Title Page Showing Children Reading Story. , 1845. Photograph.
I like writing about writing on Wednesdays. But Monday and Tuesday found me wound up in the nutsy-boltsy aspect of writing, as two of my books – one of which has been out since 2013, were flagged as having an issue with their covers. So while I’m wrestling with all that, here is a lightly brushed up repeat from early May of 2018 about reading materials for children in the 1800s.
So, here we go...
Maggie’s childhood interest in novels would have been considered rebellious, or at least mildly naughty by her governess. These days, when children read novels like Harry Potter, we wonder what the big to-do was in the nineteenth century.
Let’s start with Maggie’s background: upper-class. Think propriety and manners and behavior. Furthermore, her family was Methodist, which meant they were evangelical Christians. A religious revival and renewal swept through the United States in the 1700s and early 1800s Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, as well as preachers at early nineteenth-century camp meetings sought to call people to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Simply put, “evangelicalism” in that context became synonymous with “revivalism, or a fervent expression of Christianity marked by an emphasis on converting outsiders.”
Evangelicalism, as Maggie would have known it, was about “giving one’s heart to Jesus” followed by working to change hearts and the world. But changing hearts and the world was not comprised solely of making converts to increase the numbers of believers. It also became identified with the efforts of people to make the world a better place as a means of spreading God’s love. In short, you are loved and saved, now go love and save others.
It wasn’t only Christians who were out to make the world a better place. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, Evangelical Christians, other Christians, free-thinkers, people who adhered to other theological and philosophical beliefs, and non-believers worked together in reform movements. Abolition, women’s rights, education, and the labor movement immediately come to mind. And let’s not forget the infamous temperance movement.
The type of materials upper- and middle-class children in England and the United States would have been reading in the early- to mid-1800s were stories, books, and other publications that stressed the importance of a peaceful conscience and submission to authority. They were designed to teach children to be careful, temperate, aware of their position in society, and diligent. With this information came a subtext of intolerance toward religions, societies, and beliefs that deviated from Protestant norms.
In addition, children of evangelical Victorians would read tracts describing the plights of the poor. These reinforced the stereotype that such people were particularly subject to the dangers of drinking, gambling, and bad company. However, in reading about others, well-to-do children also were taught the value of temperance, thrift, and proper social connections.
One final and very important thing shows up in children’s reading materials is the closeness of serious illness and death. It was, after all an era when a cold could turn into pneumonia and pneumonia could lead to death. It was a time when treatment of disease, injury, and physical conditions was limited. If you didn’t know when death or disability was coming, then you had to live a virtuous life, so you could die a “good” death.
Generally, the above subjects in reading materials was true for all segments of the children’s reading public in the first part of the century. And then something happened.
What that something was will be revealed on Friday!
 Jonathan Merritt, “Defining ‘Evangelicalism,” The Atlantic, 7 December 2015.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder