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The History Of Childhood In Iowa

Courtesy of Library of Congress
Farmer Earl Pauley's children playing with dolls in tumbleweed near Smithland, Iowa, December 1936.

While schools are closed, we're creating a series of "Talk of Iowa" episodes that will be fun and educational for learners of all ages.Every Tuesday, we'll learn about Iowa wildlife, and every Thursday, we'll learn about Iowa history.

When you're a kid it's easy to get tired of hearing the adults in your life say, "Things were different when I was a child." The truth is that childhood has changed a lot through the generations. Childhood used to be a lot shorter. In the 1800's many of the children who went to school left after the eighth grade ready to shoulder adult responsibilities. Even in the 20th century childhood changed dramatically through the decades in terms of child labor, education, independance, leisure activities and more. 

During this episode of Talk of Iowa, historians Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Leo Landis and Donna Braden explore the lives of children in Iowa and the Midwest, dating as far back as the mid 19th century. Riney-Kehrberg is a professor of history at Iowa State University who has written several articles and books on the history of children, including "The Nature of Childhood: An Environmental History of Growing Up in America since 1865." Landis is the state curator at the State Historical Society of Iowa and Braden is the senior curator and curator of public life at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.

Credit Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Switchboard operators.


  • Leisure (noun); use of free time or enjoyment
  • Iowa compulsory education law; a state law requiring the "custodian" of a child between the ages of 6 and 16 to take responsibility for making sure the child attends school. Iowa children were not required to attend school until 1904.
  • Hoop Rolling; An ancient game in which a large ring is rolled along the ground and struck with a stick or other tool to keep it rolling as long as possible.

Discussion questions and activities: 

  • How has technology or things you play with changed in your lifetime? How has it changed how you play with and interact with your family?
  • Ask your parents and grandparents what they used to do to have fun.
  • For generations all children, but particularly children who grew up on farms, were expected to contribute to the family by working from an early age. How do the chores you learned about on the show compare to your chores today? 
  • Find out how to play an old fashioned game and give it a try!

Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa