Overstress among American school children, 1840-1920

Gail Gaisin Glicksman, University of Pennsylvania


From time to time during the past 150 years, discussions have emerged about the idea of overstress in children--that excessive intellectual activity is harmful to the mind and body and can cause death. Using Philadelphia and Boston as case studies, this dissertation analyzes primary source materials to examine several episodes of intense concern about childhood stress. Drawing on newspaper articles, teachers' journals, board of education reports, and medical literature, it demonstrates that childhood stress has been perceived as a longstanding and recurrent problem. Concern about overstress directed public attention to the needs of children. Journalists brought the issue to public attention and tried to pressure school officials to change aspects of the school environment thought to foster overstress. This discussion led to changes in the schools. In 1868, the Philadelphia Board of Education abolished all homework. In both Boston and Philadelphia, other changes were enacted in the school regimen. Hours of study were shortened and there were attempts to downplay competition. Girls were thought to be more vulnerable to overstress than boys, and public outcry frequently focused on adolescent girls. I highlight early battles in both cities over education and social roles for young women and demonstrate the ways in which overstress has served as a symbolic focus for the conflict over women's education. In 1865, after the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal recorded the special concern of physicians about the well-being of girls the Boston School Committee appointed a committee to narrow the curriculum. In 1903, after reports of the deaths of students in Philadelphia's Girls' Normal School and High School, 2,000 citizens petitioned the Board of Education to lessen the amount of homework. Overstress touched the core tensions about socialization in American society, and debate about overstress involved competition among self-proclaimed "experts" for authority over socialization. An investigation of the controversies about overstress reveals the encroachment of "experts" into the family's domain of child-rearing. These historical debates about overstress enable us to realize that present-day childhood stress is not merely a by-product of the hurried pace and changing social patterns of late 20th century Americans.

Subject Area

Education history|Mental health|American history

Recommended Citation

Glicksman, Gail Gaisin, "Overstress among American school children, 1840-1920" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9727225.