Age of Uncertainty in the 1800s

In the 1800s birthdays were not seen as markers into adulthood, leaving many young people confused as to where they belonged in society.

| June 2016

  • Charles Plummer, filled his diary with lamentations that he was “qualified for nothing” and found it “humiliating indeed” that he still lived with his parents at age nineteen.
    Photo by Fotolia/Andrey Kiselev
  • In “Age in America” Corinne T. Field and Nicholas L. Syrett explain how chronological age always intersects with other socially constructed categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. Ranging from the seventeenth century to the present, taking up a variety of distinct subcultures from frontier children and antebellum slaves to twentieth-century Latinas Age in America makes a powerful case that age has always been a key index of citizenship.
    Cover courtesy New York University Press

In Age in America (New York University Press, 2015), by Jon Grinspan, a collection of scholars of childhood, adulthood and old age explore how and why particular ages have come to define the rights and obligations of American citizens. We recognize these numbers as key transitions in our lives precise moments when our rights and opportunities change: when we become eligible to cast a vote, buy a drink, or enroll in Medicare. In this excerpt we explore the confusing transition into adulthood in the 1800s.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Age of Uncertainty in the 1800s

Nineteenth-century American youths lived with a frustrating lack of age boundaries. From the 1830s through the 1880s, men and women in their late teens and early twenties stumbled beyond the old structures of kin and region, into a confusing new world of economic and social uncertainty. Though pushed toward adulthood, few clear age boundaries signified real maturity. Millions of young men puzzled over where “childhood ends and youth begins and where youth ends and manhood begins.” The path was even more muddled for women. Each birthday heightened young Americans’ concerns that they would never achieve adulthood.



One moment bucked this trend. When white men turned twenty-one and were finally able to vote, they celebrated a clear step into adulthood. This political rite of passage helped make chronological aging seem progressive and triumphant to otherwise drifting youths. Many young men looked forward to casting their first votes, and young women, denied the right themselves, nonetheless elevated its importance for the men in their lives. While Americans tended to greet their fifteenth or twentieth birthdays with chagrin, they honored an eligible man’s twenty-first birthday as an unambiguous passage into adulthood.

The political culture welcomed them. During the age of popular politics — running from the 1840s through the 1880s — public democracy stood at the center of American life. Voter turnout peaked during this era, averaging 77 percent of eligible voters at presidential elections. Some heated races drew well over 90 percent of potential voters to the polls, and even the slowest presidential election, in 1852, had a higher turnout than any presidential race since 1900. Nonvoters refused to stand on the sidelines: American women, children, and disenfranchised minorities played an active role at rallies, debates, and jollifications. Public political events served as the uniting centerpiece of American society; democracy enthralled many as the chief national pastime.

This excited political environment offered young voters a crucial sense of importance. While scholars have studied the party dynamics, ideological conflicts, and campaign tactics of this political culture, few have examined the personal significance of young Americans’ individual use of public politics. This study focuses on the private implications of Americans’ linkage of democracy and maturity.

What many considered the most exasperating aspect of this political system — the arbitrary choice of twenty-one as the line between boyhood and manhood — may actually have been its greatest strength. Young men — floundering in new economic and social environments, struggling to find a job, to meet a spouse, to start a family — delighted in the idea that they won the right to vote without having to accomplish anything. In his 1888 book about turning twenty-one, civil rights activist Albion Tourgée wrote about the significance of this almost mystical transition, tied not to achievement but to simple chronology. Overnight, no matter how stunted the rest of his life appeared, an idle young man was “transformed into an effective agency.” The very arbitrariness of the voting age offered young men an unearned birthday present.

Voting to Become an Adult

This cultural use of a political rite put young women in an unenviable position. Like their brothers and beaux, young women struggled with the titanic changes of nineteenth-century life. They expressed similar anxieties at each passing birthday, worrying about their failure to achieve success, stability, family, and respectability. And many followed party politics extremely closely; their diaries and letters often overflow with partisan rhetoric, favorite slogans, and campaign gossip. Unlike young men, however, American women were prevented from using their political interests against their personal anxieties. They were denied a satisfying transition at age twenty-one.

