The term latchkey child, or latchkey kid, denotes a child who comes home from school when their parents are still at work.
However, the earliest instance that I have found has a different meaning: it denotes a child wearing the house key tied around their neck and staying in the streets while their mother is at work; this instance is from the column In New York, published in several American newspapers in March and April 1935—the following being from the Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts) of Monday 25th March)—in which Paul Harrison revealed “the underlying causes of the recent sanguinary race riots which set Harlem aflame”; describing Harlem as “the hungriest, unhealthiest, most depression-ridden section of New York City”, he wrote:
Stroll through the black belt by day and you’ll see swarms of unattended youngsters, most of them wearing keys on strings around their necks. These are the “latchkey children,” put on the streets early each morning by their working mothers, collected again at night. If a child becomes ill, or is injured, some stranger may take it to its home and put it to bed.
The fact that many mothers were engaged in war industry led to an important number of latchkey children during the Second World War; for example, on Wednesday 22nd July 1942, the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) reported that, at a conference on the problems of the war and reconstruction held the previous day at Geneseo State Teachers’ College, Dr. Frederick L. Redefer, executive secretary of the Progressive Education Association,
cited the profound dislocations which have been caused by war production. There are new towns where none existed; there are boom towns which have doubled or tripled their populations; there are ghost towns inhabited only by the old, those past middle life, and the very young. In some communities there are “latchkey children” who come to school with the house key tied around their necks.
On Wednesday 9th December 1942, the same newspaper, reporting on the wartime rise of juvenile delinquency and of child neglect, mentioned several noticeable trends:
Increase in drinking and gambling, more juveniles who wander the streets at night, more sex problems among girls, illegal employment of children at late night hours, and more “latchkey” children, who get their own meals and provide their own pastime while parents are working.
This wartime problem also existed in the United Kingdom, as shown by the following from the Daily Record and Mail (Glasgow, Scotland) of Friday 15th October 1943:
The Bishop of Derby drew a vivid picture for his brethren of Convocation of the little children to be seen in any city who are turned out to play in the streets with a latchkey round their necks.
But the force of his illustration was weakened by the admission that many of the mothers of these half-neglected children are at war work.
The predicament of the children is serious and we agree with the views of Convocation that family ties ought to be strengthened in Britain.
But the Bishop is only telling half the truth when he says that the “pseudo-intelligentsia” are those who advocate the transference of a child from its parents’ care to that of the State.
There are plenty of people in other walks of life who would be quite willing to place their child on a metaphorical conveyor belt at birth and watch it swept from clinic to creche, and from nursery to elementary school, if their own comfort were assured.
There is a definite connection between paternal responsibility and liberty of action. Where people are restricted and regimented in their own lives they are prone to argue that the omnipotent State should be responsible for their children. When they are free to live according to their lights parents can take some pleasure in bringing up the next generation.
When will our legislators, spiritual and temporal, realise that one of our major war aims is to regain as much as possible of our personal liberty?