Exhibit shows nation´s changing ideas about youngsters
Childhood wasn’t always about pre-kindergarten classes, Baby Gap and electronic toys. Time was when children should be seen but not heard and “The American Boys Handy Book” was good reading.
Artifacts that display early Americans’ chan-ging views of children are on display in an exhibit that will run through August at the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) Museum in the District. “The Stuff of Childhood: Artifacts and Attitudes 1700 to 1900” is a historical look at the role children played in the family and in society. It offers a chance to view the charming games, delicate clothing and rudimentary baby equipment our ancestors used.
Exhibit curator Alden O’Brien says that because “The Stuff of Childhood” is divided into three eras, visitors can get an idea of how Americans thought, lived, dressed and learned. Three fictional “child guides” from the mid-1700s, the mid-1800s and 1900 explain what might have been going on in their world.
“In 1750, before the Enlightenment, the belief was that human nature was basically sinful,” Ms. O’Brien says. “Families did not have much appreciation for child behavior and development. Infancy was a period not only to be survived, but to be passed over into an age of reason as quickly as possible.”
By the mid-1800s, children were better appreciated, and some of the growing number of toys from that era are on display. Children were encouraged to run and play, and that can be witnessed in the change in clothing (girls donned pantalets so they could climb trees) and the advent of toys such as puzzles, children’s books and games.
A good portion of the space devoted to the mid-1800s shows how toys started to become gender-specific. Girls were encouraged to play with dolls and tea sets; boys were given model trains and military-style items such as swords.
“It was thought that it was important to prepare children for their roles and behavior later in life,” Ms. O’Brien says.
As the 20th century neared, children increasingly were valued by their parents and by society. In the Victorian era, children were treated as precious gifts who must be sheltered from the dangers of the adult world. Education became valued for both boys and girls, and educational toys became more popular.
As family size declined, parents had more resources to spend on children. This gave rise to the mass production of goods specifically for children. Visitors can see items such as fancy prams, baby books that chronicle every milestone and early “character” merchandise.
“You might have thought Pokemon plates are a new thing,” Ms. O’Brien says, pointing to a set of children’s dinnerware, circa 1890, that features the Brownies, characters from a book by Palmer Cox.
Adults will enjoy this exhibit for its attention to detail, particularly in the clothing and quilts. Costumes showing incredible fabric, needlework and preservation are on display, from 18th-century lace christening gowns to turn-of-the-century sailor suits. Handmade quilts and hand-painted toys that have survived for centuries also can be viewed.
Adults also will take note of how baby equipment has evolved over time. Early walkers, potty chairs, cradles and highchairs are included, as are some of the first glass baby bottles and nursing gowns. Parents will nod sympathetically, then give thanks for living in the convenient time of disposable diapers and Toys R Us.
Children will like the exhibit’s hands-on features and the fact that they can see the exhibit from the child-guides’ perspectives. There are reproductions for young visitors to play with, including period costumes to try on, as well as toys and books to explore. Older children will get a kick out of reading books on manners and development, such as “Goops and How to Be Them: A Manual of Manners for Polite Infants.”
There are more hands-on activities on the museum’s third floor. The New Hampshire Attic, part of the permanent display, shows a 19th-century children’s room complete with authentic beds, desk and washstands. Outside the attic, which is for show only, children are encouraged to play with the reproductions of Early American toys such as a tea set, dollhouses and a pretend kitchen.