar of affection.” Mother’s Magazine gushed, “Love —flowing from the hidden spring in a mother’s heart . . . [flows] deeper and wider as it goes, till neighborhood, friends and country are refreshed by its living waters.” The mother “teaches our hearts the first lesson of love,” and children of a loving mother inevitably “revere her as the earthly type of perfect love . . . they cannot but desire to conform themselves to such models.” The qualities of mother-love, in this new vision, knew no bounds: it was “untiring,” “imperishable,” “unquenchable,” and “irrepressible” (Stearns 1994; Lewis 1989).

Figure 7.1. Mother love. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Not surprisingly, this almost religious treatment of mother love suggested an enduring emotional power. A popular style of fiction, by the mid-nineteenth century, both in Britain and the United States, involved a young man who strays from righteousness, causing great pain to his mother. But the wayward youth retains a deep impression of his mother’s love—“the only humanized portion of my heart”—which ultimately rights the ship, bringing the youth back to the bosom of family and righteous living alike (Arthur 2004; Lewis 1989).

While mother love served as an emotional core, the power of family love more generally had many branches. The new portrait of family emotionality included assumptions of deep affection among siblings (an aspect of the new family emotionality that deserves greater attention from historians) (Hemphill 2011). Middle-class fiction—Little Women is an obvious example—often emphasized the deep love among sisters, but brothers and sisters were also linked by emotion. Stories for boys often featured a brother saving a sister from some disaster, demonstrating proto-manly courage but also love, simultaneously.

Love between spouses both followed from the new criteria for courtship, and completed the circle of affection within the mature family itself. Here, marriage advice writers specifically noted the role of family emotionality in contrast to the competitive public world. “Men find so little sincere friendship abroad, so little true sympathy in the selfish world, that they gladly yield themselves to the influence of a gentle spirit at home” (Lystra 1989).

Emphasis on romantic love—and some Victorians found “romantic” too superficial a term for the emotion involved—took on additional importance and intensity from the mid-nineteenth century onward, particularly in the United States and Britain. Middle-class families and their advisors were trying to resolve a new, or at least heightened, tension. They believed in love, they sought courtships that would allow young people to find love as the basis for subsequent marriage, and without too much parental interference. But they also, somewhat desperately, wanted to avoid premarital sex (particularly for women), out of genuine moral conviction but also from a realization of the growing need to limit birth rates at a time when restraint seemed to provide the only sure method of birth control. And while the problem was greatest in courtship, it affected marital relations as well, where periods of sexual abstinence were increasingly essential to achieve the desired family size. A particular definition of love was the only way to square this circle.

Figure 7.2. Courtship in the early nineteenth century. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Thus advice givers increasingly wrote of a love that, while it might ultimately include sexuality, would have other primary sources. “Is it not possible that there may be a love strong enough and abiding enough, untinged by (sexual) passion, to hold a husband and wife firm and fast in its bonds, and leave them little to desire? I believe it; I know it.” Or as a popular medical advisor put it: “But while we speak of pure and passionate love, we may refer to the animal passion, which in no ways is akin to love.” “Pure love . . . appertains mainly to . . . this cohabitation of soul with a soul. . . . It is this spiritual affinity of the mental masculine and feminine with each other.” Because it was widely preached and met real needs of couples who sought passion without, initially, an explicitly sexual element, this idea of deep, ethereal love caught on widely, and really came to describe a key aspect of emotional life in many middle-class courtships (Lystra 1989; Stearns and Knapp 1993; Dana 1822: 22; Saunders 1868: 105, 143; Montegazza 1896: 217; Arthur 1888).

Redefining Other Family Emotions

The central emphasis on love as the core of family emotionality generated several other emotional redefinitions, widely adopted in the prescriptive literature.

Fear, for example, had to be reexamined. If the primary bond between parent and child was a deep affection, fear must be rethought as an element in family discipline. The review of fear corresponded more generally with the decline of traditional Christian preoccupation with sin, hell, and damnation—in itself a huge change in cultures like the French, not to mention New England Protestantism (Delumeau 1990). Explicit injunctions against uses of fear emerged in the early nineteenth century, with explicit recognition that a traditional disciplinary ploy was being attacked. Innocent children, the new argument went, had no reason to fear unless the idea was put into their heads by conniving adults. Scary stories or invocations of imminent death or bogeymen should be abandoned, in this new emotional culture, because they would needlessly disrupt emotional tranquility within the family. There was a real battle over this issue within American Protestantism, in the 1820s and 1830s, when whole congregations might abandon ministers who refused to go along with the new belief in children’s innocence and the primacy of love over fear (Stearns and Haggerty 1989).

