A Visit to Merry's Museum; or, Social Values in a Nineteenth-Century American Periodical for Children, by Pat Pflieger (1987-2006)

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Chapter I: Robert Merry and the World
Bob Merry telling stories

In February, 1841, with the first issue of Robert Merry's Museum, first appeared Robert Merry himself: a peg-legged bachelor in his fifties, fond of children and eager to share with them the knowledge and experience he had gained in his years of traveling the world. Between 1841 and the Museum's last issue in 1872, though he would not stay a seaman, a bachelor, or even one-legged, Merry would remain about the same age and would retain his love of children and of teaching them about the world. These were explosive years for the United States, which endured a civil war and periods of economic confusion, expanded its borders across the continent, and saw its population expand many times. The magazine changed as well, reflecting the tastes and interests of each of the three main editors who had charge of it, and reflecting, too, the changing attitudes nineteenth-century Americans held toward their children and their children's literature.

Peter Parley
Peter Parley

Works cited in this section:

Betty Longenecker Lyon. "A History of Children's Secular Magazines Published in the United States from 1789-1899." Diss. Johns Hopkins, 1942.

Dorothy Dechert. "The Merry Family: A Study of Merry's Museum, 1841-1872, and of the Various Periodicals that Merged with It." MA thesis. Columbia University, 1942.

Madeleine B. Stern. "The Persistence of New England Transcendentalism: James P. Walker & Horace B. Fuller, Transcendental Publishers." Imprints on History. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1956.


Merry and his Museum were the creations of Samuel Goodrich, already famous as Peter Parley for lively, didactic fiction and non-fiction. Irritated by imitators and plagiarists seeking to capitalize on Parley's popularity, Goodrich had killed off the old gentleman and perhaps thought to start anew with Robert Merry. Goodrich already had edited the first few issues of the 16-page, biweekly Parley's Magazine in 1833, before ill health forced him to resign (Lyon, 109-11); now he took on the task of editing a 32-page monthly magazine full of pictures, stories, poems, songs, and articles on natural history, geography, and human culture. Writing as Robert Merry, Goodrich often directly addressed his readers -- collectively and individually -- and thus quickly created a bond between them and the imaginary editor. The magazine seems to have been popular almost immediately, attracting good reviews from its first issue (Dechert, 142) and 12,000 subscribers by February, 1843 (Dechert, 141). Plagiarism -- that sincerest form of flattery for the nineteenth-century magazine editor -- also occurred: in 1848, Merry castigated the "imitators" who used articles and illustrations from the Museum without credit, and the publishers of a rival periodical whose agents told would-be subscribers that the Museum had ceased publication ["Merry's Museum and Parley's Playmate United!" 16 (July 1848): 4]. It wan't long before the Museum began to absorb its weaker rivals: at the end of 1842, the Youth's Medallion merged with the Museum; in July, 1845, Parley's Magazine was absorbed; and in July, 1848, The Playmate's merger with the Museum was announced (Dechert, Figure I; "Merry's Museum and Parley's Playmate United!," 16 (July 1848): 4). Goodrich edited the Museum until 1854, at which time S. T. Allen, who had purchased the magazine in 1852, took over.

In 1855, Allen gained two new partners: brothers Isaac C. and John N. Stearns, who published the magazine together after Allen left in November, 1855 (Dechert, 166). After Isaac moved to Minnesota in 1856, John was the primary editor. The Panic of 1857 caused the mergers of two more periodicals with the Museum: in April, Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet, and, in November, The Schoolfellow. For the most part, these mergers meant adding subscribers to those periodicals to the list of subscribers to the Museum, and the Museum's subscribers now numbered around 20,000; this number remained traditional until the late 1860s, though subscribers to the Cabinet and the Schoolfellow may not have re-subscribed.

Between 1856 and 1866, the bond between Robert Merry and his readers was made even stronger than before, with much give-and-take occurring in "Merry's Monthly Chat with His Friends" -- a letters column which at times threatened to engulf the magazine. The readers and the editors saw the "Chat" as an imaginary parlor in which they sat and "conversed" with each other through lively, revealing letters; and they saw themselves as one large family, with the editors as the uncles and aunt, and the readers as the "Merry cousins." The imaginary parlor became a real one at the end of 1865, when the Cousins met in a "Merry Convention" at the home of John Stearns; having exchanged photographs and worn special, identifying badges, the Cousins saw the meeting as a chance to cement their special relationships with each other and their magazine. The "Chat" retained its significance through the Civil War, though, as may be expected, the southern Cousins took no part.

The importance of the "Chat" did not change when the magazine was purchased in 1866 by Eugene Fales -- a clerk in the Museum's offices who caught the Cousins' imaginations when he escaped from a Confederate prison and, in true romantic fashion, ended his adventure by marrying one of the magazine's readers in Stearns' parlor.

All this changed when Horace B. Fuller purchased the Museum in 1867 and appointed Louisa May Alcott as editor, beginning in January, 1868. Now, the "Chat" no longer published letters from its young readers; instead, the column contained improving letters by Alcott herself, and by other adults. The format of the magazine changed as well: it now numbered at least 40 pages and boasted a new cover; and, the first issue of 1868 was numbered volume 1, number 1 of a new series. Alcott edited the magazine until early in 1870, when chronic ill-health forced her to resign her position and travel to Europe. Who edited the periodical after this is impossible to determine; perhaps it was Fuller himself. Subscriptions seem to have fallen off by this time, to around 10,000 from 1869 to 1872 (Dechert, 141). (This isn't as many as it seems; Dechert publishes statistics for four other popular periodicals for the same years: Oliver Optic's Magazine averaged about 20,000 subscriptions each year; The Nursery, 30,000; Our Young Folks, around 40,000; and the Youth's Companion [now coming into its own] -- climbed from 50,000 to 82,000 [Dechert, xxix].) Though the Museum had survived the fire that destroyed its printers in 1860 and the one that destroyed its own offices in 1861, it did not survive the Boston Fire of 1872, which seems to have ended Fuller's career as a publisher (Stern, "Persistence," 58). The same month as the fire (the announcement is dated "November 1, 1872"), the Museum was quietly -- and without much explanation to its readers -- merged with the Youth's Companion.

