Always Plenty to Do
by Pamela Riney-Kehrberg

Texas Tech University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-896-72692-5.
Reviewed by Doris Anne Roop-Benner
Posted on 10/07/2011


I found it fascinating to read about children who grew up on farms around 1900 and I think young people would enjoy it as well. This book is about the work children did, what they studied in school, and what they liked to do when they had time to play. They certainly had a very different childhood from the children of today.

Riney-Kehrberg asks us to imagine a time when children worked nearly as much as grownups, had to create their own fun, had only two or three changes of clothes with one pair of shoes, and school was less important than work. In their world everyone they knew worked—men, women, and children. The children knew that without their help, their families wouldn't be able to eat, have clothes to wear, or have a home in which to live.

Parents and children worked together to make their meals, sew their clothing, and build their homes. Children learned to be responsible and were willing to do important chores around the house and the farm—including staying healthy.

Food didn't come from a box or a can but from the garden or the henhouse or the barnyard. Most of the clothes people wore were homemade; once a dress, a shirt or a pair of pants was no longer good enough for church or school, it became work clothing. When the clothes were completely worn out they became cleaning rags, patches, or rag rugs. Families wasted nothing.

Children played games using their imaginations. They built playhouses, invented toys. played with the animals, and found ways to turn work into play. Sometimes they liked to curl up by the stove and read, but most families owned only one or two books because they were expensive.

Schools gave children the opportunity to learn, to study, and to play. A good education gave them choices about whether they wanted to be a successful farmer or leave the farm for another kind of work.

Many of the difficulties of being a farm child disappeared with time, but perhaps some of the good things about farm living disappeared too. Children of today spend fewer hours working with their parents, do less for themselves, and don't spend much time enjoying the outdoors.

Over time children's lives have become more and more alike, no matter where they live. Only you can imagine how you would have enjoyed living in that other world—a hundred years ago.

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg is a professor of history at Iowa State University. She is also the author of the scholarly history Childhood on the Farm: Work, Play, and Coming of Age in the Midwest. Her interest in children's history was inspired by four grandparents who all grew up poor on Kansas farms. Read more about the author on the Iowa State University website.

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