With time, the continued campaign against the use of fear in managing young children was combined with a characteristic Victorian interest in making sure that boys, at least, were also taught the importance of courage. (Girls, of softer emotional stuff, were exempt from this requirement.) But this challenge was to be met by uplifting stories or experiences outside the family—in sports, for example. There was no contradiction of the ongoing belief that fear should be purged from the emotional lexicon of the family itself.

Anger also came under attack, another emotion that seemed incompatible with a loving atmosphere at home. Much ink was spilled over the importance for parents of subduing any anger, lest again it needlessly complicate childish innocence. “A mother must have great control over her own feelings, a calmness and composure of spirit not easily disturbed.” Children’s anger must also be controlled, lest it disrupt the family or damage their own character for later life. And anger between spouses was equally to be avoided, with much attention going to issues such as avoiding or at least minimizing the “first fight”—a theme that would persist into the marital advice of the twentieth century. Here, too, gender differences were significant, but only outside the domestic arena. Boys and men must expect to have the capacity for anger as a spur to achievement in business or political life, whereas respectable women had no need for the emotion in any context. But males had a responsibility equal to that of females of disciplining their temper within the confines of family (Stearns and Stearns 1986).

Jealousy was less widely discussed than fear or anger, though commentary made it clear that this emotion, also, was incompatible with the purity of family love. A few high-profile court cases in the United States successfully argued that male jealousy, in the case of unfaithful spouses, was an understandable but temporarily uncontrollable emotion that might even excuse murder—but this was not the stuff of standard emotional advice (Ireland 1988; 1989). Generally, jealousy was seen as primarily a woman’s issue which, like anger, must be kept under control.

If the new family emotional lexicon called for new levels of restraint for types of emotions viewed as incompatible with family life, the approach to grief was quite different. Here, as with love, was another illustration of how the emotional functions of the family took on new importance. Indeed, as many observers noted, the two emotions were twinned. If the family existed to provide love and emotional support, so the loss of a family member must become the occasion for unprecedented emotional response. And while the new levels of grief were painful—in principle and for many in actual fact—they confirmed in their own way the family’s emotional importance, helping to bind family members together in the face of death or even the absence of a beloved. Victorians could revel in the emotion far more elaborately than had been true in the past, with children actively involved as well as adults. An American Protestant put the emotional puzzle together this way, in 1882: “It may truly be said that no home ever reaches its highest blessedness and sweetness of love and its richest fullness of joy till sorrow enters its life in some way” (Stearns 2007).

Figure 7.3. The new poignancy of grief. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Figure 7.4. A husband’s grief. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Open grief, at this new level, not only reflected the emphasis on love but also an equally novel sense of the inappropriateness of death—particularly of course the death of a child or a sibling but also other common outcroppings such as maternal death in childbirth. Actual mortality rates would not drop sharply until after 1880, but emotional opposition to death was prepared well before this. Songs, fiction, and new rituals and cemetery arrangements all confirmed the increased emotional attention paid to death. Grief could soar, just as love did. It was revealing that, as one means of assuaging grief, many Christian groups began to introduce the idea of family reunion in heaven (a decidedly untraditional notion from a theological standpoint). Family emotionality was becoming so important that it reshaped the conception of the afterlife.

Finally, the emphasis on love, and the attacks on traditional disciplinary mechanisms such as fear, placed a new premium on guilt as the family emotion most involved in responses to inappropriate behavior. Public shaming and even physical discipline were increasingly downplayed, in favor of emotional reactions that depended heavily, at least in their initial formation, on family ties. The new normal, at least at the level of recommendations, for dealing with a misbehaving child involved calmly isolating the child from daily loving family interactions—without anger or threat. A period alone was intended to promote self-reflection but also an active desire to return to the warmth of the family circle, with repentant apology the badge of admission. Guilt, and its initial basis in family emotional relationships, clearly linked to the other new emotional goals (Demos 1988).