Bob Merry telling stories
Goodrich
Goodrich
Stearns
Stearns

The magazine's guiding spirit during its 32 years was, of course, Robert Merry himself. The Museum's editors traditionally took on his persona and made their announcements in his name. As an editorial technique, his creation was inspired: he was someone whom the young readers could identify with their periodical, and for many -- especially in the early years -- he was a real person to be visited whenever they were in Boston and to be addressed affectionately as their "Uncle Merry." In Merry's voice, editorial pronouncements lost their hard edges; the editors' repeated pleas for subscribers in arrears to pay their money became personal entreaties from Merry not to let him and the other editors go hungry ["Chat," 30 (Sept 1855): 89]. His personality permeated the magazine. Merry's personality changed over the years, as each editor came and went. Under Goodrich's editorship, Merry was a distinct personality with a checkered past: having led an undisciplined youth, he had spent time in prison before going to war (fighting in the War of 1812 -- as Goodrich had) and, finally, retiring to New England to live the quiet life of an old bachelor. When Stearns took over, he gave the old man his own children and his own personality; though Merry always had taught the evils of alcohol, now -- like Stearns -- he belonged to the Sons of Temperance and rallied with others on behalf of the cause. The one-legged Merry pictured on the magazine's first cover by now had two legs (he'd inexplicably found a new leg in 1844); and, when readers were sent a picture of the editor in 1862, Robert Merry had John Stearns' face. When Alcott took over in 1868, however, Merry became an anonymity. A crispness entered his personality, though his love of children and of a good, moral tale remained. The Merry whom Alcott and later editors presented to their readers was a nonentity as likely to scold as to praise, with no discernible history or personality. Though he had been for Goodrich a way to communicate with his readers, now Merry was simply a name on the cover and at the head of his monthly "Chat." After the Museum was absorbed by the Companion, Merry survived into the 1880s only as the supposed editor of collections of puzzles and rhymes which had earlier appeared in the periodical.


Woodworth

Cutter

Fitch
Sue
Newbould

Merry did not edit the magazine alone, and, as the years passed, the others fared better than he. Having killed off Peter Parley before the Museum's first issue, Goodrich resurrected him in 1845 to serve as "a regular assistant. ["To Readers and Correspondents 10 (Aug 1845): 256]" Readers were privy to chats between the two imaginary old gentlemen and were encouraged to address both in their letters. Whether or not Merry and Parley always represented two different people in the Museum's offices is impossible to discern; but eventually Parley's character seems to have been associated with Goodrich, and Merry's with someone else. Parley's character was absent from the magazine after Goodrich went to Paris to be United States Consul, and, when the magazine's owner -- S. T. Allen -- went to France in 1854 to discuss the magazine with Goodrich, it was announced in the Museum that Merry was going to Paris to consult with Peter Parley ["Chat," 27 (May 1854): 157]. With the first issue of the Museum under Stearns' editorship in 1857, Merry announced that Parley had left "to flourish in a larger sphere" and would not longer be associated with the Museum ["Chat," 33 (Jan 1857): 27]. Other editors soon took his place. In 1854, with Merry off to France, "Hiram Hatchet," sharp of wit and of repartee took charge of the magazine, and he stayed on after Merry returned. The imaginary Hatchet seems to have been the persona of the very real William Cutter, sometime poet and part owner of the magazine (Dechert, 161, 166). He was joined in his editorial services by "Aunt Sue," the kindly and matronly character assumed by Susanna Newbould, a wealthy New York matron fond of riddles and word puzzles who edited a puzzle column in Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet and came to edit the same column in the Museum after the Cabinet merged with it (Dechert, 165). Though "Hiram Hatchet's" contributions to the Museum gradually ceased (Cutter died in 1869), "Aunt Sue" continued to edit her column until January, 1871, as well as an occasional column of anecdotes, puns, and tidbits of information called "Aunt Sue's Scrap-Bag." Other editors also came and went. Francis Woodworth, who had founded and edited Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet, appeared in the Museum's pages -- as he had in the pages of the Cabinet -- as "Uncle Frank" until his death in 1859. After William A. Fitch became associated with the Museum in 1862, he, too, began to contribute and comment, as "Uncle William" (Dechert, 170), though not for long. In 1870, an "Uncle Miles" appeared briefly, though who he represented is undetermined (Dechert, 196). Though these minor editors contributed much to the magazine, the primary editor of the Museum always seems to have taken on the role of Robert Merry. All the editors were popular, and all eventually were pictured in the magazine, in engravings sent to subscribers when they renewed: Merry in 1850, Peter Parley (perhaps Samuel Goodrich) in 1859, Uncle Frank in 1860, Aunt Sue in 1862, Stearns as Merry in 1863, Hiram Hatchet in 1864, and Uncle William in 1865. (The portrait of "Robert Merry" that was published in 1850 may have been of Samuel Goodrich; the portrait I own appears as the frontispiece in a copy of the 1853 volume. It's certainly the portrait referred to by a reader of the Museum in 1851.) The last six engravings were collected in one volume in 1867 and offered to readers for 25 cents. (The volume is currently unidentified.) These portraits undoubtedly added to the readers' sense of the Museum's editors as personal friends.


Works cited in this section:

"Address Before a Sewing Circle." The Ladies' Repository (Cincinnati) April 1867: 198-201.

