American Childhood, as Seen Through Early Kids' Magazines

Before periodicals became a wellspring of consumerism, they were a site of a profound disagreement over the welfare of children’s souls.

Lydia Maria Child, editor of Juvenile Miscellany (Wikimedia)

The Rothman Winter Garden at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business is a six-story atrium supported by four snow white vaults that sprout from the floor and flower into in a glass and steel umbrella that shelters students from weather that is too often ill-natured, if entirely timely, in the Windy City. It is a little more spacious than the hold of the Arabella or any of the other 10 ships that sailed to the New World in 1630 carrying pilgrims to what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

There were a nearly 1,000 in that first wave, an assembly just shy of the body of full-time students at Booth. When we study the commercial practices of colonial New England in my business ethics class, I ask my MBAs to imagine an all-school gathering in the Winter Garden. Look around you (I say), see your friends and classmates. Now imagine one in every five of them giving up and going home. Now imagine a similar number simply dying.

A bracing exercise, to be sure, one that approximates the experience of the Puritans when they arrived at what would become Boston Harbor. Within a year, 200 of the emigres would take their chances on civil unrest and return to England, and a similar number would leave this life altogether. Where exactly that latter group went was no small matter for the settlers. On the contrary, it was a matter of great import, for the souls of the elect would ascend to heaven and the ambrosia of everlasting bliss, while, for the unlucky, a far larger group, their final passage would terminate at the flaming port of eternal damnation.

If this second possibility seems like it couldn’t be any more alarming, consider the double distress of a Puritan parent. In 17th-century New England, 40 percent of children died before reaching adulthood, and however cherubic they might appear, kids did not get a free pass on the requirements of conscience that were the sine qua non of salvation. The stain of Original Sin touched the miscreant no less than the moppet. If either one failed to find his way to God, doom’s doorstep awaited.

Such dread, and the existential hand-wringing it provoked, provide the backdrop for Commercializing Childhood, a new book by Paul Ringel, a professor of history at High Point University. The subtitle of the book—Children’s Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the Ideal of the Child Consumer in the United States, 1823-1918—indicates both an unlikely amelioration to the matter of pre-teen perdition as well as a foreshadowing of where this story will end.

Where it begins, for Ringel, is with the Revolutionary-era belief, ambivalent but ever-growing, in the ability to instill conduct in children consistent with polite society and personal salvation by means of entertainment. Children’s magazines became the chosen medium, and two of the earliest examples, Youth’s Companion and Juvenile Miscellany, provided contending visions of the moral possibilities for adolescent development. According to Ringel, both magazines emerged in the 1820s as proxies in the Unitarian Controversy, a rolling theological dispute between liberal and orthodox Protestants over traditional Calvinist teachings on matters that included infant depravity, predestination, and the trinity. As Ringel writes, the fact that the conflict “spilled over from New England’s pulpits and town meetings into children’s magazines indicates that it was more than a theological debate; it was part of a broader conflict over which people, ideas, and institutions would shape the behaviors of a society that was urbanizing and industrializing at an extraordinary rate.”

The earlier of the two magazines, the Juvenile Miscellany was initially edited by Lydia Maria Child, a remarkable woman who viewed children as “ideal facilitators” of a “less hierarchical vision of the nation’s future.” Rather than shelter them from moral and cultural complexity, by the stories she included, Child introduced the sons and daughters of her well-heeled readers to children of different regions, races, and stations in life. She also treated them not as the objects of an ongoing lecture but as full partners in a community of learning. “I have, in some measure, forgotten what pleased me, when I was a child,” she confessed in the Miscellany’s first issue. “You, my dear young friends, shall be my critics. What you find neither affords you amusement nor does you good, I shall find badly written.”

Established eight months after the Miscellany, Youth’s Companion aimed to be a children’s magazine more consistent with the spiritual inclinations of New England’s forbidding forefathers. In Boston, where both publications were located, the deans of orthodoxy no longer controlled the seats of power—Harriet Beecher Stowe memorably likened them to a “dethroned royal family wandering like a permitted mendicant in the city where once it had held court”—and the Companion’s editor, Nathaniel Willis, had to balance his creedal inclinations with the expectations of a changing culture as well as the medium by which his message might be relayed. As Ringel describes it, Willis “sought to isolate young readers from public life to protect them from the moral and physical dangers of an expanding commercial society, but he conveyed this message through a market product that he encouraged children to identify as their own.”

Willis was mindful of the genteel ladies who would ultimately choose whether copies of the Companion would darken their doorstep, and their sensibilities shaped his editorial strategies. For example, while he routinely featured stories of deathbed reckoning, a staple of Puritan literature, he largely eschewed gratuitously terrifying young readers into looking after their souls. That approach had long been favored by orthodox authors, such as James Janeway, whose collection of 13 deathbed conversions, A Token for Children, was popular in New England in the early 18th century. As Ringel relates, Janeway’s stories were positively harrowing:  “Sarah Howley ‘brake a vein in her Lungs...and oft did spit blood’ as she sought redemption; while pleading to God, an unnamed child ‘would beg and expostulate and weep so that sometimes it could not be kept from the ears of Neighbors.’”

Rather than gruesome illustrations that aimed to provoke a child into fervidly praying for God’s forgiveness, Willis preferred deathbed conversions with a beatific glow. “You know how much I love you,” an ailing orphan, James, tells Miss S., his Sunday School teacher and spiritual guide. “Before you taught me, I knew nothing of death—nothing about heaven, or God, or angels. I was a very wicked boy till you met me...[but now] I am not afraid to die.” Shortly thereafter, James passes with Miss S. sitting by his bedside. “He fell asleep with a smile.”

