- Writing a "Wonderland" of Science:Child-Authored Periodicals at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, 1936-1946
Child-authored science writing poses a unique set of questions for the historian of children's literature, children's periodicals, and children's writing. Many American adults of the early twentieth century and of the interwar years, influenced by the tenets of progressive education and pragmatism, considered science to be particularly interesting to children; for these adults, scientific thought was inherently "childish" in its qualities of curiosity and openness while, conversely, children's attitude toward the world was naturally scientific. The historian could, therefore, view child-authored science writing for periodicals as a textual extension of an adult-sanctioned "natural" mode of experimental play.1
Unlike Natalia Crane or Daisy Ashford, two contemporary child authors of novels, children writing about science were not creating what adults perceived to be new and fresh fictional worlds. Nor were they, like the child writers for the young people's periodical St. Nicholas that Anna Redcay and Greta Little analyze, trying to satisfy adult ideas of "realist" fiction.2 The models that these young writers followed were more likely encyclopedias, books of popular science, textbooks, manuals from chemistry and other science sets, radio shows about science, and adventure stories. As Marcel LaFollette has written, the 1930s and 1940s, when these child-authored periodicals were published, were years when "descriptions of science were especially vivid" in popular periodicals: "Mass magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan were information sources about the world of science that were easily accessible to millions of readers in all parts of the country and from all walks of life."3 Children working within the context of the Brooklyn Children's Museum, where a dedicated library put science periodicals at their disposal, would have been immersed particularly in this "accessible" science. The young authors and editors of the Brooklyn Children's Museum periodicals the Museum Star, Pay Dirt, and Wonderland of Science created historical documents that can show how children interpreted and represented a rich textual culture of popular science.
The Brooklyn Children's Museum, or BCM, founded in 1899, was the first children's museum in the United States and was steeped in the ideals of [End Page 1] progressive education. At the BCM, educators emphasized child-centered inquiry, the importance of scientific thought and proximity to the natural world, and "hands-on" learning.4 By the 1930s and 1940s, when the publications I will examine in this article were produced, the museum embraced its role as a crucible of democratic thought in a time of poverty and war. The director of the Harmon Foundation, which supported the museum during the war years, wrote in 1942 in the museum's bulletin, the Children's Museum News, that the Children's Museum was "the children's agora," a neutral place to meet and share ideas, "as did the scholars in the ancient Greek marketplace."5 Within this "agora," clubs dedicated to specific pursuits were key sites of the kind of child-propelled instruction that the museum favored. In a 1936 Children's Museum News article, the curator-in-chief of the BCM, Anna Billings Gallup, explained, "As Museum children approach adulthood, they seem able to go much farther in their scientific observations and studies if they can proceed as club members rather than as isolated individuals. This has been the experience of members in the BCM's Stamp Club and the Pick and Hammer Club, each of which has been an unqualified success."6
BCM personnel rallied support for their efforts by tying their work with children to contemporary concerns about the future of American democracy. In 1940, curator Jane Wilson Garrison wrote an editorial for the Children's Museum News on "Democracy in a Children's Museum," responding to the recently issued recommendations from the 1940 White House Conference on "Children in a Democracy." Garrison thought the BCM, which she called "a training ground for democratic living and democratic processes," was a good example of an institution that managed to create community and mutual respect while emphasizing the need for development of individual interests. She cited the BCM's...