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Back Before Children Looked Childish

From Clayton, N.C., circa 1936-1937. H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries hide caption

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H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries

From Clayton, N.C., circa 1936-1937.

H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries

Immersed in silent film that depicts everyday folks in rural, 1930s North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, I realized that young people back then looked pretty much the same as the adults ... only smaller.

Take the 13-minute clip from Clayton, N.C., filmed circa 1936-1937. Like the older men in the movie, little boys mostly wore long pants and shirts that buttoned all the way to the throat. Like the older women, little girls mostly wore modest blouses and matronly overcoats. Boys flashed sly smiles like their fathers; girls showed on-camera reticence like their mothers. Teenage-looking guys played basketball in long pants and ties. Teenage-looking girls rollerskated in long dresses.

There are moments of merriment — candid laughter and spontaneous gestures. A tongue sticking out here; a giggle erupting there. A lot of boys sported faddish aviator caps; a lot of girls wore barrettes in their hair. Occasionally people, both young and old, showed up in overalls. Granted, a lot of shots were taken in and around schoolyards.

From Clayton. N.C., circa 1936-1937. H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries hide caption

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H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries

From Clayton. N.C., circa 1936-1937.

H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries

But by and large the feeling you get is that this was one of the last generations before kids were allowed to look and be like kids. There is an adultness in the dress and demeanor of the children.

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There is in the film little sense of a childhood as we know it today. The clip is representative of the hundreds of hours of footage shot by North Carolina photographer Herbert Lee Waters and recently digitized and released by Duke University Libraries.

Younger America

When did America begin allowing children to have a childhood?

From Clayton. N.C., circa 1936-1937. H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries hide caption

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H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries

From Clayton. N.C., circa 1936-1937.

H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries

"This is a somewhat complicated issue, depending on family needs," says Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a history professor at Iowa State University and author of several books about the history of childhood in America. "More well-to-do families began granting children childhoods we might recognize in the early 1800s. Poorer families couldn't do this, nor could farm families."

For many working-class youth in America, she says, "work was a major component of their lives as late as the 1950s. The same is true of many farm families. It was only in the 1940s that some farm communities began to have school years of the same length as urban communities."

She adds, "Farm children have never had the same protections against child labor as other youngsters."

By looking at Waters' films, you get a glimpse of America before TV. Before large-scale toy companies and Madison Avenue marketing campaigns set their sights on kids. Before there was writing on T-shirts.

Today we sometimes lament that popular culture is encouraging young people to grow up too soon. Back then, they had little choice.

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Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org.