St. Nicholas Magazine
"View From the ‘Pleasure Ground’: American Children’s Magazines 1820-1905”
This Media and Communications research seminar given in the fall of 2004 focused on the way children’s magazines in the nineteenth century presented the world-- and their roles in it-- to an important dual audience of children and adults. The history of periodicals, like book history, needs to be approached from a variety of perspectives and considered as a significant part of the larger history of human communication, so the work of the course combined methods and insights derived from cultural studies, American studies, children’s studies, and literary criticism, as well as media and communication studies.
Periodicals are only created through collaborative effort, and their study requires a kind of collaborative scholarship. Much of the work of this seminar involved sharing our hands-on research into primary materials. Some of the articles, stories, advertisements, and graphics examined by members of the class have rarely been studied by scholars in the field of periodical study. In order to place these materials in context, it was necessary to do readings in the history of children and childhood, to get a detailed survey of American children’s reading from Colonial times through the early twentieth century, to look at some approaches to the cultural uses of popular literature, to study the role of advertising in children’s periodicals, and to learn how to “read” illustrations.
The Mortola Library and its resources were vital to the work of the class. Sometimes students worked online, using materials on various scholarly databases and academic websites. During the early part of the course they used such sources to access articles and illustrations from magazines like The Youth’s Companion and Peter Parley’s Magazine. Some years ago I used a summer grant to acquire a set of microfilms covering St. Nicholas Magazine from its founding in 1873 to the death of its founding editor in 1905. The library holds this resource on reserve and assisted the students of the seminar in its use. Seminar students were also able to use a number of bound volumes and individual issues of the magazine from my personal collection. The single issues, ranging from 1875 to the late 1930’s, included valuable advertising and editorial material content not available on microfilm or in bound issues. As a text for the class, students used St. Nicholas and Mary Mapes Dodge, a collection of critical essays published this year by McFarland and co-edited by Professor Ruth Anne Thompson of Pace, Professor Suzanne Rahn of Pacific Lutheran University, and myself. The articles in this volume by well-known scholars in the field exemplify many of the critical approaches possible to the material and provided the students with a repertoire of useful techniques as they pursued their own research.
During the second half of the course, students broadened the scope of their research to include comparative work on Harper’s Young People, a rival periodical to St. Nicholas which appeared in New York City during the 1880s. Again, the library was most helpful in supporting this study. Yearly volumes of the magazine from the 1880s from my personal collection were made available at the reserve desk, and students also consulted the library’s databases to share information on history and popular culture in New York City during the period. Because of the bulk and weight of the HYP volumes, it was clear that they would have to remain in the library, and classes at this time were held informally in the section of the library devoted to group study, where the intimacy and friendly ambiance of the setting made work a pleasure.
The class proved to be a lively and productive “scholar’s workshop” that explored a variety of topics related to St. Nicholas in some depth and raised useful questions about Harper’s Young People, a journal few professional scholars have studied. Here, briefly is an overview of some of the work done:
1. Vinh Nguyen’s paper, “St. Nicholas, Hope of the Children,” described the conditions under which children entered the workforce in the late nineteenth century and the way this situation was presented in articles and stories in St. Nicholas Magazine. Among the pieces she cited were two articles by Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, and some heart-tugging fictions about children working in mills and mines. She observed that “the children. ..reading these stories were finally exposed to the poverty, child labor, abandonment, and homelessness of other children their age,” but Vinh, who called her paper “St. Nicholas, Hope of the Children” noted also the way the magazine tried to focus on the positive, portraying children who might have found themselves in painful situations, but who “appreciated the help they got” from the adults who intervened in their lives.
2. Mariah Mayers offered a critique of the negative and stereotyped presentation of African Americans in St. Nicholas and she contrasted this with the positive and inspiring picture of African American life in The Brownies’ Book, founded in the nineteen twenties by writers who were part of the Harlem Renaissance. Mariah’s paper included a number of impressive quotations from the short-lived but famous Brownies’ Book , including a letter to the magazine from a bright young boy who wanted to be an architect, and a poem stressing the essential unity of all human beings.
