CHC: Season 2, Ep 4: Roundtable Discussion with Marah Gubar and Shauna Vey

Childhood: history & critique (CHC) is a multi-media series of interviews, essays, and reports on happenings in the historical study of childhood hosted by a team of scholars and edited by Dr. Patrick J. Ryan. The series is published and circulated online by the Society for the History of Children and Youth.

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In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to child actors on the 19th century stage. I entered this conversation through my work on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, in which child performers and notions of childhood played a prominent and under-appreciated role. In my research, I came across the work of Shauna Vey and Marah Gubar, two scholars who have done much to shed light on the dynamic relationship between changing ideas of childhood and early forms of 19th century popular culture. Marah and Shauna come from different disciplinary backgrounds— the former a children’s literature scholar and the latter a theatre historian—but their work addresses similar themes, adding layers of nuance to our understanding of children’s culture and child labor and complicating conventional narratives about the influence of childhood innocence in 19th century America. In this discussion, I invited both Marah and Shauna to comment on these issues, describe our current understanding of 19th century performers, and imagine how we can productively build on existing work in this field.

In reading Marah’s work on 19th century children’s theatre, including the Viennoise Children, a juvenile ballet company, and Shauna’s in-depth case study of child actors in the Marsh Troupe, I became interested in how the lives of these children enrich and complicate our understanding of childhood innocence during the second half of the 19th century. Early in our talk, Shauna noted that her work was more about competence than innocence, a comment that helped to frame the conversation that followed. Both Marah and Shauna suggested their work demonstrates the agency of child actors in ways previous scholarship has failed to properly account for, and they both make a forceful argument that 19th century child actors were often valued for their craft and respected as professionals rather than categorically appraised as victims or exploited workers.

Still, as we talked, it became clear that the murky relationship between innocence and competency gestures to unresolved questions about these performers and 19th century ideas of childhood. During the interview, Shauna argues that actors “are always playing two faces at the same time,” so that the children in the Marsh Troupe were considered workers, much like their adult peers, even as their appeal was bound up in a growing cultural fascination with helpless, innocent childhood. In a follow-up email, a few days after our talk, Marah suggested this was an important paradox, one that 19th century audiences were fully aware of; they celebrated the child actor’s innocence while deriving pleasure and profit from that same child’s labor. It seems clear to me that these child actors were paradoxical figures, and I wonder how much we can learn from that. How aware were children of this paradox? How did these contradictions inform their own sense of agency and influence their understanding of themselves as children, as performers, and as workers? These questions remain difficult to answer.

Our broader consideration of audience opened up the discussion to the changing place of the theatre in 19th century culture and what those changes suggest about contemporaneous ideas of age, class, and gender. Shauna brought up Highbrow/Lowbrow, Lawrence Levine’s classic study of how American theater was gradually reorganized and reimagined in the 19th century, with theatre audience becoming more isolated and stratified. Reflecting on our work, we discussed what a messy process this was and how children’s relationships with the theater during the 19th century—both as performers and audience members—remains under-explored. Marah talked about the Grand Duke’s Opera House, a functioning professional theater put together run by newsboys in New York’s Five Points neighbourhood during the 1870s, and Shauna brought up the popularity of home theatricals among middle class girls in the Victorian Era. Examples like these ask us to reconsider children’s relationship to the theatre, blurring the line between work and play and troubling the notion of childhood innocence as a monolithic force in the late 19th century. Both Marah and Shauna have made significant efforts to address these complex issues, and it’s clear to me from our conversation that 19th century child performers have a lot more to teach us.

Selected Bibliography
Frey, Heather Fitzsimmons, “Defying Victorian Girlhoods through ‘Oriental Fantasies.’ Tensions and Possibilities for Girls in Nineteenth Century Drawing Room Theatre.” For the Performance Research For/By/With Young People conference at Brock University. Uploaded April 6th 2014. https://performanceresearchandyouth.wordpress.com/group-one-3/heather-fitzsimmons-frey/

Gubar, Marah “Entertaining Children of All Ages: Nineteenth-Century Popular Theater as Children’s Theater,” American Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1 (2014): 1-34.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Varty, Anne, “Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain: All Work, No Play.” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Vey, Shauna, Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015).

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Guest Post: Rachel Remmel on the Graded School in 19th Century Boston

In this blog post, Rachel Remmel places her forthcoming article, “The Spaces of the Schoolhouse and the City: Gender and Class in Boston Education, 1830-1832,” in its historical and historiographical contexts. Remmel is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. Her research focuses on school architecture and museum history, both institutions intended to transmit and shape values. Her book project is The Origins of the American School Building: Boston Public School Architecture, 1789–1860.

This article represents part of my larger book project, which explores why, in 1847, Bostonians developed the graded school, which divides students by age and ability into small, individually taught classrooms. This model is so ubiquitous and familiar within the United States that it is difficult for many to envision that there were ever alternatives. Yet the graded school was not inevitable, and the first half of the nineteenth century was a time of widespread experimentation with school organization. In order to understand the success of the graded school, it is important to understand what problems Bostonians thought it solved and what drawbacks the alternatives presented. The failed reforms of 1830-1832 represent a clear snapshot of both the problems Bostonians perceived and the drawbacks of one alternative reorganization.