Instead, most women fumbled between three lesser options: vicariously appreciating the twenty-first birthdays of the men in their lives, celebrating their twenty-first birthdays as significant without explaining why, or pointing to the fundamental inequality of the system. None provided the sudden transition that young men found upon becoming voters, but each offered some semblance of a boundary in their otherwise hazy development.

Few African Americans, male or female, could use their birthdays in this manner. A very large proportion, born as slaves, could not mark a specific date of birth. Many knew only the season or an event, like a presidential election, that took place the year of their birth. In addition, although millions of black men voted between 1840 and the 1880s, their right to vote was never a dependable moment to be anticipated. The chances were simply too high that a state legislature or Election Day terrorists would prevent a twenty-one-year-old black man from going to the polls. Young white men could look forward to their twenty-first birthdays as a moment of proud transition; few black men could be so certain about their age or their suffrage.

The extended period from the antebellum era through the Gilded Age witnessed two powerful social trends. On the one hand, a booming nation shook the transition from childhood to adulthood, challenging youths to make their own way in a world without the old boundaries. At the same time, the political system asserted its centrality in American culture, bringing citizens together in ways that — though unfair and corrupt — thrilled millions. It is no coincidence that this peak of young people’s instability was also the most enthusiastic moment of popular politics, and many young men and women used one trend against the other. For millions of young people turning twenty-one each year, the age limits of politics offered a clear and welcome boundary in their otherwise muddled development.

No Success Without Experience

Poor Benjamin Brown Foster. The awkward youth, growing up in an 1840s Maine lumber town, knew intimately the succession of stifled birthdays that failed to grant real maturity. Foster struggled toward adulthood at a time when the path seemed vague. The booming market economy pushed him to achieve, but the crumbling system of apprenticeship shuffled him from job to job, none promising real advancement. He yearned for a wife, but his financial problems disadvantaged him in courting. One wealthy young woman mocked him as “the dirtiest looking object she ever saw.” Assessing his failures to achieve manhood in his frank, anxious diary, Foster sighed, “My life is already probably a quarter or a fifth gone and with what result?”

Concerns like Foster’s are common in the diaries and letters of young Americans from the 1840s through the 1880s. A diverse cast expressed a shared belief that each year marked 365 wasted days. From the young Pennsylvanian who fretted that his big plans would probably “vanish for the lack of money” to the Tennessee girl who felt that she did “nothing but eat and wear and be in the way,” a broad swath of American youths expressed the same mixture of self-improving ambition and self-pitying pessimism. Most believed that they alone were failing to progress toward adulthood.



These worries were not limited to young Americans of a particularly morose type. Confident, arrogant, and smug youths shared this sense of obstructed progress. A Great Plains buffalo hunter who survived a stabbing at Deadwood, boxed for Calamity Jane’s amusement, and kept track of all the animals he shot in his diary, frequently groaned about his future. Charles Plummer, a nativist street preacher who could work massive Philadelphia crowds into frothing anti-Irish agitation filled his diary with lamentations that he was “qualified for nothing” and found it “humiliating indeed” that he still lived with his parents at age nineteen.

Something larger than personality held back all these uncertain young people.

What seemed like the individual failures of millions of youths was, in reality, the human impact of the massive structural forces unleashed in the nineteenth century. The unprecedented changes felt during the age of popular politics filled the lives of American youths with gnawing uncertainty. Pushed by a faith in progress and pulled by the disorderly modern world, young men and women hoped for success but saw no clear way forward.