In contrast to Willis’s Companion, Child largely omitted deathbed stories from her Juvenile Miscellany. Instead, she featured tales to enrich and extend the moral sentiments of her young readers. “I seldom meet a little girl, even in the crowded streets of Boston, without thinking with anxious tenderness, concerning her education, her temper, and her principles,” Child said in an editor’s note. “Yes, principles!

The principles she aimed to inculcate included a greater concern for those individuals who were largely excluded from polite society. One tale, “Adventure in the Woods,” is characteristic. It follows Rachel and Benjamin, children of early New England settlers. Initially led to distrust the native people by stories of their “wickedness and cruelty,” they watch their mother offer food and hospitality to a “poor, sick Indian woman,” who gives Rachel “two bright blue feathers” in thanks for her mother’s kindness. The following summer the tables are turned when the kids get lost in the woods. With the day ending and Rachel and Benjamin “weeping bitterly,” the two children begin to give up all hope of ever finding their way home when they are discovered by the old Indian woman. “[S]troking Rachel’s head,” she leads the children back to their settlement, an act of kindness that commences an annual rite when the old Indian woman returns to visit them and exchange gifts. More importantly, it encourages a profound change in the hearts of the children, who, older and wiser, “never [see] an Indian, without thinking of their Adventure in the Woods.”

Such stories—sentimental, humane, and essentially hopeful—helped to make the Juvenile Miscellany an immediate success and Child, herself, a literary celebrity. She was welcomed with open arms into the fashionable salons of ante-bellum Boston and even dubbed “the first woman in the republic” by The North American Review. Soon, however, she overstepped her bounds. After of few years of hinting at her abolitionist sympathies, in 1831, Child featured “Jumbo and Zairee.” The story took direct aim at the slave trade by the harrowing account of two African children who are kidnapped and brought to America, where they are “driven to the market-place to be sold” and delivered into the hands of “brutal overseers.” The coda to the story makes no bones about what Child believes is ultimately to blame for such depravity:  “Shame on my country—everlasting shame.”

It was one thing to show sympathy to native Americans, a group that had not threatened the dominance of white settlers in New England for over a century, or to embolden a spirit of noblesse oblige toward the poor and dispossessed, but it was something else entirely to use the moral pulpit of a children’s magazine to heap scorn on the nation for not satisfactorily resolving the very issue that so fiercely divided it. For the Brahmins of Beacon Hill, this was a bit much.

Child soldiered on, publishing more stories that made her position clear, but the smart set abandoned her, and even her brother refused to support her in the ensuing backlash. The circulation numbers for the Juvenile Miscellany steadily dwindled, and Child was ultimately let go. Not long after, the magazine folded.

Nathaniel Willis continued as the editor of Youth’s Companion into 1850s and never ran into the editorial roadblocks that Child encountered. Then again, that was because he largely steered around them, a choice that amounted to a kind of soft self-censorship and one that came at the cost of his unreconstructed worldview. “Willis hoped to keep the Companion alive as an instrument for the dissemination of orthodox evangelical doctrines at a time when his religious community and its believes were rapidly losing cultural authority,” Ringel notes. “Yet his success in this endeavor also facilitated the growth of a children’s magazine industry that contravened his beliefs.”

Ringel’s book follows the development of that industry throughout the latter half of the 19th century and on into the early 20th. Salvation steadily receded as the supreme goal of children’s magazines. It was supplanted by what Ringel calls “sensational gentility,” a type of literature that combined allegories that left unchallenged the prevailing notions of polite society with the dramatic gusto of garish adventure tales. Willis’s successor, Daniel Sharp Ford, was so skilled at assembling such stories and marketing them to a growing middle class that by 1882 the total circulation for Youth’s Companion reached 263,000, giving it the largest circulation of any magazine in the country.

The success of the Companion and other publications like it helped to create a kind of Golden Age in children’s literature. Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and even Charles Dickens all wrote stories for children’s magazines. At the same time, however, even in its more secular form, the missionary zeal that had once informed the editorial mandate of children’s magazines was largely abandoned in favor of what Ringel’s describes as “a more explicitly commercial and modern outlook.” It was increasingly the case that stories for children did not necessarily need to be instructive, they could simply be diverting.

And yet, as children’s magazines helped to de-stigmatize the joys of unapologetic consumerism, they opened up to their young customers more avenues for entertainment. By the time doughboys had returned home from the Great War to start their families, between extracurricular clubs like the Scouts and 4-H and the increasing availability of movies and radio programs, to say nothing of the daily divertissements of universal education, the pedagogical goals and pleasing aims of children’s magazines, if not entirely irrelevant, were simply unnecessary. In 1929, after a 102 year run, the Companion folded.

Children’s magazines like Highlights endure even to this day, though their central role in popular culture as a trusted guide to adolescent development has long been superseded by a host of television programs, most notably Sesame Street, and, to an increasing extent, computer games. At the same time, the moral dilemmas that inform the editorial decision-making of children’s entertainment have also evolved. Brimstone has been exchanged for bullying, salvation for self-absorption, and the Angel of Death stands aside for the Adjutant of Diversity. Today’s world is one far more simple and unfathomably complex than that of the Puritans. Paul Ringel’s book plays a small but important role in helping readers understand that evolution.