The Cheerful Family: Another New Hope

The idea that families should be cheerful entities was of course not brand new. The Protestant encouragement to new satisfactions in family life, as early as the seventeenth century, might have pointed in that direction, and there were earlier injunctions for wives to be cheerful as well. But a thorough embrace of the idea of familial cheerfulness awaited the nineteenth century, and it is just now being explored. Cheerfulness and love might seem to be emotional soulmates, but cheer had its own characteristics and might separate to some extent from the most intense renderings of love and grief (Lewis 1985).

A cheerful family atmosphere was certainly part of what was supposed to make a middle-class home a refuge from the tensions of business and public life. This was another assignment for wives and mothers, part of their responsibility for an appropriate emotional rendering of the family. Cheerfulness helped link the family to the newly explicit quest for happiness that the Enlightenment had introduced—the domestic translation of this new goal, in fact (Lasch 1977).

But cheerfulness also emerged, less predictably, in injunctions for children, beginning early in the nineteenth century in Britain and even more the United States. A crucial development in Victorian childrearing standards, going beyond emotional life but with clear relevance to it, involved a reassessment of the importance of obedience—which had been a standard assumption in previous commentary. With more emphasis on love and positive emotional interaction, and less need to condition children for work, it was probably inevitable that obedience would come in for some critical comment. Reconsideration of the role of fear in discipline pointed in the same direction. And, indeed, as part of the recasting of the idea of original sin in the early nineteenth century, obedience was widely discussed for several decades, only to decline, as a topic, subsequently (see Figure 7.6) as parental interest turned more to seeking creativity and affection in children (Stearns 2012).

Figure 7.5. The happy family. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Figure 7.6. Relative frequency of obedience references in the United States. Source: Google Books (American English) Corpus. http://googlebooks.byu.edu
Figure 7.7. Cheerful obedience: U.S. data. Source: Google Books (American English) Corpus. http://googlebooks.byu.edu

A key part of this transition, however, involved several decades in which obedience was still widely sought, but now accompanied by a new expectation of cheerfulness—clearly an effort to make traditional requirements more compatible with the more modern hopes that the family would be a loving and emotionally pleasant environment. Opportunities to use digitized data show the new association quite clearly, both in Britain and the United States. Links between obedience and cheerfulness were almost nonexistent in 1800, but they surged forward rapidly thereafter, with phrases such as “cheerful acquiescence in parental demands.” Insistence on obedience, itself traditional, was now redefined to make it more compatible with the new tone of family emotionality—and the emotional demands on children clearly increased in the process. Not surprisingly, such a complex combination required much discussion. British linkages between obedience and cheerfulness doubled between 1820 and 1840, while in the United States the increase was more than sevenfold between 1800 and the 1860s (see Figure 7.7). New terminology was also introduced to designate children who did not cooperate. The word sulky, new to the language in 1744, was increasingly applied to children; its use in published works in the United States increased by 1,000 percent between 1830 and 1900 (Google Books 2013).

By the second half of the century, again particularly in the United States, a further evolution increasingly reduced attention to obedience altogether—new attacks in fact directly targeted the undesirability of “unreasoning obedience,” in favor of a more uniform insistence on good cheer. Independent references to the importance of cheerful children exploded in the United States from the 1870s onward (see Figure 7.8; British trends were similar in direction but consistently lower in volume). Disgruntled children, so the argument now went, could “destroy the peace and happiness of a home.” To avoid this, parents should understand that “a child should be helped and urged and joked into cheerfulness”—a state now seen as essential to family emotionality and also a vital step in building appropriate adult character (Stearns 2012; Kotchemidova 2005).

Figure 7.8. Cheer combined references: U.S. data (cheerful, etc.). Source: Google Books (American English) Corpus. http://googlebooks.byu.edu

The Impacts of Change: Emotional Experiences and Wider Response

The marked changes in family emotional culture that were crafted in advice literature and other outlets from the late eighteenth century onward obviously raise questions about impact. Dominant cultures almost always produce important results, but rarely as uniformly as their advocates intend. And evidence about emotional experience remains far more elusive and contested than the sources for the culture itself.

