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4 The Invasion of Children’s Play Culture, 1900–1950 IN 1930, AMID rising concern over the Great Depression’s effect on children’s welfare and happiness, President Herbert Hoover convened a White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. The meeting brought together professionals from fields of education, psychology , medicine, and social services to discuss and present reports concerning child care and protection on all governmental levels. In addition to preparing a Children’s Charter—a set of nineteen principles that addressed issues of health, education, child labor, family welfare, and growth and development—conference delegates declared that play was “every child’s right.” But that right bore a serious attribute, for as the conference concluded, “With the young child, his work is his play and his play is his work.”1 Such sentiments were clearly reminiscent of an attitude that was more than a century old: in the minds of experts, play was not the opposite of work; rather, it should be a productive activity through which a child rehearsed for modern adulthood by following the guidance of wise, rational adults. In the twentieth century, however, as a new brand of specialists endeavored to define the concept of play more scientifically, the prevailing attitude included an appreciation of both the serious and the fun components of play. Some believed that children’s culture could enrich older generations. Thus, physical educator B. F. Boller could proclaim early in the century that the “overflowing , joyous, radiant life of the child” would serve as the legacy to the adult, who would add to work “the zeal and energy of earnest, joyous play.”2 But “joyous play” could take place only under proper adult tutelage. As child psychologists Harvey Lehman and Paul Witty announced in their 1927 volume, The Psychology of Play Activities, “educators should assume the responsibility of training children for profitable use of leisure.”3 98 Many children of the time, however, had different ideas. They followed their own age-old principle: to them, childhood represented a realm that they wanted to define and control by and for themselves. They often resisted the imposition of adult-defined activities and restrictions . Their position was articulated by author Robert Paul Smith, recalling his own insubordinate youth: “I think we were right about grownups being the natural enemies of kids, because we knew that what they wanted us to do was to be like them. And that was for the birds.”4 Even more than in previous eras, the divergence between what adults wanted for kids (“his play is his work” and “profitable use of time”) and what kids believed (”that was for the birds”) became a major theme of play history in the first half of the twentieth century. These years, bounded roughly by the onset of a full-fledged child-saving movement during the Progressive era at the dawn of the century and the appropriation of kids’ culture by television in the early 1950s, mark what I believe to have been a much more highly organized adult incursion into childhood than in the past and, somewhat paradoxically , children’s most successful, though transitory, assertion of play independence. In large part, this incursion derived from shifting attitudes about the social role of children. Before 1900, a family-economy model of childhood, in which parents endeavored to integrate children into domestic activities as quickly as possible, prevailed among farm and urban working-class families—into which the bulk of children were born. As one historian has aptly observed, “Working-class girls . . . were less likely to ‘play’ house than to run it.”5 By the turn of the century, however, growth of the urban middle-class broadened the acceptance of a sheltered-child model. Under this version, which had arisen in the mid- and late nineteenth century, the state and its institutions set apart children by age and status, and family ideology as well as public concern channeled young people toward a protected physical and emotional development.6 The sheltered-child model shaped play in several and sometimes contradictory, ways. Before 1900, adults had dominated children’s play, and when possible had determined the kinds of toys young people received and the games they played. After 1900, however, adults— mainly middle and upper class, but increasingly working class as well —allowed play and toys to become more child centered and more often defined by children’s desires. As a result of reduced responsibilities 1900–1950 99 to the family economy and of influence from...


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