Courtship Rituals in Turmoil

In the mid-nineteenth century, young Americans’ lives changed radically. Between 1840 and 1890, America’s population quadrupled, splitting cities’ seams and peopling the vast frontier. Patterns of work, family, courtship, and education changed dramatically. Such upheavals disturbed the earlier progression of youth, in which most young Americans planned to replicate their parents’ lives. Beginning in the early decades of the nineteenth century, a growing market economy and an obsession with progress eclipsed that hope. By the Jacksonian era, few could plan to live as their ancestors had. There was no sudden shift away from the milestones that marked adulthood — youths still worked to find a partner, a livelihood, and a home — but after 1840 young people seemed unsure that they were pursuing these goals at the proper pace. The world seemed to be speeding up just as young people worried that they were slowing down.

Massive social change altered young Americans’ most intimate experiences. Romantic relationships grew more complex, as mobile men and women bounced around to new cities and territories. Americans courted more partners and married years later than their ancestors.

Finding work became another fraught decision; most young people had never before needed to find a job outside of their families’ domestic economy or social network. As America refocused on unskilled industry, the tradition of apprenticeship that introduced so many young men to the middling classes crumbled. The market added formerly unimagined options, but most jobs were short-lived. Work that had once been collective, like farming, was replaced by individual labor and personal pressure. Though family and regional networks weakened, new institutions like schools and unions could not yet replace their beneficial structures.

Just as their futures grew hazy, young people faced increasing social pressure to achieve. Each generation seemed more self-improving than the last, driven by what many came to call “the go-ahead principle.”

Though committed to the idea of progress and individual achievement, most young people experienced a phase of “semi-dependence” in their late teens. Many left home for six months of school or two years of work, but returned to rely on their family while planning their next move. A typical young man considered his teen years an alternating series of “buoyant hopes” and “baffling discouragements.”

Many young Americans lumped together concerns about financial success, proving their maturity, and asserting their masculinity or femininity. Adulthood and masculinity, for instance, were mutually reinforcing for young men, who considered manhood “a matter of age and gender,” and used “manly” to distinguish men from boys as often as they used the term to separate the sexes. As the culture of self-made capitalism increasingly dominated American aspirations, many saw financial success as proof of adulthood and masculinity.

For young ladies, usually barred from such capitalist strivings, a feeling of uselessness undermined their sense of womanhood. As the marriage age crept ever higher, many young women felt cut off from what was considered their primary mission: managing a household, husband, and children. Women frequently denounced themselves as foolish, frivolous, childish, and wasteful. For these reasons, many educators, parents, and preachers considered “youth” — that hazy phase between childhood and adulthood — “the most dangerous period of human life.”

Elusive Achievements

Birthdays brought these dangers to a point. For most of the year, youths experienced social and economic pressures as a miasmic weight, ever present but unarticulated. On their birthdays these burdens suddenly felt crushing. There was often a seasonal trend in such diaries: around New Year’s young Americans filled pages with hopeful visions of the coming year, and on their birthdays they bemoaned every mistake and missed opportunity. Many young Americans used the anniversary to express their darkest views of the past and their dimmest predictions for the future. Benjamin Brown Foster, the struggling Maine teen mentioned above, berated himself on his sixteenth birthday for being “ignorant, poor, fickle, wavering, without brilliancy, talents, wealth or influential friends.”

Both men and women expressed these feelings, usually following one of two models. Young women were more likely to simply castigate themselves as failures, to criticize their status without much consideration of other potential paths. Many marked their birthday with comments like “I am now eighteen and my feeling is regret — sincere regret” or “nineteen years of my unprofitable life are gone.” The African American activist Charlotte Forten Grimké felt her “own utter insignificance” on her birthday on August 17, 1854, marked August 17, 1856, as “saddest I have ever known,” worried on August 17, 1857, that “the years are passing away, and I, Ah! how little am I improving them,” and even on August 17, 1862, marveled that she had “lived a quarter of a century, and am so very, very ignorant.”

