Friday, December 21, 2007

Children in the House

"Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary", Artist unknown, Massachusetts, 1674 (now in the Worcester Art Museum); Calvert points out the stiffness of the baby figure as an example of the favored attitude toward children, who were to be straightened out and formed into humans in order to escape the curse of four-legged animality.

Title: Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900 (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1992)

Author: Karin Calvert, who was an assistant professor of history at UPenn, but appears to now be an independent scholar. I don't think she's written any other books, but the Internet is strangely decentralized on the topic of her whereabouts. Her affiliation with the Winterthur Center led to this book.

My review: Calvert uses material culture sources as well as textual ones to delve into the changing meanings of early childhood for Americans between the colonial and Victorian eras. Paintings, furniture, clothing, diaries, and writings of medical professionals make up the substance of her argument.

She describes colonial parents as somewhat afraid of, or disgusted by, their infants' abjectness. Crawling or creeping was seen as a sign of the animal within the child, to be avoided at all costs; therefore, colonists created clothing which would "straighten" the child out and render it immobile and easily tended, and built furniture such as the "walking stool" which held the child upright in an effort to teach it to walk early.

The era of the "natural child", which roughly corresponded with the Revolutionary and antebellum periods, saw greater influence of theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that children were going to develop into humans without the need for the strict clothing and furniture which previous generations saw as so necessary. Clothing standards relaxed, and cradles came into fashion, but without the apparatus on the sides intended to lace swaddled children in so firmly that they could not escape.

The Victorian era, the final one Calvert examines, saw the child as a precious, innocent talisman of the family's intact and holy nature, and doted on infants by placing them in show-offy carriages and prams, intended for display value. (This doting, however, did not go so far as to allow the children to run around freely; Calvert writes that the heavily decorated homes of Victorian gentlepeople would be under serious threat by a toddling family member, so cribs with high sides could be used to "jail" children up to age four or five, if necessary.)

"Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge and son William", Ralph Earl, Connecticut, c. 1790 (now at the Litchfield Historical Society); Calvert uses this painting as an example of the newly relaxed attitude toward childhood - little William's hair is loose and his attitude playful.

Reviews of others: In Contemporary Sociology, Paula Fass wrote that the strength of the book lay not in any originality of overall argument, but rather in moments of insight surrounding the material objects analyzed. Fass wishes that the book had taken a more broad approach to the possible significance of childhood in light of broader social trends - with the exception of the section on the Victorian era, she writes, Calvert seems to shy away from making broader cultural insights. This narrowness, Fass finds, sometimes leads to what seems like a wilfull ignorance of issues relating to class. In the American Historical Review, John Demos (this book got reviewed by the big guns!) saw a lot of value in the book, arguing that its approach to already recognized changes in American family setup added a lot of nuance to a possibly reductive subject. The material culture artifacts integrated into this analysis, Demos says, add greatly to this sense of depth and nuance.

New words: "Ideotechnic", which seems like it might have gone out of style.

Victorian woman pushing a pram (image not from Calvert's book, but rather from a BBC series on successive ideals of British womanhood): The pram, for Calvert, symbolizes the new desire to display babies as icons of the successful domesticity of the Victorian household; prams go hand in hand with the rise of new park-based urbanism (see Olmsted in New York); and they configure the infant at the center of a much larger display, making him or her appear even smaller and more helpless, qualities which were prized in the Victorian era in a marked departure from previous years.

Leads: Primary: Lucy Larcom, A New England Girlhood (1889). Secondary: I have to read the Phillipe Aries book, Centuries of Childhood (1965), at some point. Also: Kenneth Ames, "Material Culture as Non-verbal Communication" (1980); Bernard Mergen, "Toys and American Culture: Objects as Hypothesis" (1980); Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (1983).

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