Image from The American Antiquarian Society.
I have friends who write children’s literature. It is a popular genre. It was when I was growing up, too. I remember reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Black Beauty, and Little Witch, to name a few. But literature for children goes back further than the mid-20th century.
Back in my graduate school days (the mid-late 1990s), I did a fair amount of research on the topic, especially as it pertained to evangelical Protestants. I’m use the term “evangelical” to mean those who simply were focused on spreading the “Good News,” as opposed to some of the more current understandings. What you’re seeing today is a shortened and revised version of a research paper. You’ll notice that the books are all dated from the 1960s and 1970s. If I had the time, it would be fun to see what, if any, current research has been done in the field.
Protestant children’s fiction probably had an impact on my character Maggie, whose childhood and teen years stretched (born 1821) and on her daughters Lydia (born 1842) and Frankie (born 1846). But in creating the characters, it is clear that I was influenced by the impact children’s literature published by Methodists and other evangelical Protestants had on them.
"Before there could be children's books," John Rowe Townsend writes, "there had to be children - children, that is, who were accepted as beings with their own particular needs and interests, not merely as miniature men and women"(Townsend,17). A new understanding of children and childhood began sometime during the eighteenth century, when adults began to view childhood as a separate and special time of life. That also was the era in which they started to develop written materials for children. Are we surprised at this? We shouldn’t be.
Interestingly, the 1740's were "the decade in which both the English novel and the English children's book got under way" (Townsend 28) and, by the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign (1837), didactic stories for children, adventure and school stories for boys, domestic stories for girls, fantasies, and animal stories were readily available (Townsend 55).
In her review of American children's literature in period of 1836-1875, Mary Lystad found that nearly three quarters of those books included some sort of religious teaching. Mention of God and the need for salvation found its way into even books written for education or pleasure. These materials provided religious instruction, but also educated children with regard to social behavior, school subjects, and (for girls) family relationships. Adventure stories (aimed at boys) and pleasure-reading also were introduced. However, of all the books published during the period, the overwhelming majority were fiction, clocking in at 63% (Lystad, 83-87).
In America, part of the boom in children's literature was supported by materials published by the growing Protestant Sunday school movement. Sunday schools began in England during the 1780's as a charity effort to educate children of the poor, who were unable to go to school because they had to work (Lynn & Wright, 24-28). Teaching the children on Sunday when they were free and using the Bible as a textbook seemed a natural for church people on a mission.
When the Sunday school movement spread to America, a similar experiment was tried. However, it did not stay located within the poor communities due to the development of common and public schools in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century. Instead it was adopted by churches as a means of teaching the children of their parishioners.
Sunday schools in the United States were supported by non-denominational groups such as the American Sunday School Union, founded in 1824, and denominational organizations like the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Sunday School Union, founded in 1827. The Sunday School Union worked in conjunction with the Methodist Book Concern to produce affordable materials for both children and adults (Pilkington, 192-194).
Although evangelical Protestants generally frown on fiction and believed it to be a dangerous influence, their publishing houses printed a large amount of fiction for children, Publishing fiction for children could have arisen out of sheer practicality. The American Sunday School Union knew children liked to read stories and most likely planned to get its message across in story form, rather than as a more boring and highly didactic tract (MacLeod, 21). This same logic probably held true for the other Sunday school publishers of the time, who also published children's fiction. However, the fiction was not without purpose, and most children's literature published by Protestant organization had copious amounts of moral content woven throughout the stories.
A unique feature of Sunday school books is that they were small and fit easily into a child's hand. They were either sold singly or combined into "libraries (Pilkington, 433), and they were popular. "Few homes with any books at all were without some product of the burgeoning Sunday school publishing industry, either in the form of a young person's moral and spiritual guide or the tearful, joyous tale of a dying, heaven-bound child" (Rodgers, 129). In local congregations, religion teachers built “Sunday school libraries” that disseminated evangelical literature to their children. They also and gave away tracts and moral tales." (Boylan, 48).
To encourage reading among their pupils, Sunday schools used reward tickets. A child was given a ticket for good attendance, punctuality, and memorization of scripture. The child had accumulated a certain number of tickets and then turned them in for a premium in the form of a book or a tract. Later, teachers focused on giving children library privileges for good behavior or attendance, hoping that it would draw them (and their parents) to Sunday school (Boylan, 48 & 50).
On the American frontier, a church’s Sunday school sometimes was the only place where people could find books and learn how to read. The 1859 Manual of Public Libraries reported that an amazing 30,000 out of 50,000 libraries in the United States were found in Sunday schools (Lynn & Wright, 55-57).