Such castigations did not resemble more modern concerns about growing old, but rather focused on a sense of personal stasis. Lacking much agency in nineteenth-century American culture, many young women found it difficult to point to specific mistakes that were holding them back. Some religious young women — particularly those immersed in the Calvinism that still dominated much of American spirituality — simply blamed their insufficient devotion, wishing, “Oh, that I had more faith in Jesus!”

The other model, more common among young men, was to list specific setbacks on one’s birthday, measured against an idealized vision of where one should be at that point in life. Benjamin Brown Foster’s birthday diary entries did this, enumerating the jobs he failed to win, the friends he lacked, and the trappings of manhood that eluded him.

Oliver Wilcox Norton wrote, during his service in the Civil War, that on his birthday, “It is time I was a man if ever I am to be one,” but though “my years would indicate that I ought to be a man, but I must confess too much of the boy in my nature yet.”

Many youths worried about this disconnect between their chronological age and place in life. For this reason, it is wrong to suggest that age consciousness had little importance in nineteenth-century America. Many youths felt like the aspiring preacher Lyman Abbott, who wrote on his birthday, “I am 20 years of age. To say that I do not realize it, would not begin to express my want of conception of who I now am and who I used to be. Even now as I walk the room I cannot conceive who I am that am twenty years old.” An awareness of one’s chronological age was not absent; it merely failed to sync with lived experience. Many craved a decisive moment when chronological age matched self-image.

A stunted romantic life added to the list of woes. Over the course of the nineteenth century the average age of marriage crept up, until by 1890 men married at 26.5 and women at 23.5, a peak not returned to until the late 1980s and 1990s. Individual young women and men experienced this demographic shift as a personal delay. Many poured out their deepest worries on their birthdays. When turning twenty, Emily Hawley Gillespie’s mother nagged her, saying, “Here you are twenty years old and not married yet,” while Oliver Wilcox Norton wrote in a birthday letter, “Do you think I will be married before I am thirty? I don’t see much prospect of it.” Very few of these young people pointed out that they were part of a larger trend; most saw their “single wretchedness” as an individual failing.

This was the usual model, expressed with particular self-recrimination between ages fifteen and twenty-one. Some Americans kept criticizing themselves on their birthdays for the rest of their lives, but this tone peaked as anxious young men and women struggled to find a path toward manhood or womanhood. Most expressed some version of Norton’s worry that, though “a man” in years he remained “the boy” in life experience. This disconnect between chronological age and expected maturity dogged millions. Many cast about for a clear, decisive boundary, a chronological marker that would really change their status.

In the face of all these melancholy anniversaries, one date stands out. Though young Americans bemoaned their failings on their seventeenth or twentieth birthdays, they reveled in their twenty-firsts. Young white men in particular used proud, triumphant, and nationalistic language to mark that anniversary. While they looked backward on other birthdays, considering mistakes they had made or paths they might have taken, on their twenty-first they looked forward to adulthood and citizenship.

The Union Army veteran, radical Republican, and civil rights activist Albion Winegar Tourgée best articulated the political weight of turning twenty-one. In his book Letters to a King, he implored young men not to lose interest in politics — as enthusiasm began to wane in the late 1880s — but to locate their manhood in democratic participation. Writing to an archetypal young adult, Tourgée announced, “This is your twenty-first birthday. Yesterday you were an infant; today you are a man.” Turning twenty-one meant more than manhood, Tourgée went on: “Yesterday you were a subject; today you are a sovereign.” The political system coronated young men; the nation, Tourgée wrote, “enjoins you to be a king!”

To Be a King at 21

It was not just pushy reformers who felt this way; triumphant twenty-first birthdays jump out from young Americans’ otherwise anxious diaries. Charles Plummer, the anti-immigrant street preacher mentioned above, provides a clear example of this in his prolific diary spanning the 1840s. In his late teens he lived in Philadelphia, worked in a shoe factory, and spent his free time preaching evangelical Christianity. Though his associates described him as a brilliant speaker, he saw himself as a failure. Plummer ignored his success as a lecturer and focused on his struggle to establish financial independence. It was really the aftershocks of the 1837 depression that kept him from achieving, but Plummer berated himself for living in his parents’ cramped house and working in his brother’s unventilated shoe factory.

