"Each word shows how you love me": The social literacy practice of children's letter writing (1780-1860)

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This article draws on hundreds of letters that formed German children's correspondence with their parents, other relatives, teachers and friends, written mostly between the 1780s and 1850s. Through this study, we see the part literacy played in transformations of bourgeois childhood in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. The article further investigates how children used letters as a means of learning sociability and building relationships within kinship networks. Historians of education have sometimes treated children's writing as secondary to more authoritative records. Yet we miss something important about the history of literacy education if we disregard children's writing or use it only superficially. This article considers the genre of children's letter writing, exploring the conventions and typical subjects which contributed to the social purpose of correspondence. Letter writing is examined as a paedagogic exercise, including the preoccupation with the medium which filled children's letters and evidence of instruction in letter writing. It demonstrates that letters fostered the participation of middle- and upper-class children in household affairs, kinship networks and cultural spheres connected through school friends and parents' acquaintances from very young ages. Children's correspondence documents a lifelong process in the making of class cultures and forging of social ties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)247-264
Number of pages18
JournalPaedagogica Historica
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Emily Bruce is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation, “Reading Agency: The Making of Modern German Childhoods, 1770-1850”, investigates the part that changing literacy practices played in transformations of childhood during the late Enlightenment. This research has been supported by grants from the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the University of Minnesota.


  • German family history
  • children and childhood
  • class
  • letter writing
  • literacy


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