John B. Boles. "Jacob Abbott and the Rollo Books: New England Culture for Children." Journal of Popular Culture 6 (1973): 507-528.

Lynn A. Bloom. "'It's All for Your Own Good': Parent-Child Relationships in Popular American Child Rearing Literature, 1820-1970." Journal of Popular Culture 10 (1976): 191-8.

William E. Bridges. "Warm Hearth, Cold World." American Quarterly 21 (Winter 1969): 765-779.

Century of Childhood. A. Rochester New York: Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, 1984.

Jan Cohn. "The Civil War in Magazine Fiction of the 1860's." Journal of Popular Culture 4 (1970): 355-82.

John G. Crandall. "Patriotism and Humanitarian Reform in Children's Literature, 1825-1860." American Quarterly Spring 1969: 3-23.

Ruth Miller Elson. Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.

J. Merton England. "The Democratic Faith in American Schoolbooks, 1783-1860." American Quarterly 15 (1963): 191-99.

Lois Fink. "Children as Innocence from Cole to Cassatt." Nineteenth Century Winter 1977: 71-5.

Barbara Finkelstein. "Casting Networks of Good Influence: The Reconstruction of Childhood in the United States, 1790-1870." In American Childhood, ed. Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. pp. 112-152

T. W. Higginson. "Children's Books of the Year." North American Review Jan. 1866: 236-49.

T. W. Higginson. "Murder of the Innocents." Atlantic Monthly Sept. 1859: 345-56.

R. Gordon Kelly. Mother Was a Lady. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Joseph F. Kett. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. NY: Basic Books, 1977.

Anne L. Kuhn. The Mother's Role in Childhood Education: New England Concepts, 1830-1860. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1947.

"Ladies' Commission on Sunday-school Books, The." Old and New May 1870: 709-12.

Stanley W. Lindberg. "Institutionalizing a Myth: The McGuffey Readers and the Self-Made Man." Journal of American Culture 2 (Spring 1979): 71-81.

"The Literature of Our Sunday-Schools." Hours at Home 10 (1870): 293-300; 450-59; 558-67.

Betty Longenecker Lyon. "A History of Children's Secular Magazines Published in the United States from 1789-1899." Diss. Johns Hopkins, 1942.

Anne MacLeod. A Moral Tale. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, The Shoestring Press, 1975.

Daniel R. Miller and Guy E. Swanson. The Changing American Parent. NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1958.

Mary Noel. Villains Galore...: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1954.

Samuel Osgood. "Books for Our Children." Atlantic Monthly (1865): 724-35.

Mary E. Quinlivan. "Race Relations in the Antebellum Children's Literature of Jacob Abbott." Journal of Popular Culture 16 (1982): 27-36.

Daniel T. Rodgers. "Socializing Middle-Class Children: Institutions, Fables, and Work Values in Nineteenth-Century America." In Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective, ed. N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Robert Sunley. "Early Nineteenth-Century American Literature on Child Rearing." In Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, ed. Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfenstein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Bernard Wishy. The Child and the Republic: The Dawn of Modern American Child Culture. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1972.

Youth's Companion, ed. Lovell Thompson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

During the thirty-two years of the Museum's existence, it wasn't the only thing to change. The nation's attitudes about children and about their literature changed as well. At the beginning, children were equated with raw material, to be shaped into good citizens of the republic through proper educational methods and proper messages in their literature; by the Civil War, children were seen as entities in and of themselves, to be kept separate and sheltered from the adult world and gaining maturity at the cost of their own innocence. This change in attitudes fueled a change in the literature provided for children. Always a force of socialization, literature shifted as the overt didacticism of antebellum children's literature gave way in the 1860s to a more covert didacticism couched in works emphasizing entertainment. This shift was prevalent not only in novels intended for children, but in their periodicals; and the emphasis here moved from religion to more secular concerns, and then to entertainment. This period saw new competition for children's books and periodicals in the rise of the dime novel and the family story paper, and authors, editors, and publishers seem to have responded in kind.

Put simply, the child who was to become an adult in the period before the Civil War had become the child who was to redeem the adult by the period following it (Wishy, 85). Seventeenth-century Americans had seen children as creatures born in sin and eager to exercise their sinful free wills; the child's character was already formed, and it was up to the parent to break this immutable and stubborn little will and make the child recognize its own natural tendencies toward evil (Heininger in Century, 2; Calvert in Century, 60; Wishy, 11). As the eighteenth century began to consider sin more in terms of individual failing than primordial curse, adults began to see children as beings whose characters could be re-formed and molded into the proper shapes; this idea was reinforced by John Locke's theory of the child as a tabula rasa to be shaped as the parent saw fit (Heininger in Century, 2). The change wasn't universal, however; see, for example, Francis Wayland's treatment of his rebellious toddler in "A Case of Conviction," printed in 1833. For the most part, however, by the 1840s, children had begun to be viewed as beings with a natural tendency toward wickedness who could, nevertheless, be influenced through proper methods (Wishy, 18, 21). Sinful the child may be, but the parent -- not just the sin -- influenced the child's future character, and the parent's job was to "weed out" sin rather than break the child's will (Wishy, 23). Child-rearing became a rational process, and parents were encouraged to believe that with the proper methods they could produce the proper individual: discipline and reason, with love, would result in an individual of good character (Wishy, 42; Miller and Swanson, 7; Sunley, 151). Nothing was too insignificant to be essential to the future character of the child. Thus, parents were encouraged to toilet-train their children early, for discipline of bodily habits was basic to discipline of the mind and spirit, and the child was to learn early obedience to its parents (Miller and Swanson, 7; Sunley, 157). Play, once considered a manifestation of the child's depraved nature, now was seen as natural, though it was to be channeled so as to teach the child usefulness and virtue (Heininger in Century, 6). The central parent in child-rearing was the mother, not only because it was assumed that she would have the most contact with the child, but because by this time she already had been "enthroned" in her role as inspiring angel of the household (Kuhn, 35). Home -- which came to be viewed as a warm, nurturing retreat from the outside world (Bridges, "Warm") -- was considered the proper environment for the child's early years. Though the apprenticeship system of the eighteenth century, which had taken children outside the home to be educated, did not really decline until the 1880s (Kett, 145-52), from the beginning of the century, adults were concerned with providing special environments in which children could be influenced and educated in a protected environment: educators and reformers sought to "purify the environments of the young, to withdraw them from debasing community temptations, and to immerse them in networks of good influence." (Finkelstein, 177) Gradually, the home came to be considered the appropriate place for children in their early years, a gently nurturing place where children would be safe in the family circle; when the children were age 6, the schools -- equally protective, equally pure, and equally nurturing -- were to take over (Finkelstein, 118-30).