As his twenty-first birthday neared, his tone changed. Plummer focused less on his personal status and more on the political conflicts roiling 1840s Philadelphia. In long entries he discussed which political party represented the “real democracy of the country,” vacillating from the Whigs to rising anti-immigrant organizations. He bemoaned his failures less, and began to write with more self-assurance, even aggression. While his politics leave nothing to admire, his confidence clearly grew as he saw himself as a mature political arbiter. Finally, on March 29, 1842, Plummer declared — with characteristic soapbox bombast — “All Hail, I am 21 Years of Age to day. Thanks be to God!... the Laws of the Land declare me to be a man and a Citizen.” Gone was his humiliation at living at home and his concerns that he was “qualified for nothing.” Instead, by simply turning twenty-one, Plummer earned manhood and citizenship.

Similar entries sprout from young men’s diaries across the country for the next several decades. Even young immigrants, like those Charles Plummer ranted against, saw turning twenty-one as an introduction to citizenship and manhood. Michael F. Campbell, an Irish-born youth struggling in a Gilded Age New Haven factory, expressed this clearly. Campbell kept one of the most anxious diaries of the era, in which he continually worried about work, romance, identity, health, masculinity, and even his weight. For all his carping and moaning, Campbell greeted his twenty-first birthday with stammering pride, proclaiming, “Today is an important day in my life no doubt for on today I am to commence my career as a man and not as a boy... for on this beautiful day in may I have completed my twenty one years in this world.”

Pride at turning twenty-one could drown out regional, social, economic, and ideological differences. Cowboys and clerks, Union and Confederate soldiers, Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Free Soilers, and Socialists often met their twenty-first birthdays with similar language. They were not united by background or even strong feelings about politics. Most of these excited twenty-one-year-olds shared a self-reflective tone in the months before their big birthdays. It was not external politics, but internal anxieties, that made attaining the voting age so significant for millions of anxious young men.

Achieving the voting age was not simply a happy rite of passage upon which young men stumbled. Many struggling youths spent their late teens anticipating the proud day. In preparation for their twenty-first birthday, or for the first election following it, young white men grew mature facial hair or “sleeked up” in other ways. In the 1876 election — the presidential vote with the highest turnout in U.S. history — the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel mocked twenty-one-year-olds’ affectations of maturity. A typical young man, the paper joked, awoke hours before dawn, fussed with his appearance, blustered at the breakfast table, argued politics with his father, dismissed his sister’s views, and spent the day preening around the polls, his pockets stuffed with extra ballots.

Up in Maine, Benjamin Brown Foster felt overwhelmed by these aspirations while observing an election well before his twenty-first birthday. Watching grown men cast ballots, Foster wished “that I was for one year, and on this one topic, a man, a voter.”

Many twenty-one-year-old men felt that they earned this new sense of agency twice, first by turning twenty-one and then by casting a vote in an election following that momentous birthday. Crossing the chronological boundary marked an abstract transition in “the Laws of the Land,” in the “eyes of God,” and in their own self-identity. After that personal milestone, casting one’s first ballot at a widely attended election, surrounded by most of the men in their community, publicly declared that self-knowledge. A young man’s first ballot offered concrete proof of his birthday’s abstract transition. As one Union Army captain wrote, when he first voted, “This has been a red letter day, for with many others, I have cast my first vote for President.” This young captain saw two simultaneous victories: he “cast my first vote,” and he did so “with many others.”

