Historical Geographies of Childhood through Rites of Passage

GEOG/HST 170: Historical Geography; University of Vermont

May, 2022

Professor Meghan Cope (mcope@uvm.edu)

Student Researchers: Evan Green, Tucker Jaffe, Indiana Peters, Andrew Plumb, Isaac Tabakin


For as long as the concept of childhood has existed, so has the idea of “rites of passage”. In the broader sense, “rites of passage” are meant to serve as “changes in condition or a passage from one magico-religious or secular group to another” (van Gennep 1911). In regards to childhood, these changes in condition mark not only the passage of time but also the transition into adulthood. These rites of passage are not universal, though. 

It goes without saying that a young person’s experiences throughout childhood will differ drastically based upon gender, race, and religion. This reality rings especially true for children who grew up in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These children were forced to experience unique rites of passage due to restrictive access to resources, meant to reinforce societal and cultural values. These roles largely served to cater towards the “Ideal American Male”, while hindering those who did not fit into such ideals. 

These deficiencies were institutional, serving to mold children of this time period to merely “fill their role”, rather than promote equal opportunity. Beyond that, these inequalities were reinforced spatially, for children who lived in the South vs. the North, or those living in rural vs. urban environments. Because of this, it is important that we look at rites of passage retrospectively, in order to piece together the past, and understand how we can correct these injustices in today’s society.