Like all literature, children's lit by evangelical authors addressed certain perceived psychological needs. For Protestant publications, the most frequent perceived need was eternal salvation, followed by love between parent and child, sometimes between husband and wife (when the book was written for girls), strength and achievement, and play and adventure. They also stressed responsibility to one's family, community and God and numerous copious warnings about the evils of drinking. Another goal was to place the good of all people over one's personal good. The books also took note of social mobility, expressing the belief that the poor would be able to rise if they conformed to societal norms and focused on the good of all, rather than on their own desires (Lystad 91-99).
Messages were conveyed through several formulae: 1) the contrast tale, which pit the industrious boy against the slothful boy; 2) the ode to usefulness, which showed the glories of duty and responsibility over the waste of play; 3) the experiment in idleness, in which the anticipated joys of doing nothing explode in boredom and disaster. "Tales like these drummed home not the heroic virtues but the sober, prudent economic ones." (Rodgers, 131-132).
By the 1850's, things began to change within the larger culture. We see the emergence of the fairy story (such as those written by Hans Christian Andersen). Another innovation in fiction was the removal of the intrusive moralist (think Mark Twain's technique in Huckleberry Finn). Finally, the boys' tale came into its own. This was "a nostalgia-filled story of boys still half-savage, the best part of them not yet broken to the prim, restrictive conventions of civilization". However, while the "the tacked-on lesson, the obtrusive sermonizers" was removed, the presence of a moral did not completely disappear. Nor did writers stop seeing themselves as moralists (Rodgers, 132-133, 135).
Now you know a little about some of Maggie, Lydia, and Frankie’s formative influences. They also were formative for many other American Protestants during the first half of the nineteenth century. They may seem quaint, even baffling, to us but were quite potent in the 1800s.
I’ll be back on Friday with an investigation into the writings of British children’s fiction author Sarah Fry. Never heard of her? Neither had I until I did the research back in the late 1990s! But since it’s women’s history month, we might as well look at a lesser-known influencer.
Boylan, Anne M., Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution 1790-1880 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Lynn, Robert W. and Elliott Wright, The Big Little School (Nashville: Abingdon; Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1980).
Lystad, Mary, From Dr. Mather to Dr. Seuss (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1980).
MacLeod, Anne Scott, A Moral Tale (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975).
Pilkington, James Penn, The Methodist Publishing House: A History, Volume I, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1968).
Rodgers, Daniel, The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850-1920 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978).
Townsend, John Rowe, Written for Children (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippencott Company, 1965).
Image: "Woman Suffrage in the Wyoming Territory. - Scene at the Polls in Cheyenne/from a photo. By Kirkland (Library of Congress; https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c06109/)
In the very first Saint Maggie book, Eli makes mention to Maggie about the “chains of custom” used to keep women in their place. As I’ve said many times before, in mid-1800s America, women were not afforded the same rights as men. The chains of custom used to bind them were spread across the spectrum of life: economics, education, law, dress, employment, and politics. How severely these things were imposed differed according to socio-economic status and race. In the mid-century, the idea of “woman’s sphere” emerged. The belief was that men had the stuff to participate in the rough-and-tumble, if not corrupt, worlds of business and politics, while women, due to their more delicate nature, needed to stay in the safety of the home and attend to the microcosm of family, child-rearing, and family faith. And yet this paradigm did not apply to agrarian women, females in lower classes, or women of color. They, by “virtue” of their status, were thrown into the world outside the home in a desperate attempt to keep themselves and their loved ones alive. They also were more likely to be abused not only by the men in their lives, but also by the men they encountered beyond their homes. They had little, if any, recourse to legal or social actions to punish their aggressors.
At the same time, the mid-1800s is the era of the first wave of American feminism. The early feminists were ridiculed by those intent on maintaining the status quo. It was an uphill slog for them. Feminism is still ridiculed today. Terms like “feminism” and “feminist” have been hijacked. Women often refuse to identify as feminists, stating that they are not ravenous, wild-eyed women hungry for total dominance over males. This myth is further enhanced by a healthy dose of homophobia (all feminists are lesbians or trans, or at least want to blur the line between male and female) and biblical interpretations supporting the idea that women hold a secondary place in the created order.
Maggie lives in a culture in which women must know their “place.” While her daughters, Lydia and Frankie, early feminists that they are, are striking out on journeys that defy societal norms. Maggie, however, is not as bold. Throughout the series, though, she learns to speak for herself, defend her beliefs, and – perhaps even more importantly – stand up for the vulnerable people in her community.
Maggie’s big heart and her firm faith that she is called to love God and love others time and again pull her out of her comfort zone. She faces disapproval in Saint Maggie when she decides to forgive a man who has committed murder. She protects the people of color and hides Union soldiers in Walk by Faith. In that same novel, she and Emily fight off an attacker. A Time to Heal finds Maggie speaking out at a hearing to protect Eli, who had been wrongly arrested of treasonous activities. In Seeing the Elephant, she has the courage to recognize that her husband suffers from emotional distress (technically, PTSD) and supports him when he seeks treatment at the Hospital for the Insane. Maggie also is the fearful, but courageous mother chasing after a runaway daughter in The Enlistment. She compassionately takes Emily and Nate Johnson into her home in The Dundee Cake. She struggles with letting her oldest daughters go (The Great Central Fair). Maggie even entertains angels (The Christmas Eve Visitor).
