- Catching a City and Nation in High Relief
It was 1998. The web network H-Childhood had just come on-line; the Society of the History of Children and Youth would form three years later. The Washington Post ran a rather breathless feature story on the phenomenon of children’s history, including university presses’ developing interest in publishing children’s history and the growing number of colleges and universities offering courses on some aspect of the history of childhood and youth. (Full disclosure: this reviewer was one of the historians interviewed for the story.) The reporter elicited a quote from one of the first practitioners of children’s history, Joseph Hawes, who effectively stated the case for our field. “Childhood is where you can catch a culture in high relief,” Hawes said. “How children were socialized in different periods reveals the agenda and values of the culture. Where you find lots of focus on children, you learn about a society’s anxieties about the future.”1
The men and women featured in Raising the World and A City for Children projected confidence in the efficacy and justice of their child-saving efforts. Yet the books are filled with social, cultural, and political anxieties that these reformers, philanthropists, and policymakers confronted in their ambitious plans. Most espoused grand agendas that imposed their own values on children whom they believed would play vital roles in the future of their communities and the world. Fieldston and Gutman offer original, valuable studies of the ways in which work on behalf of children reflected the assumptions, ambitions, compulsions, and self-esteem of people and nations alike. They remind us that the study of childhood and the actions undertaken on behalf of children provide a lens not only into the lives of children and their families, but also into the nature of philanthropy. For Gutman’s reformers, “the material [End Page 299] facts of everyday life seized their imaginations and inspired them to act on the belief that they could, and should, amend their city to offer destitute children a better childhood” (p. 33). For Fiedston’s reformers, “childrearing was a means of effectuating larger political changes” (p. 11).
Despite the immense differences between these two excellent books—in scale and in the nature of their sources, to name just two aspects—they share common goals: explaining the urgency with which child welfare advocates deployed voluntary associations to improve the lives of children, and understanding the cultural and political assumptions that underpinned that urgency. The efforts to create “a city for children” in Oakland, California, will seem superficially familiar to historians of American childhoods: the leaders of the movement to create safe and productive spaces for children were generally middle-class or elite women guided by Christian benevolence. They established a raft of voluntary organizations after the Civil War to create the institutional structure necessary for reform. Racial attitudes provided obstacles to true reform, while industrialization and migration exerted extraordinary pressures on children and youth.
The familiarity ends there, however. Gutman explores a century in the lives of the reformers and children of Oakland, crossing several common markers of periodization with an unusually expansive chronological reach, from the antebellum period through the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the period following the Second World War. She examines a city that is rarely considered by urban historians, much less historians of children, who have often focused on better-studied cities in the East and Midwest. And although the institutions created by Oakland child-welfare reformers are certainly recognizable—orphanages, settlement houses, kindergartens, and day-care centers—they were incorporated into existing spaces and buildings in creative and remarkable ways. Illustrated with well over one hundred photographs, drawings, and floor plans, and fleshed out by over two dozen oral histories (both archival and conducted by the author), A City...