Training the child properly was essential, for the future of the republic depended on the character of its citizens. Responsibility in the republic lay with each individual, so the morality of each was paramount; Horace Mann warned in 1845 that

... if we do not prepare children to become good citizens; -- if we do not develop their capacities, if we do not enrich their minds with knowledge, imbue their hearts with the love of truth and duty, and a reverence for all things sacred and holy, then our republic must go down to destruction as others have gone before it; ... (in Heininger in Century, 10)

Growing concern about urbanization and industrialization also made proper training and education of children important, for adults were fearful that traditional virtues and values were being swept away in a rapidly-changing society (Heininger in Century, 3; Wishy, 77-8).

The ideal product of this careful, rational nurturing was a child who was "at an early age a self-maintaining moral being" (Sunley, 162). Self-discipline was an important character trait throughout the century, but now it was linked with an active conscience and an awareness of all the events of daily life (Heininger in Century, 4). In a world where an individual's every ideal and impulse was intrinsically either moral or immoral (Wishy, 111), parents were to form a being with an active conscience and a certain tendency to introspection, for only by weighing each action before it was taken could an individual be certain that it was correct (Heininger in Century, 4; Wishy, 56). Self-disciplined and able to govern her emotions, the child also was to be naturally obedient to parents, to other adults, and to God (Finkelstein and Vandell in Heininger, 77-8; Heininger in Century, 4). The character traits of the winner of a contemporary board game -- "Mansion of Happiness" -- were those of the winner in life as well, as were the attributes of the loser:

Whoever possesses PIETY, HONESTY, TEMPERANCE, GRATITUDE, PRUDENCE, TRUTH, CHASTITY, SINCERITY, HUMILITY, INDUSTRY, CHARITY, HUMANITY OR GENEROSITY, is entitled to advance ... toward the Mansion of Happiness. Whoever possesses AUDACITY, CRUELTY, IMMODESTY, OR INGRATITUDE, must return to his former station and not even think of Happiness, much less partake of it. (in Heininger in Century, 8)

(That the game is almost impossible to win reinforces a notion that the correct way to live is difficult, but ultimately rewarding.) Independence also was prized -- though not at the price of the child's obedience -- as was "usefulness," and children were encouraged to "[b]e ever ready to deny yourself in all needful ways that you may make others happy, and that when you die, you may feel that you have not lived in vain." (in Wishy, 25)

As the century proceeded, attitudes toward children gradually changed. In works on child-rearing and in periodical literature, the innocence of childhood began to be emphasized, and adults began to alter their expectations not only of what the child should be like, but of what should be expected of him. Concern began to be felt that children should not be overburdened by responsibility or by overwork, and "precocity" -- whether intellectual, social, or sexual -- became anathema (Finkelstein, 125). (See also Samuel Goodrich's take on the subject in "Precocious Children."] The author of what may be a satirical piece in 1856 blamed modern luxuries and "school-room steam-press systems" for the "deterioration" of physical stature among contemporary children: the acceleration of learning forced mere boys "to accomplish more processes in the text books of the sciences, than [had] ripe scholars of the past"; and the result would be that "each succeeding generation will grow 'beautifully less'. Mountains will become mole-hills; mole-hills, atoms; till the souls of mankind are completely disembodied." (Talmon) Teachers were urged not to overburden their pupils with study (Heininger in Century, 16; Wishy, 70).

By the late 1850s, children were seen as naturally innocent, enthusiastic, and loving, and adults were encouraged to appreciate them for what they were rather than for what they would become. Beginning in the 1830s was an emphasis on the loving aspects of God, and a growing idea that not only was moral righteousness the most important human attribute, but that a loving heart could lead one to salvation; and, as a result, the child began to be valued for its naturally-loving character (Heininger in Century, 11). Though some authors of periodical literature still emphasized the child's natural depravity ("Address"), most writers viewed children as founts of innocence, sweetness, and spiritual inspiration. Taken by the "summer region of childhood," they wrote in terms of the child's "pure associations, which for many are the sole light that ever brings them back from sin and despair to the heaven of their infancy," her "reveries of innocent fancy," and her "moments of priceless idleness, saturated with sunshine, blissful, aimless moments, when every angel is near" (Higginson, "Murder," 354-5). The "artlessness" of childhood was valued and was associated with the "artlessness" of nature; paintings of children often put them into sunshiny rural settings (Heininger in Century, 14; Fink, 72). Childhood was associated with freedom, especially for nineteenth-century women, who often equated puberty with the loss of liberty (MacLeod in Century). Though in earlier centuries the child was viewed as someone who improved as she got older, now, the maturing process became one of a loss of innocence (Calvert in Century, 60).

Especially popular after the Civil War was the image in child-rearing manuals of the child as a "tender bud" to be gently nurtured rather than forced (Bloom, 192), and parents were urged to develop the child's natural propensities for goodness. The parent was to take into account the special nature of the child in decisions regarding him: "No longer were children blank slates awaiting parental and societal chalk. Rather, embedded in the nature of childhood were special needs for parents to discover and act upon." (Heininger in Century, 16) Manuals encouraged parents not to expect too much from their children and to take into account their lack of maturity and experience; children were to be regarded as individuals with behavior peculiar to them because they were children, and their faults were to be blamed not on a natural tendency toward wickedness, but on immaturity. Though obedience to parents -- along with the rest of the traditional code of conduct -- was still of primary importance, parents were urged to be more lenient in their use of authority (Wishy, 96-8; Miller and Swanson, 5). Play was to be encouraged, for it was a natural activity for children and would lead them to become "wiser & better": "instead of grafting the child's pleasures onto the greater good of moral and academic instruction, the youngster's innate propensity for play came first; learning was secondary and would follow naturally in time." (Heininger in Century, 16) Crawling, viewed as "animalistic" by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century adults, was in the 1870s finally accepted as a natural, and even endearing, activity (Calvert in Century, 35, 44).

As the period proceeded, there was a growing separation between children and adults, in their lives and their concerns. Regarded as individuals unspoiled by the world and in need of special environments to keep them that way, children and their world gradually came to be seen as separate from the rest of humanity. Representations of children in art emphasized a sense of timelessness and isolation, outside "the real world of causal events" (Fink, 71); and a stylized formula emerged which emphasized the child's cherubic physical qualities (Heininger in Century, 23-4). Special furniture designed especially for children not only served to restrict their movements but to isolate them further from adults; a child safe in a special crib or high chair, or using specially-sized eating utensils, did not require as much direct supervision by parents (Calvert in Century, 43-4; Heininger in Century, 19). Children began to be referred to in nonhuman terms, as "pet," "kitten," "bunny," "lamb," and a host of other small and innocent creatures (Heininger in Century, 15). A widening split gradually developed between the duties children could perform and the duties considered important in adult life (Heininger in Century, 21), and parents were urged not to push their children into adult decisions and adult roles by "consulting" with them about dress or other matters (E., 366-7). By the 1870s, children were seen as completely separate from the rest of humanity, powerless, decorative, unspoiled beings who did not mix with the rest of the world, characterized as "gems and treasures, pets and plants -- anything but people." (Heininger in Century, 26) At the beginning of the century cherished for what they would become, by the end of the century, children were so valued for what they were that they were isolated from adult life as much as possible.

The change in attitudes toward children triggered a change in their literature as well. Throughout the century, children's books and periodicals were considered a force for socializing the child, but the early emphasis on didacticism slowly shifted in favor of entertainment. Tales of adventure became popular for boys -- though never without moral content -- and equally-moral domestic novels for girls became prevalent. A flurry of story papers and dime novels -- deplored by most adults -- threatened to bury "respectable" literature for children, and fantasy novels -- though not as popular in America as in England -- began to appear.

Before the 1860s, didacticism reigned supreme in children's literature. In calm, reasonable, and measured tones, authors presented to their young readers calm, reasonable, and measured works which taught the joys of self-control and submission, and the evils of ambition and discontent. There was a certain soberness about these works, for "[r]eading was considered a serious matter, and children's books were expected to be above reproach." (Kelly, Mother, 92) So influential was literature considered to be that "[o]nly books that imparted 'useful knowledge' and 'strengthened character' were considered appropriate for young minds." (Boles, 514) No distracting fantasy or high adventure was allowed, and works were grounded in reality so that the reader could more easily apply the lessons therein to real life (MacLeod, 41), and so the child's intellect would be tied to truth instead of to distracting and impractical fantasy (Wishy, 52). Often bluntly stated, the lessons each work was supposed to teach were readily apparent to their readers and so important that even the irreproachable Jacob Abbott -- whose young creation, Rollo, has become symbolic of his age -- felt the need to defend himself to adults perusing Rollo's Travels because the moral code wasn't baldly stated:

The parent, who may ... take up this volume, will find, that in this ... there are many pages in which there is no direct effort made to convey moral instruction. It does not follow from this ... that the perusal of the pages may not exert a considerable influence, of a salutary character, upon the mind of the child. (Abbott, n. p.)

Rollo, as perfect companion to his readers, was to be contagious, and children were to emulate him by "catching the spirit of docility and gentleness which exhibits itself in his conduct and character." (Abbott, n. p.) Works such as Samuel Goodrich's Peter Parley books led his young readers through foreign lands and the history of the world via works like The Tales of Peter Parley about Africa, The Tales of Peter Parley about Asia, Parley's Tales about Ancient Rome. with some Account of Modern Italy, Parley's Tales about Ancient and Modern Greece, and Peter Parley's Tales about the World. Parley also taught his readers about botany, wild animals, astronomy, and the Bible. However, for the most part, moral education took central importance, possibly because moral education seemed more necessary in a society with few certainties either in morality or in daily life (MacLeod, 26-8; Rodgers, 124). Moral education also was more important than was intellectual education in a republic, where the moral character of the citizens had serious repercussions in the governing of the nation. (MacLeod, 25-7, 39-40). In fact, moral education imbued all of children's fiction before the 1860s, for "the chief target of fictional instruction was the moral character of the young" (MacLeod, 24). As he traveled the world, Peter Parley laced his geography lessons with comments on moral conduct; Jacob Abbott's Rollo, as he grew up, wrestled with the problems of obeying, being polite, and controlling his emotions, as he provided the reader with an example of good behavior from which to learn. The few fairy tales, like those collected in Mrs. E. Oakes Smith's The Moss Cup, were presented more for the morals they taught than for the entertainment they provided.

The moral code presented in literature for children was immutable and absolute; presenting in textbooks and fiction a moral universe where all had meaning, the authors provided their readers with moral certainties (Elson, Guardians, 338; Wishy, 61; MacLeod, 137). In works for children, all in life was to be judged in moral terms, for in God's universe people and their actions were inherently moral or immoral (Elson, Guardians, 338; Wishy, 61), and all ethics and morals came from God (Elson, Guardians, 339). As a result, literature before the war was fairly uniform not only in purpose, but in moral structure (Kelly, Mother, 92; Wishy, 66). Of central importance in children's books was individual character, for life was a trial, and youth a time to prepare for adulthood (Wishy, 58). Works of literature presented to its readers a world that was threatening and impermanent; even in the circle of family and home, the world was imperfect and life was unreliable: death could alter everything, and one's happiness and fortune were impermanent; charity and social institutions were poor and uncertain refuges from the horrors of poverty (MacLeod, 55-67). Thus, it was up to the individual to be self-reliant so as to be independent of events (MacLeod, 67-8, 91-2). Moderation and self-control were primary, for the first sin was the beginning of a downward path (Wishy, 57). The ideal was a child who controlled her emotions, intent on living up to her parents' standards, on developing a conscience sensitive to all she said or did, and on internalizing a rigid set of moral standards (MacLeod, 76-81; Wishy, 56). Impulse became anathema: "Child readers drawn into such stories found idleness locked in war with industry, desire set against patience, grandiose daydreams in contest with sober, everyday duties -- all the temptations of impulse pitted against a code of habitual self- control." (Rodgers, 123) Rollo discussed with his father all temptations to excess or improper emotions and was encouraged to reflect rationally on all that befell him. Sober, obedient, selfless, and submissive, the child in the storybooks was grateful to his parents and aware that his goal in life was to be "useful" to others (MacLeod, 71-5, 86). He also was to avoid such sins as selfishness, ambition, and discontent with where God had placed him economically and geographically (MacLeod, 84-5). Children's books concerned themselves with duty rather than excitement (MacLeod, 41), and the child was to do the same.

Literature for children reflected, too, a world where America represented all that was good, a nation under God's special care (Elson, Guardians, 341-2; Boles, 521; England, 196). Though poverty existed, it wasn't the fault of the economic or social system, but of the poverty-stricken individual (Crandall, 5-6). The best anyone could do for the poor was to give them charity, for which they were to be properly grateful, and through which lay their only chance to help themselves; for those with means, charity was a duty (MacLeod, 99-100). In a nation where all -- farmers, laborers, or merchants -- were moral and good if they worked hard (MacLeod, 94-5), one was to be content with one's station in life and not desire to be above where God put him: "Know thy place" was more important than "Know thyself" (Lindberg, 74). Few social issues made their way into these works, for few were uncontroversial enough to be safe; the temperance issue and anti-war sentiments were always deemed safe enough to argue in children's books (MacLeod, 104-8). However, slavery wasn't. Few works for children dealt with the subject (MacLeod, 116); Jacob Abbott, though anti-slavery, dealt, not with the institution, but with race relations (Quinlivan). Attacks on slavery -- few as they were -- ceased in the early 1850s when tension in the nation began to get grim; writers switched to pleas against sectionalism, urging their readers to consider compromise (Crandall, 17).

In the 1850s, there were the beginnings of a loosening in children's books; moral advice was more deeply buried in stories that were more exciting than before (MacLeod, 188). Characters became more emotional -- from the parents, who had been models of reason and calm, to the children; and sentiment and emotional attachment were emphasized in family relationships (MacLeod, 127-9). The works themselves were more sentimental and emotional (MacLeod, 132). Such moral but sensational popular literature as weekly story papers began to find their way into the hands of children -- who were not the original audience, but who were recognized as part of it; and it wasn't long before they had story papers of their own (Noel, Villains, 217-19).

The 1860s saw a veritable explosion in children's books, and for the first time entertainment surged to the fore, though moral lessons still provided the structure. Authors were cognizant that children -- though to be envied their innocence and enthusiasm -- were still adults-in-training and needed to be taught about the duties of life and about correct social behavior (MacLeod in Century). However, stories with amusement and adventure as their primary features began to gain acceptance and were published by the score. Beadle's dime novels apparently led the way in 1860 with the popular Malaeska, by Anne Stephens (which was reprinted from a much earlier gift annual), and Seth Jones, by Edward Ellis. While not originally intended for children, these little works in salmon-colored covers soon found a place in the pockets of boys who eagerly devoured the adventures -- especially of Seth Jones, the quintessential Indian-slaying frontiersman. At about this time, a split began between works aimed primarily at boys and works aimed primarily at girls, with tales of action and adventure on the one side and family stories of domestic life on the other. "Oliver Optic" [William Taylor Adams], whose "optical delusions" Louisa May Alcott deplored in Eight Cousins, began issuing his boys' adventure novels in 1858, and it wasn't many years before adventures by John Townsend Trowbridge and Horatio Alger were published and found almost immediate success. In 1863 was published the first of the amazingly-popular Little Prudy series, by Sophie May [Rebecca Clarke], which was aimed primarily at an audience of girls. Four years later, Elsie Dinsmore began her soggy saga in the first of 28 volumes by Martha Finley; and, of course, in 1868 was published the first half of the classic work for girls: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.

