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3 The Stuff of Childhood, 1850–1900 JACOB ABBOTT WAS one of the most popular and prolific children’s authors in nineteenth-century America. A Congregationalist minister dedicated to teaching Christian duty, Abbott was best known for penning a series of twenty-eight adventure books published between 1836 and 1863 and featuring Rollo Holiday, a plucky boy who imparted practical skills combined with moral lessons to other children. In his later years, Abbott wrote a widely read child-raising manual titled Gentle Measures in the Training of the Young (1871). Influenced by both John Locke and contemporary energy theory, Abbott believed that character formation in childhood was critical to human progress and that children needed to be able to release their innate stored-up energy lest dangerous consequences ensue. The means for unleashing that energy , he advised, was through unrestrained play. Abbott was no libertarian. “The only government of the parent over the child,” he wrote, “is one of authority—complete, absolute, unquestioned authority.” But he believed also that the establishment of parental authority involved “gentle measures,” meaning “those which tend to exert a calming, quieting, and soothing influence on the mind, or to produce only such excitements as are pleasurable in [a child’s] character.” Gentle measures also implied encouragement of children’s natural playful impulses rather than expecting young people always to act rationally and purposefully. Abbott advised: In a word, we must favor and promote, by every means in our power, the activity of children, not censure and repress it. . . . In encouraging the activity of children, and in guiding the direction of it in their hours of play, we must not expect to make it available for useful results, other than that of promoting their own physical development and health.1 67 In identifying play as a special attribute of childhood, Abbott was articulating an outlook that built on the appreciation of children’s innocence and freedom, an attitude that had arisen early in the nineteenth century. But by the time Abbott and others like him were writing their guides, an important evolution had occurred. In the minds of many, by the late nineteenth century, play had become what one writer has called the “stuff of childhood.”2 Play served to channel excess energy and provide intervals of relief between more sober tasks of work and learning, and it was considered an enjoyable, rather than a serious, way to rehearse for adulthood and master the emotional challenges of growing up. Harmless fantasy rather than moral strictures , happiness more than subservience and prayer, became the norm for a child’s existence. To promote that happiness, many parents rewarded their young with an expanding array of toys. Educators and psychologists now deemed too much serious activity and denial of fun as detrimental; instead, they argued, youngsters needed a balance between labor and amusement. According to George Ellsworth Johnson , an early playground administrator, a child “should be taught that a life of play-work is the ideal, and that it is his privilege to seek it.”3 When it came to defining how, where, and with what children played, however, a new generation of experts distrusted both children and parents. They opposed child-generated spontaneous play, stressing instead that guidance and control were paramount. Maria KrausBoelte , who helped introduce the German concept of kindergarten into the United States, typified this view when she wrote in 1875, “American children must be taught how to play.”4 As part of their child-guidance movement, reformers promoted educational games, playgrounds, and athletics as means to achieve “healthy” play. Moreover , these reformers believed, because of their emotional and physical immaturity, children needed to be protected from the dangers of a society that was growing increasingly complex from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. City streets, especially, harbored vice, “bad” kids who could taint childhood innocence, and physical hazards that could do even worse harm. Thus, professional child workers, fearing that the social fabric was unraveling, tried to employ organized play as a means for “saving” kids from the street, the marketplace , and even other kids.5 But as has always been their wont, children had their own ideas about play, and perhaps more than ever before, they took advantage 68 The Stuff of Childhood of their status to craft their own amusements, sometimes compliant with adult wishes, sometimes alternative, and sometimes outright oppositional . Indeed, as the separation between adult and children’s worlds widened, the tensions over young people’s autonomy became more apparent. Even as...


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