Unsurprisingly, many middle-class people clearly worked to conform to the new standards, in personal assessments of emotion and in wider behaviors. Women’s diaries often chronicled concerns about controlling anger and jealousy, while recognizing the importance of love and cheerfulness. They often reflected acknowledgment that they, at least, were not as anger-free as gender conventions urged, but they worked to achieve placidity. Many children certainly came to identify their mothers as sources of deep affection: from another diary, “We all loved mother with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our bodies” (Spencer 1983).

Letters, both in Britain and the United States, easily show the internalization of ideals of intense but spiritual love in courtship. “[True love] is to love with all one’s soul what is pure, what is high, what is eternal,” one young man wrote to his beloved, noting the distinction of his feelings from the “mere surprise of the senses.” Or from a young woman, later an ardent feminist: “Why do I feel in my inmost soul that you, you only, can fill the deep void that is there.” Whatever the combination—childhood emotional intensity now transferring to adult goals, the prod of pervasive romantic literature, some degree of sexual sublimation—deep love was clearly a reality for many (Lystra 1989).

Grief, too, was experienced intensely, though of course there were personality variations and not everyone felt that they measured up to expectations (Wells 2000). Expressions of sorrow and lament and outright weeping, affected men as well as women. Deaths of children provoked new intensity, at least in rhetoric. A great deal of nineteenth-century etiquette was arranged around the appropriate recognition of the depths of grief on the death of a family member.

Beyond records of personal experience, there is other evidence of change. An intriguing article contends that Southern men, by the early nineteenth century, gained awareness of the dangers in their wives’ pregnancy through a new combination of deeper love and a realization of the potential pains of grief—in marked contrast to more cavalier attitudes in the eighteenth century (Dye and Smith 1986; Lewis 1985). On another front: grief rituals unquestionably deepened in the nineteenth century, reflecting expectations if not consistent inner realities. More elaborate tombs, including now separate commemorations of dead children, and other funeral apparatus attempted to translate the new emotional standards (Stannard 1977). Laws changed, and not only for divorce. A new torts category targeted “alienation of affections,” and while this reflected a proprietary attitude toward one’s spouse it also specifically attempted to capture the pain of lost love. Breach of promise suits were another innovation, reflecting an attempt to enforce sincerity of affection during courtship—obviously revealing that real love was not always present but also reflecting the common expectation that it should be. The growing legal acceptance of mental cruelty arguments also recognized the change involved: as a Kansas court intoned, “The tendency of modern thought is to elevate the marriage relationship and place it on a higher plane, and to consider it as a mental and spiritual relation, as well as a physical relation” (Griswold 1986). On yet another front: the monetary value of children increased greatly at the end of the nineteenth century, as evidenced in the costs of insurance policies and also the initiation of monetary allowances for children themselves, a tribute to the belief in their emotional importance even as their economic contributions declined (Zelizer 1985). Again, there is substantial and varied evidence of wide awareness of the new emotional standards for family life, and substantial acceptance.

Assessment: Some Downsides of the New Culture

Any widely accepted set of emotional standards will present some mixture of advantages and disadvantages. Contemporary Western audiences are still sufficiently conditioned by key nineteenth-century patterns to discern advantages without too much difficulty: pressures on parents and other adults to reduce anger and fear in dealing with children surely still seem desirable (with concerns mainly about lack of compliance). Invocations of family love still resonate, and demonstrably contemporaries in many Western societies continue to list the family first when they think about happiness (World Values Survey 2012).

But there were some drawbacks to the new culture, and it was a revealing indication of the real impact of the standards that some of these drawbacks became quite noticeable in a number of Western societies, particularly by the later nineteenth century.

The new culture could easily encourage expectations about family emotional performance that surpassed actual achievements. There were many reasons for the increase in divorce rates in the later nineteenth century (with levels depending on particular national cultures and legal systems), but emotional disappointment clearly entered the mix. In the United States, the mental cruelty category, which could extend to cover lack of affection, was a clear extension of the idea of the family as a loving center (Friedman and Percival 1982: 79; Griswold 1986).