While most young white men could hop over the boundary between youth and adulthood twice, other populations could never fully embrace their twenty-first birthdays. White women, by far the largest disenfranchised population, usually faced their twenty-firsts with an odd mixture of vague pride and inarticulate yearning. Living in the same culture as their beaux and brothers, they felt that turning twenty-one had greater meaning than other birthdays, but could not point to any concrete change.

Many looked forward to their twenty-firsts, but when the celebrated date arrived, they fumbled in explaining its significance. In April 1859 Midwestern farm girl Emily Hawley Gillespie wrote that it was her “twenty-first birthday; am now of age, some say ‘can do as you please,’” while seven years later New York Quaker Phebe Hallock Irish announced, “My twenty-first birthday. I have tried to be dignified, as becomes my age.” Twenty-one-year-old women felt that they now held greater freedoms and responsibilities, but they lacked the clear pronouncement of adulthood and citizenship that their brothers relished. Even those who were deeply interested in party politics celebrated their twenty-firsts, but knew that they could not expect their big day to usher in a new political identity.

Women Denied Privilege of Aging

Most women who saw a connection between chronological age and political maturity focused on the birthdays of men in their lives. Isabella Maud Rittenhouse Mayne took this approach in the early 1880s. Though she “must always cry on my birthday,” Mayne took a different tone when marking her suitor’s, bragging, “His birthday is Saturday. He’ll be 21 and able to vote.” Other women pushed men to celebrate their twenty-first birthdays and to be sure to cast their first vote when able. In 1868, the Indiana Sunday school teacher Mattie Thomas reminded her long-distance beau that his first vote was approaching, nudging, “I would feel real vexed if you would not vote this fall,” while Georgia belle Ella Gertrude Clanton noted with palpable disappointment that her fiancé was too sick to cast his first ballot. Though few women said so explicitly, these diaries give the sense that many saw their husband or beau’s transition into political manhood as a personal victory as well.

The most poignant discussions of twenty-first birthdays came from mid-nineteenth-century women who railed against a system that declared men “kings” at twenty-one, but offered women no similar coronation. Women’s Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard provided the strongest denunciation of this inequality. In her autobiography and in speeches to the National Council of Women, Willard reflected on her relationship with her brother Oliver, whom she had always viewed as a peer. “Then my brother came to be twenty-one,” Willard declared, and “dressed up in his best Sunday clothes” and went off to vote with the men, leaving his sister behind. “Lo and behold!” Willard told a crowd in 1888, “there came a day when there was a separation. I saw that voting made it, and it seemed to me the line was artificial.”

Oliver enjoyed one of the era’s few transitions based on chronological age, crossing an “artificial” line, with his sister left on the other side. The fact that the division was arbitrary made it more accessible to Oliver and more galling to Frances.

While her brother’s twenty-first birthday provided a clear initiation, Willard’s birthdays seemed to only limit her freedom. On one her mother insisted that she was too old to wear her hair down and had it “done up in woman-fashion,” complete with eighteen painful pins. She bemoaned that birthday as “the date of my martyrdom.” When Willard used her eighteenth birthday to assert her independence by reading Ivanhoe, a novel forbidden by her strict father, the Willard family laughed at her attempt to link a birthday with growing independence.

Oliver Willard’s birthday offered a clear rite of passage, while Frances’s meant decreasing freedom.

Frances Willard’s attacks on the inequalities in nineteenth-century American society are familiar to many scholars working today, both because they are incredibly compelling and because such writing was not very common. Though a core of activists railed against the disenfranchisement of women, most young Americans did not. Far more celebrated their twenty-first birthdays as vaguely meaningful or honored the rite of passage for the men in their lives. Most women (like men) accepted the culture in which they lived, and never expected to vote at twenty-one. They tended to see men’s birthday initiations as part of a fundamentally different path through life. Young men and women lived in an environment with few distinct boundaries, so they were apt to up-hold and even celebrate the few clear lines they encountered.


Reprinted with permission from Age in America by Jon Grinspan and published by New York University Press, 2015.















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