3. Several students looked at the way St. Nicholas focused on Christmas and Christmas celebrations. Alyson Casagrande, Joanna Cambareri, and Mariah Mayers looked at some similarities and differences between a twenty-first century Christmas and a nineteenth century one as presented in the magazines studied, and explored the ways Christmas issues were used to teach desired behavior and religious attitudes. One of Joanna’s essays is available below.
4. Denece Jhagroo studied a group of stories from St. Nicholas focused on the experience of running away from home, to see how they were used to discuss human relations within families, and in a related piece, DeNece looked at the way boys and girls were represented in the 1884 volume of Harper’s Young People, concluding that the magazine subtly taught children the way their society wanted them to behave and appear. She noted that girls were held to a high standard of propriety and cleanliness while boys were forgiven for making messes and behaving violently. Her observation that ideally attractive children as presented in illustration were usually well-dressed Caucasians points to the fact that Harper’s Young People, like St. Nicholas did not present many positive images for African American youngsters.
5. Samantha Tully did research on nineteenth-century adoption practices, focusing especially on the practice of informal adoption, since she was intrigued by the fact that so many stories in St. Nicholas seemed to assume that adoption was “something so simple” that a would-be adoptive parent could “take a child off the street without question.” Samantha’s research into the history of adoption developed the complexities of the issue, and she found a couple of stories from St. Nicholas that demonstrated some of the difficulties informal adoption could present. Later in the semester, when Samantha examined a volume of Harper’s Young People she noticed a number of horrific illustrations describing children punished—seemingly-- for their enjoyment of various ordinary pleasures of life, and raised some important questions about the messages being passed on. As Samantha put it, “Each of the images seemed to play on punishing children for what they like to do most. The punishments had the repetitive theme of giving intimate objects or animals life and the ability to hurt.” [The pictures included a skater’s nightmare of being pursued by “huge, evil skates” as well as one of some flapjacks feasting on children, and a group of monstrous kites flying little boys.] “The pictures might seem harmless” she says, “but in reality they are horrifying.” Samantha was led to wonder what children made of these pictures: some, she speculated might have been “left with a message to try to be. . .perfect” but “some might think they should not love the things they love, or bad things will happen to them.” [Comment by Prof. Gannon: Weird and threatening pictures like these did appear with startling frequency in Harper’s Young People, though rarely if ever in St. Nicholas. Samantha’s observations explained for me one of the reasons why Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas, had said in a famous essay on “Children’s Periodicals” that there were so many ways to go wrong in writing for children, and she especially warned against the tendency to “distract sensitive little souls with grotesquerie” (Scribner’s Monthly 6 (July 1873): 354).]
6. Here are three thoughtful papers produced by young scholars in the class with something interesting to say about the significance of material they encountered in St. Nicholas. “Christmas: A Holiday or a Parenting Tool?” by Joanna Cambareri, deals with didactic uses to which seasonal material was put; Jennifer Dahmen’ s “ “Field of Dreams” explores the magazine’s treatment of the early sport of Baseball; and Morgan Torres’s “The Power of a Woman,” introduces us to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, whose article on women and work was unlike anything else we encountered in the early magazines we studied: a powerful feminist call to action, addressed to young girls.
Link to Joanna Cambareri’s “Christmas: A Holiday or a Parenting Tool?”
Link to Jennifer Dahmen’s “Field of Dreams”
Link to Morgan Torres’s “The Power of a Woman”
I am sure that my students join me in thanking the staff of the Mortola Library for all the help they received while doing research for their Communications Seminar during the Fall of 2004. Everyone in Reference, Circulation, and Periodicals was not only highly professional, but most kind and hospitable. We especially want to thank Christina Conte for helping us with this webpage and everyone who has had a part in creating such a congenial scholarly atmosphere in the first floor study areas in Mortola.
Prof. Susan R. Gannon Media and Communications, Pleasantville
Created by Pace University Library
Christina (Conte) Blenkle
Christina (Conte) Blenkle