Two diseases, both increasing during the nineteenth century, also suggested emotional strains. The surge in hysterical paralysis, in which for no physical reasons patients—usually women—were confined to the home, distorted but built upon the new distinction between family as emotional haven and a cruel external world. The late nineteenth-century rise in anorexia nervosa responded to a number of causes, but among them was the new difficulty many middle-class girls faced in seeking to protest parental authority while also recognizing the loving, cheerful atmosphere that conscientious parents now sought to provide: it was hard to rebel directly in this new climate, so getting sick could be an essential option (Brumberg 1988; Shorter 1988). More generally, of course, the increasing concern about the emotional state of adolescents—the term was coined in the nineteenth century—reflected another characteristic tension between dominant family emotional goals and the realities of adjustments to puberty (Kett 1978).

There is abundant room for further analysis of the complexities involved in dealing with the new standards, including of course tracing relationships between the late nineteenth-century concerns about guilt and repression and now-widespread patterns of family emotionality (Gay 1999). Most generally, potential strains in living up to expectations of love and happiness, and the dwindling room for sadness (aside from outright grief) in family life, deserve wider attention.

Conclusion: The 1920s as the End of a Period

We have traced a new domestic emotional culture that began to take shape in the eighteenth century and in most respects steadily intensified, while widening the relevant audience in Western society, into the twentieth century. Choosing 1920 as an end point for this development is valid in many ways, so long as several more durable continuities are understood.

Some of the goals of the new emotional culture were widely realized by 1920, allowing some relaxation of effort. Parenting manuals in this decade, at least in the United States, stopped issuing the routine warnings against the use of fear in child discipline. Obviously, some individuals and subcultures remained committed to fear, but in the American middle class, the new wisdom had been widely assimilated. The emotional goal continued to be valid, but explicit warnings had become unnecessary (Stearns 1998).

At the same time, several signals began to change in the 1920s, significantly altering Victorian familial emotional culture. Intense emphasis on spiritual love, amid courting couples, gave way to greater acknowledgement of a sexual component, as American adolescents and young adults also shifted from courtship to dating (Bailey 1989). Love was still a valid and expected goal—though perhaps more for women than for men, as French data suggested (Segalen 1981)—but it was no longer so ethereally defined. Victorian language here began to seem a bit silly. At the same time, more open mixing of the sexes, amid heightened sexuality, raised jealousy to new problem levels, in contrast to the fairly low-keyed discussions of the previous century. It was more important than before to defend true affection from possessiveness (Stearns 1990a). Gender standards changed amid new concerns about the effects of anger—now commonly labeled aggression, though the idea of defending the family setting against anger persisted. The most important shift involved a concerted attack on nineteenth-century grief standards and rituals. The dramatic reduction of infant and maternal mortality in the Western world, between 1880 and 1920, made grief both less fashionable and less necessary, and this aspect of familial emotional intensity was substantially revisited. Whether actual familial grief declined as much is open to question, but prescriptive commentary shifted (Stearns 2007).

With all this, however, basic elements persisted; there was no wholesale recasting. The importance of trying to assure familial happiness remained a vital component of Western emotional culture, again with the United States in the lead. It was in the 1920s and 1930s that “happy birthday” ceremonies became central to family life, first in the United States and then more widely. The related notion of the emotional importance of children—the idea, ironic as children’s costs mounted, that a child was increasingly “priceless”—continued to be a central pillar of emotional culture and family values alike (Zelizer 1985; Stearns 2012). Assumptions of love in marriage, and disappointments at its lack of intensity, hardly changed despite the shifts in specific vocabulary. Connections between family emotionality and consumer culture intensified as well, building on what was now a longstanding linkage (Cross 2004).

The emergence, in sum, of a substantially emotional definition of the family, with the recasting of supportive and negative emotions in response to this evaluation, has not been reversed, despite important shifts in detail. This creation of the long nineteenth century, in turn a core response to the changes in family function associated with industrialization, retained its basic value, complicating the relationship of the most recent decades to their arguably more fundamentally creative Victorian predecessor. One further change emerging in the 1920s really confirmed the importance of key Victorian standards: what had been middle-class emotional goals were now applied increasingly to society more generally, in what added up to a complex process of emotional democratization (Wouters 2004; 2007).