A 19th-century boy’s errors could never be excused because of youth: Moral lapses arose from lack of character and parental instruction. Catherine Beecher, and later Horatio Alger, emphasized that capable boys became good men not only through their own choices, but through decisions that were often subtly guided by an adult. In 1836, Beecher noted in her “Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home” that a boy of 10 ought to be trained to care for all of his domestic needs without the help of servants, not because he would do them as an adult but because it would make him a kind and understanding husband.

After the Civil War, American reformers came to believe more firmly that the health of the nation depended on its children. Boys became a particular object of scrutiny, as newly freed African Americans and immigrants swelled the ranks of aspiring male citizens. A new breed of experts — doctors, sociologists, scientists and philosophers — emerged to address anxieties that white boys might be overwhelmed by this competition. Modern pleasures of all kinds — masturbation, indolence, novel reading and vice — threatened to erode the character and courage that a strong nation required.