But in my work-in-progress (I’m now completing revision #3), Maggie has started moving in a new direction. In truth, it wasn’t until I was well into the story when I realized where the plot would be taking her after A Good Community. So, I want to address her future while avoiding spoilers. The best I can do is offer the excerpt below. It illustrates what I think is a turning point in Maggie’s character development. She is growing, moving with the more radical impulses of her time, and, although she doesn’t quite know it, preparing herself to break new ground. All this happens because she and her female friends are shocked to learn that the children who live in the little black community of Water Street are not receiving an education.
Maggie’s Call to Create a Better Society
My heart desires a more just society. Oh, I know that all people cannot be wealthy, but cannot most be comfortable? Must so many bear the heavy weight of poverty on their shoulders without hope of doing better? Of ever doing better? How grinding, how disheartening that is. I know what it was like trying to keep my boarding house afloat after John and Aunty Letty’s deaths. I feared I would not be able to feed my boarders or my daughters. Poverty is a burden that sticks one’s feet in a deep mire of muck so deep that one cannot move. Sometimes faith in God and hope in the future are destroyed by it.
Oh, that I had the power to persuade and move people toward love rather than hate, jealousy, greed, and suspicion! But alas! I feel small and insufficient to the task, despite Eli’s faith in me. If I am powerful, as he says I am, then I simply do not feel it.
Eli, of course, has tried to help by giving me opportunity to write for The Register, but I never will attain his voice in our community. Whether he is admired or deplored, he is still a force to be reckoned with, while I - I am perceived as “Smith’s wife.” I am a woman and I fear that I am not seen as who I really am.
But I must be brave and strong and confident now. Despite my fears, I am called do something to help my community. Giving space in our home for the children from Water Street will, God willing, change their lives. I hunger for them to learn and then leave us and move on to better lives. If I could but see this happen, then I will be content, knowing that I have done my part to change the world for the better.
Obviously, the response of Maggie, Emily, Abigail, and other women is this: “Hey, girls, if the town won’t educate the black children, let’s start a school and do it ourselves!”
This decision is empowering. They want to give children part of what they need to rise in life – but in so doing are empowering themselves as well. And this action may be leading Maggie beyond the stated female sphere and into a larger role in Blaineton.
See you Wednesday!
In the meantime, enjoy this video of Aretha Franklin, Annie Lenox, and Dave Stewart performing “The Sisters Are Doin’ for Themselves.”
(Note: I think today we can add, that not only does a woman still love a man, but a woman can love a woman. In honor of my awesome sister and her partner.)
Let's look at the other major chores women faced in the 1860s: dishes, cleaning, and laundry. You'll be happy we have modern conveniences when you get to the end of the blog.
After a meal, there were a pile of dishes and pots to wash up. There was no dishwasher. There was no hot and cold running water. There was no dish soap. (In fact, women might have made this themselves.) The excerpt below, from The Enlistment, gives you an idea of what women went through.
House cleaning also presented the homemaker with hard work. Before the invention of the vacuum cleaner, rugs were swept with a carpet broom. To get the dust out, though, they needed to be rolled up, lugged out to a sturdy rope line strung between two posts, and beaten with a carpet beater – a device that looks a little like a tennis racket with extra big holes. That must have really made the dust fly!
Hardwood floors were swept with a broom. Next a homemaker would pump cold water into a bucket, add hot water from the tea kettle or wash boiler on the stove, add soap, and scrub the floors with a brush on her hands and knees. Alternately, floors could be wiped down with a rag.
Feather dusters aided dusting. One also could wipe down furniture and other surfaces with water and rub in beeswax to polish and protect the wood.
As for bed chambers, a landlady like Maggie would shake out and air the bedding, shake the curtains to free them of dust, and open windows to freshen the room. She also would dispose of dirty water in the washbasins and fill them with fresh. Finally – urghh – she would empty and clean chamber pots into which her boarders would do their nightly business. There were no indoor toilets and paying a visit to the outhouse at night was no fun. So, it was either hold it until morning or use the chamber pot.
Like many women of her time, Maggie cleary dreads laundry day. She makes mention of the dreaded task in several of the Saint Maggie series books. In Walk by Faith, when her family is relocated after a fire takes the boarding house, she makes note in her journal of the feelings that she and the other women have about living at her brother Samuel’s house, where the maids do the laundry: “We have no scrubbing, no steaming tubs of water, no bluing, no rinsing, no hanging wet things on a line or draping them before the fire. Our hands are no longer red and chapped, nor do our backs hurt. We never knew we could feel so good.”