This period saw the publication of other works, too, which appealed to both boys and girls. Fanny Fern began to write for children in 1857; and Hans Brinker; or. The Silver Skates was published in 1865 by Mary Mapes Dodge, whose stories already had delighted the readers of the Museum. Fantasies and fairy tales, such as Jane Andrews' The Seven Little Sisters Who Live on the Round Ball that Floats in the Air (1861), Una Savin's The Little Gentleman in Green (1865), and Mary Mann's The Flower People (1865) also began to appear; the American publication of Charles Dodgson's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 spurred the publication of a few works of fantastic fiction, though the genre did not gain much acceptance in America until the twentieth century. Such groups as the Ladies' Commission on Sunday-School Books deplored the exciting, sensational literature many children read, blaming even "thrilling" Sunday-school novels for children running away from home (Literature/ Sunday-Schools," 458) and bemoaning the "plethora" of literature available, calling "promiscuous" reading "unwholesome" ("Ladies,'" 710). However, other reviewers celebrated the change: "We have ceased to think it the part of wisdom ... to insist upon making of [children] little moralists, metaphysicians, and philosophers," wrote one (Osgood, 725); "It is not very long since that all the juvenile books seemed conducted in the principle of definition of duty, 'doing what you don't want to,"' wrote another, "for the books that were interesting were not considered good, and the 'good' ones were certainly not interesting" (in Kelly, Mother, 7); and a reviewer of the children's books of 1866 sighed with nostalgia, remembering earlier works, but emphasized that children really needed a mixture of fancy with their fact and implied the importance of adventure novels by giving "the first place" in the review to works of this sort (Higginson, "Children's").

In all these works, the moral code traditional in antebellum works still operated, though with some exceptions. The importance of religion, of hard work, of generosity, and of selflessness were still stressed; but there was a decreased emphasis on introspection and self-control. Anger and emotional outbursts were considered inappropriate; and characters such as Alcott's Jo March and Alger's Ragged Dick learned to curb their impulses to anger and extravagance. However, though the protagonists in works of this period learned a certain amount of moderation in action and emotion, the deep, detailed introspection of earlier works like Abbott's Rollo books was missing. The tone of these works was different, too. There was a new lightness, and humor was as emphasized as more serious concerns. The children in these works were portrayed more realistically than were children in works of earlier years. The hero of Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy revelled in his mischief; the protagonists of Hans Brinker and of Little Women were sometimes petulant and quick of temper; Alger's Ragged Dick was rough-talking but good-hearted. Though the child-protagonist of earlier years was valued for her restraint, the heroes of the later period were more impulsive -- and more successful because of it (Rodgers, 125, 127). Realistically portrayed, the children in these works made mistakes but -- unlike the protagonists of earlier years -- they could recover from them: while in earlier works wickedness often led the protagonist to ruin, now mistakes simply paved the way to a clearer understanding of herself and to a strengthened character. Important themes in these works included the loveable, but erring child, the pure child misunderstood by those around her, and the pure child whose example redeemed those around her (Wishy, 93). Probably because the moral certainties in works of the past had not proved to be the key to the utopian future adults had envisioned, they were muted, and social problems were now blamed less on faulty individual morality than on the society which caused them (MacLeod, 138). This lack of moral certainty and the emphasis on entertainment, however, seem to have bred a new tension in children's books: one between the demands of instruction and of entertainment. Children were to play, but they also were to build character. They were to be self-reliant, but were urged to look to the home for what they needed in life. Above all, they were not to upset the traditional social order by trying to imitate the heroes of sensational literature (Kelly, Mother, 103-6). Such works did not "refine" the senses as did "good" literature (Kelly, Mother, 95), but "threatened to upset the balance and self-discipline that formed the psychological core of the gentlemanly ideal" -- that ideal of restraint, morality, honor, fortitude, temperance, and courtesy promoted by the authors and editors of children's periodicals. Sensational literature "excited" the reader into activities "threatening to the gentry definition of social order." (Kelly, Mother, 93) Literature could teach the child independence, but it wasn't to make him "precocious" and eager to get on with life.

These changes in children's books were true for children's periodicals as well. Periodicals for children have a long -- if somewhat uneven -- history in the United States, beginning in 1789 with the Children's Magazine. Though this offering lasted only four issues, other periodicals soon followed -- and succeeded, or, more often, failed -- in large numbers. (See the bibliography of periodicals begun before 1873 at this site.) For the most part, periodicals published before 1841 echoed children's books in a devotion to soberness and to an emphasis on religion. Education, narrowly defined, was of great importance, and, beginning with the Children's Magazine, almost every periodical devoted itself in some way to the "instruction and amusement of youth." (Lyon, 21-2) Anonymous articles on natural history, biography, astronomy, geography, and history abounded; Parley's Magazine even provided lessons in drawing and exercise (Lyon, 22-3). But, most instruction was devoted to religion; the Youth's Companion, founded in 1827, was much different from what it was when it folded in 1929, for its emphasis at the beginning was mainly religious, as its prospectus shows:

The contents of the proposed work will be miscellaneous, though articles of a religious character will be most numerous....Its several departments will comprize [sic] religion, morals, manners, habits, filial duties, books, amusements, schools, and whatever may be thought truly useful, either in this life or the life to come. It will, of course, be a constant advocate, and we hope an efficient helper, of Sabbath Schools, Bible Classes, and the various means which are in operation for forming the characters of the rising generation on the standard of the Bible. (Youth's, 1124)

The most important protagonist in the pages of these periodicals seems to have been "children lisping hymns as they expired at the tender age of six" (Lyon, 28); even Parley's Magazine couldn't resist printing a macabre little poem in which a young boy hears angels as he dies in the cold grip of his dead sister, not far from the cot where lie his dead mother and her dead newborn (Mrs. Larned, "The Dying Boy," 7 (Jan 1839): 12-13).

The Museum represents the different emphasis in periodicals published from 1841 to 1865. Though the stress on didacticism remained, there was a decrease in "religious morbidity," and the dying, virtuous child was replaced by the child preparing for a successful life: "Emphasis was not so much on preparing children for an early death, as on teaching them how to live successfully." (Lyon, 157) More important was emphasizing the importance of education, hard work, honesty, and obedience (Kelly, Mother, 6). Articles in the periodicals were more polished than before, for there was an emerging "appreciation of the importance of a literature designed for children" and of the labor involved in producing it (Lyon, 155-7). Articles were more likely to be signed, for editors understood the value of a famous name in the periodical's pages; and "writers hard pressed to make a living were provided with an additional market for their work." (Kelly, Mother, 7) The reader, too, gained new importance, as letters columns sprouted in such periodicals as the Museum and Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet. Such columns allowed readers personal communication with the editors and allowed them to scold -- and to be scolded (Lyon, 160-1).

