Of ‘Guns at Bull Run’ and ‘Good wives’ : children’s worlds in the past

My favourite book, when I was little, was my mother’s illustrated description of Technological masterpieces of millennia past. My father would buy us whole series of colourful children’s books on animals in habitats all around the world. All my childhood, I naturally wanted to research and explore the world — whether as an astronomer, zoologist or archaeologist!

Drawing of curving Roman aqueducts crossing over.This drawing in my book on antiquity had a profound influence on me as a child.

Therefore I was puzzled to read in a survey of American children’s reading habits from the early 20th century: “The interest of girls in travel, adventure, and science is almost negligible.” Has the nature of girls changed so much in a few generations… or were they kept on a certain intellectual diet in the past, so that it became second nature?

Arthur Melville Jordan’s meta-study of 1926 contains many other nuggets. I was puzzled about ‘women’s arts’ – were girls perhaps passionate about ladies’ colleges for fine art, where young women were not exposed to such ‘hairy’ subjects as naked people? Far from it: labour in the home is chiefly done by women even to this day, but to see it labelled ‘women’s arts’ did not necessarily lift my spirit…

Cover of 'Popular mechnaics': men inside a huge metal construction.Moreover, it is one thing to see American girls prefer the Ladies home journal, while boys patronise Popular mechanics, or have male pre-teens favour the civil war story Guns of Bull Run over the four sisters’ lives in Little women – but to find a renowned educationalist stating less than a hundred years ago that “the strong, healthy American boy” scorns Little women, is another. Is the reader to conclude that only a weak and sickly boy reads girl’s fiction…?

The titles almost summarise 19th century gender roles: Bull Run is a real place, but Guns of Bull Run seems a smart choice for a mega-masculine message. And guess what the sequel to Little women was called? There’s only one way it could go: Good wives.

Cover of 'Ladies Home Journal': young girl in bonnet and blue dress with flowers and frills.Children’s interests in reading is only one of thousands of books in the stores underneath the library which you may not have known about until now.

This is one thing librarians do in the background, quite possibly underneath your feet: they check if older books are indexed, so that you can find them under the subject matter, and indeed recorded. As soon as they appear on Explore, you can order them to be consulted in the library.

Look at the following gem, from an analysis of teenage life in the 1960’s: “… we strongly believe that … American civilization tends to stand in such awe of its teen-age segment that it is in danger of becoming a teen-age society, with permanently teen-age standards of thought, culture and goals.”

Very old television set in tall wooden box with knobs.In Grace and Fred Hechinger’s account Teen-age tyranny, the portrait of society looks uncannily familiar, even if the cultural references and moral standards sound dated: the cult of fast cars and shopping to surfeit; the rule of movies and television; the social issues of too early dating and teenage pregnancy…

Since then, there have been more studies on The disappearance of childhood and of adulthood in favour of permanent teenage — and of a homogenised and globalised Life on the screen. You are likely to find these studies at the Newsam Library of the Institute of Education, at another UCL library, at Senate House Library, or online through our library pages.

So, keep your eyes open on our New accessions and check our various search functions (listed on the left of all IOE LibGuides). Never assume that the 18 UCL libraries will not hold a certain book or journal article, or can find it for you elsewhere. That’s what we are there for.

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