Early Childhood Education

Day Nurseries


References to “day nurseries” or the “day nursery movement” vary depending upon what country is being described. For example, the history of day nurseries in the United States is not the same as in the United Kingdom and the terms have a different “life” and meaning in those two countries. For the most part, day nurseries of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be understood as day-care centers from the perspective of late twentieth-century terminology. Both were originally created to serve predominantly lower income families where the mother was employed outside of her own home. Today, these terms refer to the care of children whose mothers are employed, regardless of level of income. The terms and their associated activities can be described within the broad field of early childhood education, care, and development (ECECD, to utilize a broadly encompassing acronym).

Day nurseries are caught in the awkward nomenclature problems associated with the larger field of ECECD. In the United States, a multitude of terms have been used to describe ECECD programs and services. In a few cases these terms have, or have had, a reasonably “precise” reference (e.g., Montessori and Froebelian programs in their early histories tended to have a fairly specific identity), but in many other cases calling a program a child-care center, day care, nursery, day nursery, or even an infant school or kindergarten did not, and does not, necessarily provide insight into what such a program looked like or hoped to achieve. This lack of precision in ECECD labeling is further distorted by historical preferences for certain terms that often take on different meanings at other periods of time.

Day nurseries emerged at a point in U.S. history when nonmaternal care of young children was in social disfavor (a phenomenon that emerged in the 1830s, tolling the death knell for the 1820s Infant School movement). The earliest programs to describe themselves as day nurseries appeared in the 1850s and such self-described programs persisted in substantial numbers through the first half the twentieth century (although in increasing disfavor as a name from approximately the turn of the century on). Various forms of what used to be called day nurseries persist into the twenty-first century, despite social support for Head Start programs commencing in the 1960s and the phenomenal growth of alternative forms of child care beginning in the 1970s and continuing to the present. Day Nurseries, like Child Care (a later twentieth-century term), have been stigmatized as a threat to the more socially valued role of “Mother Care” (see Pence, 1989). As programs that were designed specifically for the children of lower income (regarded by some as lower class) families, participation in such programs was stigmatized, and the provision of such programs was largely the undertaking of a variety of philanthropic, social welfare, and religious organizations.

One of the first day nurseries to open in the United States was the Nursery and Children’s Hospital of New York City. Incorporated in 1854, the nursery provided care for children from six weeks to six years, between the hours of 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., for “the daily charge of infants whose parents labor away from home.” (Dodge, 1897). By 1904 the Federation of Day Nurseries listed over 250 member programs in over 100 cities in the United States. The great expansion of day nurseries, particularly in the period 1880-1900, was a reflection of changing social and economic conditions that witnessed a wave of over 9,000,000 immigrants, a related doubling in the total population of the United Sates, a shift from a largely rural to a primarily urban-based population, and an increase in the percentage of women in the workforce from 10 percent in 1860 to 20 percent in 1900.

These changes in the U.S. population and in its labor force characteristics did not go unnoticed by popular writers of the period who deplored this “new departure ... [as] calculated, by thwarting nature’s evident design in making her child-bearer, child trainer, and house mother, to rob her of special gifts of grace, beauty and tenderness” (Meyer,1891).

Most labor movements were similarly unsupportive of women’s role in the out- of-home workforce, with the American Federation of Labor asking at the time: “Is it a pleasing indication of progress to see the father, the brother and the son displaced as the bread winner by the mother, sister and daughter? The growing demand for female labor ... is an insidious assault upon the home, it is the knife of the assassin, aimed at the family circle—the divine injunction” (Brownlee and Brownlee, 1976).

The power of the mother-care ethic in the United States was not lost on the promoters of a second key ECECD program to emerge later in the nineteenth century—the Kindergarten Movement, initially associated with Frederich Froebel. Elizabeth Peabody, foremost advocate of the earliest Froebelian Kindergartens in the United States (and herself a teacher in an infant school in the 1830s—a fact she seldom acknowledged in her writings and presentations), worked to obscure any connection between kindergartens and forms of “child care.” However, the stigma associated with the day nurseries was difficult to avoid. Nina Vandewalker, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century kindergarten historian, noted the dilemma programs such as kindergartens faced when they became too closely associated with what would today be called “child care” or “day care”: “One of the disadvantages [from the adoption of the kindergarten as a philanthropic agency] arises from the close connection that has been established in the public mind between the kindergarten and the creche or day nursery. The two have frequently been established together, both serving a philanthropic service. In consequence the kindergarten is regarded by thousands as being little if anything more than an advanced form of the day nursery, whose purpose is served if the children are kept clean, happy and off the streets” (Vandewalker, 1908).

An exception to the more general pattern of child care and day nursery stigmatization can be found from the mid-nineteenth century through the twentieth century, during the war years. In particular, child care and day nurseries had a more positive social status during the period of the World War II when women in large numbers were recruited into various “war industries.” As part of the “war effort” federal funds were made available to such programs as the two “model” Kaiser shipyard child-care programs in Portland, Oregon. During their two years of operation over 3,800 children received care in these federally sponsored and funded programs (Gordon and Browne, 1996).

With the exception of the war years, however, the jostling, competitive dynamic of day nurseries, creches and kindergartens, described by Vandewalker in 1908, remained common in the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Throughout much of the period from 1950 to the present, only those kindergartens and nursery schools that operated on a part-time basis (and were therefore “supplements” to effective mothering, and not “replacements”) were considered in the public mind as “good.” On the other hand, fulltime child-care and day-care programs specifically designed to care for the children of working mothers have generally been regarded as poor substitutes for maternal child care. The mother-care ethos, expounded in the press and from the pulpit from the 1830s onward, remains a potent force at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century—over 170 years after its initial declaration.

The history of the day nurseries, regardless of the programs themselves and their claims to or lack of “quality,” exists in the shadow of an ethos of mother care. Day nurseries, like their descendents “child care” and “day care,” were and remain a class-based phenomenon—programs laboring on the far-side of respectability.

Further Readings: Brownlee, W. E., and M. Brownlee (1976). Women in the American economy: A documentary history, 1675-1929. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Dodge, A. M. (May 1, 1897). Development of the day nursery idea. The Outlook, 56, 6667; Gordon, A., and K. W. Browne (1996). Beginnings and beyond. Albany, NY: Delmar; Meyer, Annie Nathan (Ed.). (1891). Woman's work in America. New York: Henry Holt and Co.; Pence, A. R. (1989). In the shadow of mother-care: Contexts for an understanding of child day care in Canada. Canadian Psychology, 30(2), 140-147; Vandewalker, Nina C. (1908). The kindergarten in American education. New York: The Macmillan Co.

Alan Pence