Amazing Photos of Childhood from the Last Century

Hi Readers — I loved scrolling through these old British photos, some heartwarming, some harrowing. Here at Free-Range Kids we talk a lot about how childhood has changed since when we were growing up. These show how childhood has changed since our parents (and maybe even grandparents?)  were growing up. Particularly striking was the photo of a classroom full of children sitting at their desks, each kid bundled in a blanket. The open windows indicate that they needed fresh air despite the cold, which probably means they all had tuberculosis.

As 2010 parents worry whether a child can be alone in the car while mom picks up the pizza because life is just “too dangerous!” and “times have changed!” and “anything could happen!” these pix provide a quickie lesson in perspective. And gratitude. — Lenore

23 Responses

  1. This old text, The Child’s Day, recommends that schools keep the windows open all day in all weather… I don’t know whether this was actually practiced much for healthy children, but it was in vogue about a hundred years ago:

  2. Wow, road safety lessons, teachers holding on to kids, dirt, exposed food, cricket bats, baking? It’s interesting to think that if all this was happening today, all those teachers would be in court and have lost their jobs. The only thing that’s changed is that certain adults are more ignorant, fearful, and intolerant.

    On a side note, I had my first Free-Range “argument” yesterday. But in the end, common sense and understanding it’s about the child and not the parent, prevailed. The next time my friend’s daughter (5 yrs) asks her if she can go across the street (literally, and it’s a narrow side street road) to go to the store by herself, she’s going to let her. Of course she’ll be there to guide her every step of the way. Just not actually cross the street with her and into the store. But will be there at the curb. Baby steps. Her daughter is very intelligent. Talking to her you would thinks she was closer to 8 or 9, if not for the little stature.

  3. These pics make me happy. The only one that couldn’t have been taken at my preschool is the one with roller skates, and that’s because we can’t afford that many sets of roller skates!

  4. What I’m really concerned about are these terrible parents who actually let their infants try to (I am appalled to write this) … stand up and walk. Don’t these irresponsible, inane fools realize what they are doing?!? What if their child were to fall down. This is not only damaging to their body, but also to their self-esteem. I have contacted my congressman in an attempt to at the very least mandate that all parents who have children install a cushioned floor similar to those responsible people at the McDonald’s playland.

    Now another thing I have recently seen that has absolutely floored me! There are actually some parents who let their little boys play baseball with hard balls and metal bats ….

    What is this country coming to?

  5. I’m amazed – look at those kids – not a single obese kid in the bunch -and you know that was whole milk they were drinking then too. Come on people…wake up….what are we doing to our kids?

  6. What an invasion of privacy! What sick pedophile took these pictures? And to post them online!?!? Someone could track down these “kids” and try and sell the life insurance or something worse!

    Great pictures, thanks!

  7. The commenters at the Daily Mail site feel the need to make it about whether life in general was better back then or not.

    Why can’t they just accept that the photos themselves generally depict good things, whatever else might have been less desirable about all the other things that happened to those kids? Happy kids, learning, playing, and being fed need to be quibbled about? (Not sure about the TB one, but then I’m not entirely convinced that’s what was going on.)

  8. Even though some photos fondly remind me of growing up in the 60s and 70s, other older photos have me questioning how I would have fared if born 20 – 25 years earlier.

  9. That picture with the open windows must be censored. We all know that to fight winter you need to warm the room, and shut the windows to keep the winter out, not open them for all the chill and viruses to get in . . . .

    At least that was the policy in my school (90s – 2000s)

  10. I’m wondering why they weren’t afraid of a stranger coming in through the OPEN window and taking a couple of kids. Or take them hostage. Oh wait, that’s right, that’s something that doesn’t really happen, even back then.

  11. Pictures of kids faces! Absolutely amazing! Forty years from now no one will know what a kid looked like today because so many ignorant people believe taking a child’s photograph is the criminal equivalent of stealing there car.

  12. ARRRGH! “their car”. Any pics of me in a grammar class I’ll be staring out the window.

  13. I wanted to pass this on, but can’t find an email address to send it private.

  14. Wow, those pictures are right in line with the way things looked when I was a youngster in Warsaw, NY.
    How did I ever survive those “dark ages” and be able to attend my 50th high school reunion last month?

