Discussions of the experience and the value of friendship, construed primarily in male terms, pervade Western cultural and literary tradition. The late-twentieth-century feminist reassessment of the uniqueness and significance of female friendship stimulated a variety of empirical investigations of the characteristics and function of friendship in contemporary society as well as several social historical examinations of the nature of past friendships. The latter work yielded two major new insights: the recognition that friendship is a socially constructed, historical phenomenon, mediated by the dominant emotional culture and various social and structural factors in a particular period–gender socialization, for example–and the recognition that friends have played a variety of important, and sometimes central, roles in the lives of both women and men.

Recent social scientific studies indicate that friendship also plays a significant role in children's lives from birth to ADOLESCENCE. While social relations within the family constitute a major component of the social environments of children, peer relations, including friendships, represent another important context for socialization. Psychologists have observed friendships between infants as young as eight or ten months. By the age of three, the development of social skills creates a wide range of friendship possibilities, and by the age of five, children can pretend and PLAY creatively. Between the ages of seven and twelve, friends still function as playmates, but they also provide mutual respect and affirmation. In adolescence, as in adulthood, female friendship involves a major component of trust and personal disclosure.

As children's social groups expand to include more than one "best" friend or a small, informal circle of close friends, their friends may be drawn from organized peer groups such as school classes, athletic teams, special interest clubs, scout troops, or gangs. Such groups also comprised significant social environments for nineteenth-and twentieth-century children. Factors such as access to schooling, period of compulsory schooling, length of school day, school size, diversity versus homogeneity of student body, and urban or suburban setting shaped children's social worlds and thus influenced their friendship patterns in the past. The modern history of friendship must deal with the growing importance of schooling as a bastion of friendship and a need for friends. Increasingly precise age-grading within schools has had a strong effect on the range of children's friendships. However, data concerning children's actual interactions with one another are not readily available for the historian who seeks to trace change and continuity in those patterns.

Some historians argue that the high proportion of childhood deaths in the premodern Western world conditioned children not to invest emotionally in their playmates, but we know very little about childhood friendship prior to the eighteenth century. The presence of large numbers of SIBLINGS also affected friendships outside the family. As with the history of childhood more generally, accessible sources of information about children's friendships from the eighteenth century on primarily reflect the point of view of middle-class adults. For example, child-rearing manuals, children's books, travelers' accounts, and the diaries and correspondence of parents document middle-class standards and cultural prescriptions and expectations for children's friendships. Yet these sources reveal little regarding either children's actual friendship practices and experiences in small, face-to-face groups or their feelings about their friends. Direct information concerning the dynamics of young children's friendships is particularly difficult to find, but sources such as autograph books, photographs, diaries, journals, and letters can offer insight into the experiences and feelings of older children and adolescents. Autobiographic recollections can also provide data about individuals' childhood friendships, albeit through the filter of memory. Despite the limitations of the available sources and the absence of a fully developed historical perspective on friendship in general, the outlines of a history of this aspect of childhood experience are beginning to emerge.

Girls and Friendship

Late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Western culture promoted the development of strong female friendships. Didactic and prescriptive middle-class literature emphasized affiliation as opposed to achievement as the appropriate focus for women's lives and assigned them a subordinate place in the social hierarchy. Shared religious, educational, biological, and domestic experiences created powerful bonds between women and constructed a world of intimacy and support that distanced them from their male relatives. Victorian emotional standards, which began to take shape in the 1820s, also fostered close friendships, particularly through an emphasis on intense family love that extended into friendship. Middle-class, nineteenth-century families often discouraged daughters from playing with boys, although some preadolescent girls chose boys as companions. Nevertheless, most young girls, surrounded by models of intimate adult female friendship and exposed to periodical literature that romanticized such relationships, typically replicated them in their own lives, sometimes choosing cousins or sisters as their closest friends.