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Guest Post: Nicholas L. Syrett on the History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

Nicholas L. Syrett is associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and the author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities. He is writing a book on the history of minors and marriage in the United States and, with Corinne T. Field, coediting a volume on the significance of chronological age in American history to be published by NYU Press.

Writing the history of young people marrying in the United States, especially from a legal perspective, has largely meant focusing on the beginnings of marriages, and occasionally on their first year, during which time parents, married children, and various government officials and judges wrangled over their validity.  Indeed the article that I published in the JHCY focuses on the moment that legal minors married and how those marriages contested their status as children.  None of this, however, tells us all that much about how these youthful marriages actually turned out.  The fate of their marriages was, however, the focus of marriage and divorce reformers of the late nineteenth century, social workers of the early twentieth, and many social scientists of the mid-twentieth century.  And while the statistics became more reliable the further we get into the twentieth century, about one thing almost all of these groups agreed: youthful marriages were much more likely to end in divorce.

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Guest Post: John E. Murray on Mary Grainger and the Charleston Orphan House

SHCY member John E. Murray, J. R. Hyde III Professor of Political Economy, shares this biographical sketch of Mary Grainger, one of the rich stories from the Orphan House records that informed his latest book, The Charleston Orphan House.

The Charleston Orphan House was the first public orphanage in America, founded by ordinance of the city council in October 1790. Several thousand children passed through its doors and the organization continues as a child welfare agency to the present. Throughout childhood, a variety of documents by and about particular children accumulated—some written by parents or guardians, some by masters, and some by Orphan House officials—and are now safely held in the Charleston County Public Library.

These records yield hundreds of biographical sketches of rather ordinary children. As a potential source of historical evidence about young members of the working class, roughly between the Revolution and the Civil War, I believe this collection is unsurpassed. It is possible that other child welfare archives hold similar riches, at least for the Early Republic period. As an example from the Orphan House records, I describe a bit of the young life of one girl, Mary Grainger, whose story does not appear in my recent book, The Charleston Orphan House (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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New Book: Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914

From SHCY member Simon Sleight (King’s College London): Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914. Ashgate Studies in Childhood, 2013.

From the publisher:
Baby booms have a long history. In 1870, colonial Melbourne was “perspiring juvenile humanity” with an astonishing 42 per cent of the city’s inhabitants aged 14 and under—a demographic anomaly resulting from the gold rushes of the 1850s. Within this context, Simon Sleight enters the heated debate concerning the future prospects of “Young Australia” and the place of the colonial child within the incipient Australian nation. Looking beyond those institutional sites so often assessed by historians of childhood, he ranges across the outdoor city to chart the relationship between a discourse about youth, youthful experience and the shaping of new urban spaces. Play, street work, consumerism, courtship, gang-related activities and public parades are examined using a plethora of historical sources to reveal a hitherto hidden layer of city life. Capturing the voices of young people as well as those of their parents, Sleight alerts us to the ways in which young people shaped the emergent metropolis by appropriating space and attempting to impress upon the city their own desires. Here a dynamic youth culture flourished well before the discovery of the “teenager” in the mid-twentieth century; here young people and the city grew up together.

Review:
“‘Marvellous Melbourne’, a precocious new world city of the late nineteenth century, is the site for this rich and acute study of how young people carved out their own spaces in the urban outdoors. Simon Sleight draws on a remarkable range of sources to illuminate the subversive perspectives of Melbourne’s youth. The book contributes to the burgeoning international scholarship on young people’s historical experiences, and is recommended reading for historians, geographers and sociologists alike.”—Stuart Macintyre, University of Melbourne, Australia

For more information, see the Ashgate website: http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&title_id=&edition_id=11456&calcTitle=1.

New Book: Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India

Ruby Lal, Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), xviii plus 229 pages. ISBN: 978-1-107-03024-4.

Publisher’s Description of Book:

In this engaging and eloquent history, Ruby Lal traces the becoming
of nineteenth-century Indian women through a critique of narratives
of linear transition from girlhood to womanhood. In the north
Indian patriarchal environment, women’s lives were dominated by
the expectations of the male universal, articulated most clearly in
household chores and domestic duties. The author argues that girls and
women in the early nineteenth century experienced freedom, eroticism,
adventurousness and playfulness, even within restrictive circumstances.

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SHCY Sessions at American Historical Association Meeting

SHCY will sponsor or co-sponsor four sessions at the upcoming American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans, January 3-6, 2013.

1. Freedom as Work, Freedom to Work: Childhood and the Meaning of Independent Labor in U.S. History
Friday, January 4, 2013
10:30 AM-12:00 PM
AHA Session 91

2. Many Lives, Many Places, Many Stories: Spaces of Childhood in Early Modern Spain
Friday, January 4, 2013
10:30 AM-12:00 PM
AHA Session 94

3. Fighting for the Future: American Social Reformers, Race, and Nineteenth-Century Institutions for Children
Friday, January 4, 2013
2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Society for the History of Children and Youth Session 3

4. Feeding Tomorrow’s Citizens: Conflicts and Negotiations over Food for Children in Twentieth-Century North America
Sunday, January 6, 2013
11:00 AM-1:00 PM
AHA Session 271

For full descriptions, visit:

http://aha.confex.com/aha/2013/webprogram/Symposium1305.html .