Today we throw our stuff in a washing machine, toss in some detergent, close the lid, and walk away until the spin cycle is finished. Face it. We've got it pretty good.
In fact, even preparing the laundry for the washing was a big deal for Maggie and other women. Read this excerpt from Saint Maggie:
The general wash involved stirring the laundry in soapy water, then rinsing, wringing, and hanging on a line. Once the laundry was dry, everything needed ironing. The irons of Maggie's day were heavy things that had to be heated on the stove. That meant while one iron was in use, another was heating up. Women in those days must have had great biceps.
Personally, I would not give up twentieth-first century conveniences to go back to Maggie’s “simpler” time. The back-breaking drudgery women of her era experienced is daunting. Plus, women couldn’t vote, they had few opportunities to work outside the home, there was no birth control, and in some states married women could not own property and did not have the right to keep any money that they may have earned. Everything legally belonged to hubby. That said, some of these rules varied state to state.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll stay in my own era, thank you very much
Until Monday, friends. Have a great weekend!
Sorry I missed blogging on Monday. It was a complicated day with a lot of running around. I also have been fighting off a virus - which had its way with me today (it's Tuesday as I write this). I spent the morning lying on the couch and watching episodes of "Alaskan Bush People," mainly because it was too much work to change the channel. Also it's kind of interesting watching people "rough it" and live like our ancestors - even if they are on TV and followed around by cameras and a producer - and probably are earning a whole lot more than I do, and more than Maggie could ever imagine.
With that in mind, here is part 1 a repost of a 19 January 2018 blog about housekeeping in the Maggie series. I'll post part 2 on Friday, to ensure that I have time to get over this bug.
I hate keeping house. I fully acknowledge my sloth. I mean, to waste a whole hour vacuuming and dusting? To take a few minutes to stack the dishwasher, put the detergent in, push a button, and then take the clean dishes out again? To move my laundry from my bedroom to the washing machine, then to the dryer, and then take it upstairs and put it away? Yuck! Such household drudgery…I hate it.
But I get a reality check every time I work on a Saint Maggie story.
In the 1860s household conveniences that I take for granted were unheard of. Everything had to be done by manual labor and took hours to complete. Additionally, any activity relating to housekeeping was labeled “women’s work.” While her husband Eli has some modern attitudes about women’s abilities to work outside the home, he does little in the way of helping Maggie with the housework. He doesn’t mind her doing “men’s work” but for the most part he is not about to partake in “women’s work.”
Maggie works all the time. As an old-school Methodist, she believes “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” (King James Bible, Proverbs 16:27b). But above and beyond her personal beliefs regarding the positive values of hard work, she also is faced with the unending drudgery of housekeeping.
Running a nineteenth-century boarding house was not unlike running a family household. Each setting had the same tasks: laundry, cooking, and cleaning. How quickly and efficiently one got the work done depended upon how much help one had. Daughters could be recruited into the effort. And, with a little money, other help could be procured.
In the short story, “The Dundee Cake,” set in 1852, widow Maggie Blaine struggles to keep her boarding house running. Her only help at this point are her daughters: ten-year-old Lydia and six-year-old Frankie who certainly are old enough to lend a hand with some of the tasks, but Maggie also wants them to go to school, which puts her in a bind. Finally, she hires Emily Johnson to do the cooking and aid with laundry and cleaning. Not only is her problem solved, but she also finds a life-long friend in Emily.
What was so hard about housekeeping in the nineteenth century? Let’s look at the three main household tasks: cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
Housekeepers had to provide three meals a day. They used either raw ingredients, canned ingredients (canned at home, of course), and meats or fish preserved by salting. Maggie’s town does provide her with services that she would not have had a generation or two earlier: a green grocer, a butcher, and a fishmonger. She can purchase basic supplies, like flour, salt, and sugar at a general store. Maggie also keeps a garden, chickens for fresh eggs and meat, and a cow for fresh milk.
Cooking involved a great deal of chopping, slicing, husking, mixing, boiling, baking, and stewing. Measuring was done by teacup, handful, and/or spoon, since standard measuring cups and spoons are yet to come. And everything took time. There were no microwaves or convection ovens.
As for ovens, these were heated by wood or by coal. They had no dials to set temperature and no lights to indicate when the oven was ready. How did a homemaker tell when the right temperature had been reached? By sticking a hand into the oven. My sister owns a cookbook in which my great-grandmother wrote her recipes. Oven temperatures were “low,” “moderate,” or “high.” A cook determined whether a dish was done by sense of smell, sight, or touch.
We'll save cleaning and laundry for Friday.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder