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  • Toward a History of Children as Readers, 1890–1930
  • Kathleen McDowell (bio)

The history of reading will have to take account of the ways that texts constrain readers as well as the ways that readers take liberties with texts.

—Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?”

In 1930 the Journal of Social Hygiene published the results of a survey of the recreational interests of 1,600 girls in Brooklyn. Their favorite recreational activity was reading, which was then followed by swimming, then making dresses, going to movies, playing tennis, dancing, and riding in automobiles.1 A presentation at the 1914 New York Child Welfare exhibit on the hobbies of boys found that the majority of the 933 boys surveyed gave reading as their favorite hobby as well.2 Reading thus topped the lists of both boys and girls as their favorite pastime, and yet we know very little about the historical reading experience of children. This is an especially glaring omission when we consider that the time period from 1890 to 1930 saw the establishment of children’s publishing, children’s librarianship, and the dawn of “the century of the child.”3

There are very few histories of reading that include evidence of child readers. Historical readers of all ages are notoriously difficult to study because evidence of their interactions with texts is ephemeral and often absent from the historical record. There has been some scholarship that scrutinizes individual children’s diaries, focusing on their reading or including evidence of their reading as one aspect of their path from childhood to adulthood.4 Only a handful of studies have attempted to analyze children’s reading activities as connected to but also distinct from those of adults.5 There are studies of readers organized by class that include young people, defined as children both legally and culturally, but intertwine children’s reading experiences with those of adults.6 This intertwining is appropriate when analyzing [End Page 240] a period or a social class in which children’s experiences closely resemble those of adults, such as prior to the widespread enforcement of mandatory schooling and child labor laws. However, understanding children’s reading experiences requires a separate focus on children when studying periods in which child and adult experiences diverged.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, childhood was increasingly understood as a qualitatively different period of life than adulthood. Institutions for children segregated them from adults in daily life as legislation subjected children to special regulations. Schools were the most notable of these institutions, but playgrounds, public libraries, and such organizations as the Boy and Girl Scouts also separated children from adults based on cultural beliefs that children had special needs for protection and education.7 Regulations emerged that applied only to children, and separate laws, such as compulsory school attendance, were enforced by juvenile courts that sent young people who violated these laws to reform schools rather than prisons.8 The precise ages at which one was considered a child or an adult have varied over time, but institutional distinctions between adults and children have been a defining aspect of American culture since 1890.9 In light of the historical separation of children from adults and the cultural differentiation of childhood from adulthood, children’s reading practices, habits, and preferences deserve separate analysis. While similarities between child and adult reading practices should not be overlooked, children’s unusual powerlessness in relationship to adults, especially adult professionals in education-related work, requires a separate lens.

The purpose of this article is to outline some of the basic issues in writing a history of children as readers, particularly in relation to the fields of the history of childhood and children’s literature. Historical sources examined include published data from professional journals and popular magazines or newspapers that were gathered by Progressive Era professionals who were trying to understand children’s reading patterns in the United States from 1890 to 1930. This time period coincided with popular interest in childhood, the rise of children’s publishing, and the emergence of mass media in the United States. Children read and expressed opinions about their reading, and historical evidence of these child voices...


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pp. 240-265
Launched on MUSE
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