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  • The White Child’s Burden: Managing the Self and Money in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Missionary Periodicals
  • Karen Li Miller (bio)

“It is very necessary that children should learn, when young, the value and the use of money; they should be taught to spend it, as well as to save it.

”“Pocket Money,” Godey’s Lady’s Book

(April 1879)1

“O Children! Money-making for the Lord, in the right way, is the most honorable business we possibly do. Now, then, are you willing to try? Hands up, from Maine to California!”

Mrs. O. W. Scott, editor, Heathen Children’s Friend


In 1881, a Harper’s Bazaar writer lamented the loss of “child-like children” as consumerism and fashion seemed to rush them into “the time of making money.”3 She asked parents, “Why do we need to hurry our little ones into the worry of the world,”4 and she longed for an ideal, “sweet childhood” attended by maternal supervision at home, away from the potential corruption of the marketplace.5 Children’s development as consumers seemed inevitable, though, and her objection was not to their possession of money; rather, like the Godey’s writer above, she was concerned by their lack of moral money management skills. Indeed, many parents tried to negotiate between instructing through work while also cherishing childhood play, tensions elucidated by Vivian Zelizer in Pricing the Priceless Child.6 Priscilla Ferguson Clement identifies the tenuous social status of middle-class families as one factor that heightened their awareness of the need for marketplace skills: “Yet middle-class Americans worried about passing on their class status to their sons and daughters. Because the job market was so much in flux, and new job skills necessary in advancement, middle-class parents agonized about how best to rear and prepare their children for the future.”7 Children’s missionary periodicals offered these families a solution which treasured and protected their children, taught them financial skills, and, most importantly, prepared them to face the challenges of an industrialized, materialistic society.8 They sent middle-class children out in public to compete and work for wages and learn market skills. [End Page 139]

Financial advice for youngsters often focused on controlling spending and learning to save money. Daniel T. Rodgers views the popular binary of “childhood” versus “the marketplace” as detrimental to late nineteenth-century economic needs: “What expansive, mid-nineteenth-century capitalism presumably needed most from its white-collar children was managerial skill, entrepreneurial adventurousness, perhaps even a dash of recklessness. Yet what such children were taught was diligence, self-discipline, and restraint, and the resulting contrast between economic needs and highly cautious moral aims is a measure of the power of nineteenth-century child-shaping matters to concentrate anxieties, particularly those concerning social change.”9 Missionary organizations did not view these as conflicting values, however, and they trained children to practice innovative entrepreneurship to make as much money as possible. Simultaneously, they encouraged youngsters to exercise self-restraint and sympathy by asking them to relinquish their earnings to benefit those less fortunate.

Yet, articulating specific instruction for non-laboring children to work publicly was a delicate issue. As Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence demonstrates, depicting childhood and work was complicated by racial ideologies which constructed white children as “tender angels,” unsuited for the pains of labor.10 Missionary writers stemmed criticism by agreeing that white children were especially sensitive to pain, but they meant the pain of others. White children could feel the sufferings of unwanted Chinese girls, for example, and become empowered by that pain to work towards reforms. Children’s laboring for money was thereby blessed with divine approval since, as Mrs. Scott said above, they would be “money-making for the Lord.”

Missionary writers re-inscribed children and money in moral and productive relationships. If children learned how to make and manage money, the writers implied, then young people’s well-being and that of their capitalistic society could be secured. Their narratives focused on helping children realize grand goals by promoting fiscal activities, including pseudo-parenting to develop children’s compassion and sense of importance, working for wages to cultivate healthy...


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pp. 139-157
Launched on MUSE
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