- Commercializing Childhood: Children’s Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the Ideal of the Child Consumer in the United States, 1823–1918 by Paul B. Ringel
From handwringing Facebook posts to panicked news reports, our own historical moment resounds with worried voices decrying media’s deleterious effects on impressionable, innocent children. Unlike children of past generations, the argument runs, twenty-first-century tots have merely to tap on an iPad to be corrupted by popular culture. Paul Ringel’s impeccably researched and compellingly written Commercializing Childhood offers an important corrective to the assumption that children of previous centuries were “innocent” of the marketplace, or that they were unable to make choices among competing media. Interweaving analysis of the contents of children’s periodicals with a savvy recovery of the editorial struggles over which content to include, Ringel traces the tension between profit and pedagogy as it emerged in some of the earliest days of children’s periodical culture in the U.S.
In so doing, he provides a rich archive for thinking through a persistent debate in childhood studies: how might we understand the past lives and imaginations of actual children, even as those lives and experiences are often overwritten by adult expectations? In the push and pull between parental fantasies about what children should like and the reality of what children would actually read, the children’s magazine business was born. Editors might have had their own agendas, and parents their own investments, but children’s enthusiasm for some stories—and tepid reception of others—surely helped to tip the balance.
In exploring the triangulation between the editors’ vision, parents’ aspiration, and children’s pleasure, Ringel’s text complicates the rise of the “priceless child.” As Viviana Zelizer demonstrated in Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (1985), socioeconomic changes in nineteenth-century middle-class homes lessened children’s economic output, but increased their emotional value. Children became increasingly sentimentalized through a fantasy in which the private house sheltered innocents from the market’s predations. Yet while the parents Ringel describes were anxious about the corrupting influence of public life and commerce, they were also ambitious for their [End Page 222] children’s future success in that world. Thus they sought a form of narrative gentility that would instruct their progeny in the ways of the market, while protecting them from contamination by the seedy aspects of consumer desire. As Ringel describes it, this gentility “was constructed on the belief that individuals, even if they lacked substantial income or prestigious lineage, could improve their status by constructing a public persona that balanced polite manners, Protestant morality, and tasteful display of consumer goods” (7). Along with worries over how children should relate to the marketplace, adults also worried about children’s relationships with their own parents. Two of the first and most influential journals aimed at youth grew out of struggles over the proper balance between adult authority and childlike submission: Nathaniel Willis’s Youth’s Companion, which sought to shore up older, hierarchal models, and Lydia Maria Child’s Juvenile Miscellany, which sought to figure children as ambassadors to a more inclusive world.
In the midst of such adult ambivalence, the child reader became an elusive but powerful figure. As the century progressed, children’s attention and approval emerged as an increasingly powerful consumer force. There were, of course, limits to how far parents were willing to let their children go in pursuit of readerly pleasure. The exceptions, like Lydia Maria Child’s Miscellany, prove the rule. Child’s editorial decisions to include “women, the poor, and nonwhites into a less hierarchical view of the future” allowed her magazine to create a “sensation” among both adult and child readers who found the progressive material both appealing and scandalous (46). Yet, Ringel suggests, Child pushed beyond conventional middle-class virtues when she openly began to advocate for abolitionism in 1833. Within a year, Ringel notes that “the...