Children’s perspectives – their play, their imaginings, their curiosity – invite us to see history with fresh eyes, and achieve a fuller, more intimate access to the past.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
This line, from 1 Corinthians, still sums up how we tend to think about childhood – that it’s something to outgrow.
According to this view, the way children speak, think and observe is not as relevant as adult perceptions of the world. According to this view, each life is a progress narrative, and as we mature, it’s best to put away “childish things.”
My research as a cultural historian asks what we might learn if we didn’t think about childhood this way. Instead, what if we recognised children as having ways of speaking, thinking and interpreting that may possess valuable knowledge and insight? How might it change – or add – to the way we think of historical events and cultural trends, from the American Civil War to the publication of Robinson Crusoe?
What would we discover if we tried to unpack “childish things” from the rote assignments of school copybooks to the whimsy of children’s drawings?
Only recently have historians begun studying the history of childhood.
It’s part of an important strand of historical scholarship that, since the middle of the 20th century, has attempted to look at history “from the bottom up.” This sort of approach studies history not only through the lens of the rich and powerful, but also through the lens of everyday life, which includes the perspectives of people excluded from power, like women, slaves and immigrants.
These “bottom up” historians have stressed the importance of using materials produced by the people they study – not just the things said, for example, by men about women, or by masters about their slaves.
While historians of childhood have mostly continued to rely on sources produced by adults, I’ve plumbed the archives of childhood to find and use things made by children, particularly the writings and drawings produced by 19th-century American children.
The challenge of locating – and interpreting – sources
The first challenge is locating these documents.
There are plenty of child drawings, copybooks, letters, diaries, school essays and marginal doodles in library collections. But most of this stuff isn’t cataloged in a way that identifies it as child-made.
Generally, it got into libraries as part of family collections: think the nieces and nephews of Emily Dickinson (who made a scrapbook of holiday cards), or the children of industrialists like Leland Stanford Jr., the son of the railroad magnate, whose parents preserved his childhood letters and his many drawings of sailboats after he died at 15.
For this reason, it’s easiest to find writing and drawings by children who grew up to be important adults or were related to a famous adult. At the other extreme, collections from orphanages, reformatories or schools often contain some things produced by children. (I have, however, found some items made by children born into ordinary families, saved for their own sake.)
The second challenge is figuring out how to interpret the documents. Take eight-year-old Mary Ware Allen, the daughter of a minister in Northborough, Massachussetts. She wrote the following in an 1827 diary entry:
It snowed hard all day. We began to study geography this evening. Mama played on the guitar and we marched around the table.
Nothing in particular happened a most beautiful day.
The passage may be brief, but there’s a lot of ripe material for a social historian: there’s the use of guitars in middle-class households, and the nature of play in the early 19th century. The diary entry shows how involved adults were in the play of children, and how children might not need to be bought toys – traits of play that would change a great deal over the course of the 19th century.
Other historical details include how weather impacts household activities, the age when a girl might study geography and the timing of such study in a family’s day. But Mary Ware’s diary also invites us to imagine other viewpoints, to understand the childhood sense of self and world that thinks what matters in a day is the march around a table.
And what can we understand differently about the American Civil War and its effects on home life from the games nine-year-old Bostonian Grenville Norcross played with his Union and Rebel toy soldiers?
Norcross meticulously recorded his skirmishes in his diary, as if they were the actual battles, mournfully listing the names of the dead and wounded. Many of the battles fought in his Boston home closely replicate the battle plans of actual Civil War conflicts, revealing the detail with which this boy followed the war news.
His reports reflect Union loyalty, but also show surprising sympathy and imaginative engagement with the Rebel cause. Norcross may play at war. But he seems to understand something of war’s horror – for both sides.
Creating an entire world
Whenever I come across old children’s books, I don’t just read the stories. I look for the scribbles young readers leave in the margins of their books.
For example, I came across an 1806 copy of “Robinson Crusoe,“ owned by a girl named Dolly Cogswell. Many scholars have written about the importance of “Robinson Crusoe” in the education of children in 18th- and 19th-century America. What might it tell us about popular ideas of race and colonialism that Dolly carefully colours Robinson’s skin pink?
And what can I learn from the many children who wrote their own shipwreck stories? It turns out that I’ve found lots of shipwreck stories written by 19th-century girls – who prove to be as pleased as boys about making and ruling their own island worlds.
One fascinating collection included the creation of an imaginary world. Three brothers from a farm family in rural New Hampshire invented a world on islands in the brook behind their house. The Nelson brothers named the islands “Big Continent,” “Long Continent” and “Round Continent,” creating a host of accompanying maps, geography books and history books that depict their island kingdom, along with illustrated newspapers and adventure stories that take place in this imaginary world.
The Nelsons’ homemade books reveal the boys’ interest in the era’s scientific inventions and engineering feats, like the construction of bridges and railroads. Their drawing of a Big Continent telescope is so detailed that it has been possible to identify the real-world telescope they used as their model.
But the brothers’ drawings and stories don’t just depict the celebration of 1890s American ingenuity; they also reflect other values: in the Nelsons’ map of the resources on Long Continent, they mark locations not only for “iron,” “hay” and “fruit,” but also for “books” and “pictures.”
Similarly, I want to add children’s ways of seeing and thinking to our maps of history and culture. Children’s perspectives – their play, their imaginings, their curiosity – invite us to see history with fresh eyes. Paying attention to children can help us achieve a fuller and more intimate access to the past.
Karen Sánchez-Eppler is L. Stanton William 1941 Professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College.