The rise of educational institutions for girls provided an important setting for the development of close friendships. From the middle of the eighteenth century, middle-class young women interacted with each other in boarding schools, female ACADEMIES, and seminaries where they formed intimate, often lifelong relationships. Affectionate language and suggestions of physical intimacy pervade the correspondence of nineteenth-century school friends and highlight the central role of friendship in their lives. In the early twentieth century, the enrollment of growing numbers of girls in JUNIOR HIGH and HIGH SCHOOLS provided additional opportunities for peer interaction and friendship.

Like their predecessors, adolescent girls in the first two decades of the twentieth century expressed affection for friends, shared confidences, and relied on one another for emotional support. However, this period marks the beginning of a transition to different expectations and priorities with less emphasis on female intimacy. A new emotional culture stressed emotional restraint, and an explicit cultural preference for heterosexual relations stigmatized same-sex intimacy. These influences discouraged emotional intensity and closeness between female friends. Preadolescent girls were encouraged to go to parties and dances and to talk to boys. By the 1950s, ten year olds were worrying about being popular with boys. This distinctly new heterosexual imperative also dominated high school relationships, as the content of female friendships increasingly focused on boys and DATING, and young women's friendship choices often explicitly reflected their efforts to be perceived as members of the right group of girls to insure popularity with the opposite sex.

Although late-twentieth-century feminism re-emphasized the value and importance of female friendship, the impact of this ideology on young girls and adolescents is not clear. Several current studies describe a culture of aggression, backstabbing, and exclusive cliques among junior and senior high school girls, suggesting that friendship is fraught with problems for young women in contemporary society. While these descriptions of mean, calculating, and devious young women may be unrepresentative or exaggerated, they invite further study in the context of the history of children's friendships.

Boys and Friendship

Prior to the nineteenth century, boys spent more time in the company of adults than with their peers. As soon as they were old enough, they helped their fathers with farm work or served as apprentices or servants in other families. Certainly they had opportunities to play, but the structure of their lives offered limited occasions for independent activities out of the presence of adults, and hence for building friendships. This situation changed as urbanization and longer periods spent in school exposed them to larger groups of peers on a regular basis. In this context, boys developed a distinctive peer culture in which friendship played an important role.

Unlike those of girls, the friendships of young boys were unstable and superficial. Boys played outdoors, roaming more freely than their sisters were permitted to do. They chose their friends, often cousins and neighbors, pragmatically, more by availability than by any feelings of special affinity. Their relationships emphasized loyalty and good companionship rather than intimate confidences. Boys made friends easily, but conflict and rivalry were integral to their culture. Hence, their friendships shifted regularly, and fights between gangs from different neighborhoods, villages, or social classes were common. Frequently friends, as well as rivals, engaged in physical combat, such as boxing matches. Numerous informal clubs that met in attics and basements brought boys together for athletic and other activities. Because these groups typically excluded certain individuals from membership, they actually promoted division as well as unity and companionship among boys.

Nineteenth-century boyhood ended in the mid-or late teens when young men typically left home to find a job or pursue further education. In this period of transition, often referred to by historians as youth, friendships became stronger. Individuals relied on peers for reassurance as they entered a new stage of life. Formal, self-created youth organizations first appeared in the late eighteenth century as descendants of earlier apprentice societies, and they proliferated. These groups–literary and debate clubs, religious societies, secret societies, fraternities, and lodges–provided a setting in which young men often found one or more close friends. In contrast to boyhood relationships, these new friendships displayed qualities similar to those of adolescent young women's friendships–intimacy, sharing of thoughts and emotions, expressions of affection, and physical closeness. However, while many nineteenth-century women maintained such friendships throughout their lives, intense male attachments ended as young men reached manhood and took on the responsibilities of marriage and careers.

As in the case of young women's relationships, the stigmatization of HOMOSEXUALITY in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century society and the post-Victorian emphasis on emotional restraint discouraged intimacy in young men's friendships. Affectionate male relationships disappeared as a new pattern of interpersonal distance between young men emerged in response to the fear of being labeled homosexual. Despite social criticism of this pattern in the context of concerns about the personal isolation experienced by late-twentieth-century boys and young men, and some efforts toward male bonding among adults, homophobic social pressures continue to influence the nature of male friendship from childhood through adulthood.

See also: Boyhood; Emotional Life; Girlhood; Love.


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