- The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture
Images of toys, literature, clothes, and school supplies aimed at the child consumer occupy a significant space in our contemporary consumer culture. To imagine a society without this child-centered market is, as the essays in The Nineteenth-Century Child and the Consumer Culture assert, to imagine a society without a concept of childhood. As editor Dennis Denisoff notes, the rise of consumer culture occurred at "roughly the same time and place" as the evolution of "dominant modern concepts of the child" in nineteenth-century Britain (2). Thus the twelve essays of this collection address the intersections of these identity-shaping phenomena and the complicated webs of influence and exchange surrounding the white, middle-class Victorian child. The essays trace the "processes by which youngsters became producers, distributors, purchasers, users and products of consumer culture," and the ways in which children interacted with parents, teachers, child advocacy groups, toy makers, [End Page 185] theatrical companies, and writers (2). Many of the essays also reveal the anxieties of Victorian middle-class adults in relation to their class, status, and education, and the ways in which those anxieties played out vis-à-vis their children. While individual essays touch on working class childhood issues, the collection as a whole focuses on the visions of childhood cultivated and encouraged in the ruling and middle classes of nineteenth-century Britain.
Denisoff organizes the collection's first section, "Play Things: Toys and Theater," like a Russian nesting doll, moving from a broad overview on toys to children's toy theaters to actual children's roles in theatrical productions. In "Experiments Before Breakfast: Toys, Education and Middle-Class Childhood," Teresa Michals traces the rise in manufactured toys for the middle-class, and explores the ways that specialized play spaces and practical toys, such as "microscopes, pencils, paper, chemistry kits, modeling clay and paste-board construction kits" (39) were advertised as the means of better rearing and educating one's children. Michals notes the rise of board games advertised to "teach industry and competition" (33) and science kits encouraging children to experiment and learn scientific principles (36). "[Maria] Edgeworth's rational child was a resource-intensive project" (36), says Michals, and toy makers capitalized on middle class parents' desires to provide their children with every educational opportunity.
The immensely popular toy theater is more fully examined in Liz Farr's "Paper Dreams and Romantic Projections: The Nineteenth-Century Toy Theater, Boyhood and Aesthetic Play." Farr explains how toy theaters encouraged consumerism by offering souvenir prints or collectable sets in enticing window displays. (For instance, penny sheets were sold blank, so children could color them in, cut them out, then use them to stage small plays. Many writers noted that the process was the fun part, so they eagerly awaited the newest set of prints based on popular productions.) Farr also discusses how they framed (at times literally, through the proscenium) the imagination and development of artists like Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Farr contends that both Dickens and Stevenson projected their daydreams onto the material objects in the toy theater, learning to operate "within a mode of desire between art and life, and between the perfected pleasures of his dreams and the imperfect dreams of reality" (49). Consumer goods, then, helped many British artists to develop their imaginations. Marah Gubar's "The Drama of Precocity: Child Performers on the Victorian Stage" expands the allure of the toy proscenium to life size by investigating actual children in Victorian theater, considering metaphors of children as playthings for adult theater-goers. Gubar provides a refreshing counter-argument to Jacqueline Rose's claim that Victorian children were "animated stage props," put on display as "passive objects of the adult gaze," to embody pure innocence [End Page 186] (63). Anticipating her arguments in Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature, Gubar proposes that child actors were not static representations of innocence, but were highly valued for their ability to "blur the line between child and adult, innocence and experience" (64). While acknowledging the...