  15. Nineteenth-century historian here. I don’t believe those children are all undergoing TB treatment. No way–they are taking wholesome outdoor air to help them grow and aid their digestion. This is a Victorian notion (or older), but then I don’t believe the “TB” photo dates from as late as the 1940s.

  16. My dh and I met an old Kindergarten teacher in FL about 8 yrs ago. She taught K at the start of WW2 and through the baby boomers that followed. She said that class size of 40-50 students wasn’t unusual, and she NEVER had discipline issues. Kids knew what behavior was expected, manners and morals were taught at home, and if a child did act up (very rare event) then a quick call home was all that was needed. A room full of 5 yr olds today sounds like a ring in Dante’s h#ll to most people.

  17. Hmm. Great archival shots, and those shining faces show that childhood spirit endures in all situations.

    Still, I am not sure I quite buy that these were the “good old days” and some of the comments here and on the original site unsettle me. As Lenore says, they just make me feel grateful. These weren’t the golden days of childhood. Yes, there are limits to chidlren’s personal freedom in our litigious, confused culture (with on the one hand hypersexualisation of children through corporate & material culture and on the other hand an absolute moral, social panic about children and sex). But they are free to be individuals and express themselves and feel a whole range of feelings in a whole lot of situations. They are protected against disease through immunisation. They eat a wide range of interesting tasty fresh food. I like my kids having small classes, and I like that my daughter’s teacher can accommodate Fred’s restless wandersome ways so that Fred loves school and loves learning. I hate to think who she would be if she was one of sixty kids who just “knew how to behave”. Yeah it’s loud and frantic, but a room full of 5 year olds today is a joy to behold.

    We might need to do a better job at getting our kids outside and getting them to navigate the complexities of the modern world while still being in touch with their intuitive, instinctual human behaviour and needs. But at the same time, we (at free range) are a community of parents who love and treasure children and childhood and who believe in creating felicitous spaces for kids to be kids and live through their bodies and their imaginations, and opportunities for them to be wild, independent and autonomous. This is the age I want to live in…as much as I love poring over black and white images of the past. I just want to fix the bits I don’t like now instead of hankering over a past that didn’t exist (the very glorified past that makes us see this time in terms of darkness and fear, because we strip away what was bad and frame it only in terms of nostalgia).

  18. SE, I believe you’re right. Looking at the clothing style of the woman and the types of caps and hats worn by the children, I’d date it around the time of my grandmother’s young adulthood, which was late 1910’s-early 1920’s. Assuming, that is, that British and American fashions were on the same time scale, which I suppose they were.

  19. Almost as interesting as the photos were the comments below, some from people who had lived through those days (referring to the photos from the 40’s and 50’s). Dating of old photos can be quite a challenge: Ladies fashions and automobile designs being two good sources of clues. I belong to an electric railway historical group that has monthly meetings, which often have “slide shows” with photos of streetcar lines (or as our British friends would say “tramways”) from bygone days. There’s often some comment from the audience about vintage motorcars as well as the trolleys “Get a load of that 51 Studebaker!” “A 53 Chevy! I used to have one of those” etc. There’s a postcard that may still be sold in San Francisco that was taken shortly after the BART system opened, showing a sleek new train and young women wearing the mini-dresses of the early 70’s. Although hemlines are close to those levels now, there was a time when dresses that short would be worn mostly by those who truckers call “pavement princesses”.
    And about the “fresh air classroom” photo: The benefits of fresh air were touted by many “experts”. One can go all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, who shocked some contemporaries by leaving his windows open at night.

  20. Fresh air is smart. Doesn’t matter how often you disinfect a classroom, it’s still a germ fest on the winter. Kids need to be breathing something else besides the stuffy germ air.

  21. Check out the comments people are posting on the photos themselves–many of the older commenters are making it quite clear that being a kid then carried very real downsides.

    Why does it seem that each generation wants to either idealize, or demonize, the previous one?? I’ve been intrigued by that since I studied history at the University of Wisconsin.

    On a personal level, I’m not at all sure I’d like to have changed places with these kids…On the other hand, my own elementary education was far from ideal!

    The grass is greener, right?…Or not?

  22. Frankly, I’m happy with the decades in which I lived.

  23. great post !!! keep sharing… 🙂

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