For centuries Sunday has had a distinct set of boundaries and meanings for children growing up in Catholic and Protestant households and nations. As styles of religious practice changed over time, so did proscriptions for Sunday observances. Broadly speaking, before the PROTESTANT REFORMATION there was little difference between Sundays and other days, but afterward both Catholics and Protestants engaged in a reformation of the calendar that resulted in a regular rhythm of six days work and one day's rest (Sunday). Children's activities did not escape from this new emphasis on Sunday as a day strictly reserved for religious observance and instruction, thus giving rise to the oft-heard youthful lament about the tedium of Sundays.
Throughout the eighteenth century children were expected to observe Sunday in the same manner as adults, that is, to refrain from all but religious thoughts and actions; but in the early nineteenth century, shifting attitudes toward religion, family relations, and child rearing resulted in the development of new understandings about the Sundays of children. These new attitudes emphasized the belief that children had different religious and recreational needs than adults. In the United States, the resulting schematic applied most directly to the children of the middle classes, however many children of factory workers, African Americans, and of other marginalized Americans experienced Sundays that were distinct from the other days of the week, whether in attending services or gathering with family and friends or donning an outfit reserved for Sundays and special occasions.
In terms of religion, the most important and lasting development in the United States was the SUNDAY SCHOOL. At first devoted to teaching the children of the urban poor to read and write, by the 1820s Sunday schools assumed a position as one of the central Protestant institutions devoted to inculcating religious literacy in children. Rising in large part out of the ferment of the Second Great Awakening, a nationwide religious revival that gave primacy to the centrality of personal conversion, the Sunday school movement at first aimed to foment religious awakening in the nation's youth. Soon, however, it settled into a complacent form of mostly nondenominational religious education, one that continues to inform American religious experience into the twenty-first century. Despite the recognition that children had special religious needs, it was still expected that they sit attentively through services (an expectation that only diminished in the second half of the twentieth century). Parents continued to take part in their children's religious-oriented education, overseeing family prayer and bible study at home. During the 1820s and 1830s, they were encouraged to let their children play on Sunday (which was in great contrast to their own childhood Sundays), but to sanctify this play with religiously oriented reading, games, and TOYS. By mid-century, Bible picture puzzles, inexpensive Bible books, Sunday reading, Christian-oriented games and toys (such as the Noah's Ark) were available through mail-order houses. Observant households witnessed children putting their everyday books and toys away Saturday night in preparation for a Sunday of special experiences, books, and playthings. As such, the theory went, children would learn to love Sunday, and consequently become committed Christians.
During the decades after the Civil War the emphasis on religious education and play dilated into a widespread acceptance of certain kinds of Sunday recreation, especially family-oriented recreation. As more and more men engaged in paid labor outside of the home, Sunday became "Daddy's Day with Baby" (as went the refrain of one popular song). As such, many began to emphasize family togetherness and recreation, often at the expense of religious observances. After midcentury, the Sunday dinner became a fixture in many households, while excursions of many varieties, including the uncomplicated Sunday drive, provided much desired and needed change for adults and children alike. Entrepreneurs met the demand for Sunday entertainment, especially that which was child-centered. Picnic grounds, beach resorts, and amusement parks all catered to the special needs of children with merry-go-rounds, pony rides, and such. Trolleys, railroads, steamships, and other forms of mass transportation did vigorous business on Sundays, often due to the patronage of large family groups. Publishers of the Sunday newspaper, whose widespread introduction in the 1880s elicited scorn and condemnation, also recognized the special needs of children, first with children's sections, and then, beginning in the 1900s, with the comics insert. In the twentieth century RADIO and TELEVISION producers fashioned special shows for children's Sunday afternoons, such as The Wide World of Disney and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. The church, the family, and the market, then, have recognized Sunday as an unique space of time in the lives of children, and have sought in various ways to cater to their needs.
Boylan, Anne. 1988. Sunday School. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
McCrossen, Alexis. 2000. Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
McDannell, Colleen. 1986. The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Taves, Ann. 1986. The Household of Faith. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.