After the Civil War, the emphasis in periodicals shifted -- as it did in children's books -- to entertainment. Improvement of the printing process made more, and cheaper, periodicals possible, and the number of periodicals made available to children increased dramatically. Secular concerns -- which had become more important before the War -- now predominated, though there were many religious magazines; one, The Juvenile Instructor, founded in 1866, is still being published, albeit with a changed name. (The Sunday School Journal and Advocate of Christian Education has the next-longest history, having run from 1830 to 1967.) There were many specialized magazines, for farmers' children and for the very young, as well as a multitude of amateur publications (Lyon, 252-8). Dozens of dime novels and cheap pulp periodicals earned not only the children's allowances but the approbation of adults (Lyon, 258-68). Though didacticism was buried in tales of excitement and adventure, a moral code was still in force, and "high standards of conduct were inculcated indirectly in the better magazines, while even the pulp magazine stories always had the villain receive his just deserts." (Lyon, 269) Though many periodicals -- such as Our Young Folks and Riverside Magazine for Young People, -- were associated with publishing houses, most of their editors were associated with a sort of well-educated, gentry elite which saw in these periodicals an opportunity to mold the next generation according to a "code of the gentleman" which emphasized "maintaining social order under democratic conditions" and stimulating "a sturdy self-reliance without threatening the stability of the community." (Kelly, Mother, 11, 31, 51-2) Despite its outward emphasis on amusement, action, and entertainment, the periodical for children still sought to control its readers and teach them what adults felt they needed to know about the world.

Throughout its lifetime, the Museum reflected the attitudes in the world around it and changed its emphasis to reflect the new patterns in childhood and in children's literature and periodicals. Everything from the anti-Catholic tenor of the times to the nation's pride in its progress and itself found voice in its pages. As America was the symbol and the bastion of freedom and of democratic perfection in the textbooks and works of fiction aimed at children, so it was a beacon of hope for the oppressed in the Museum. Temperance is a recurring theme not only in the children's books of the time but in the Museum as well. Slavery, rarely mentioned in children's books before the 1850s and dropped in favor of pleas against sectionalism thereafter, is mentioned only once or twice in the pages of the Museum, and only during the 1840s; even during the Civil War, slavery is noted only as an evil which was distant in place and time. The War itself is treated in the Museum much as it was in other magazine fiction of the same time. At the beginning of the conflict, stories for adults which dealt with the war used it mainly as a device to create tension and featured the "absorption of pseudo-war materials into the pervasive form and tone of the sentimental romance." (Cohn, 362, 356) In much the same way, the War provides background tension in "Philip Snow's War," serialized in the Museum during 1863; as the War, its battles unrealistically described, mostly served as plot device in adult stories, so here, too, it serves mostly as a way in which the protagonist can prove his superior virtue and find the father who abandoned him, in suitably dramatic surroundings.

Most importantly, however, the Museum reflected the changes in children's literature and in attitudes toward children. During its history, the magazine passed through three distinct stages: under the influence of Samuel Goodrich, from 1841 to 1856, the Museum emphasized education appropriate for the young citizen who would inherit a great republic and concentrated on presenting to its readers the broad range of the entire world from which they were to learn; under the editorship of John N. Stearns, from 1857 to 1867, the magazine emphasized education for the young soul intent on heaven, and the scope of the Museum's world-view narrowed to the concerns of home and the family; and, under the influence of Horace Fuller and Louisa May Alcott, the Museum shifted its emphasis to entertainment, with lessons well concealed by excitement and humor. To some extent, these stages represent the interests and concerns of the changing editors of the magazine; but, just as much, they represent a shift in children's literature itself, and in what adults thought a child should concern herself with. In its early years, the magazine placed great emphasis on moderation in all things from emotions to actions to religious thought, as did children's books; the ideal character in both children's books and the Museum was introspective and self-controlled, able to recognize and restrain inappropriate actions and emotions. As did other children's periodicals of the 1840s and 1850s, the magazine emphasized secular virtues more than religious ones, though the code of moral conduct was tied to an emphasis on God and Christianity. The shift in children's literature toward entertainment did not really penetrate the Museum until Fuller -- perhaps more commercially-oriented than Stearns -- purchased the magazine. Exciting tales like "Mink Curtiss," humorous stories like "How a Good Dinner was Lost," and fantastic fiction like "Jedidiah's Noah's Ark" still taught their readers a code by which to live, but the morals of the pieces were de-emphasized in favor of their entertaining qualities. By this time, religion was no longer the panacea it had been in earlier years -- in either children's books or the Museum. Religion was still the source of morals and virtue, but loyalty to God no longer guarantees peace of spirit: Elsie Dinsmore, in the novel of the same name, suffers for her spirituality, and the good do not necessarily prosper in Horatio Alger's Bound to Rise (Wishy, 87- 90, 86-7); in the Museum, an author apologizes for presenting a praying hero in "Knocking About," and the power of religion is down played in favor of the power of journalism in the first of a series of articles entitled "Our Great Powers."

The image of children in the Museum changed as attitudes toward them changed in society. While children were regarded as beings to be urged into adulthood as soon as was plausible, the heroes presented in the Museum were white males older than the readers, living enviable, active lives in the broad world. As perceptions changed, and the child was valued more for itself than for what it would become, the heroes of the pieces were, for the most part children themselves, struggling with the duties and responsibilities of life and providing inspiration for those around them. The child's innocence and sweetness was emphasized; the epistolary lectures of Robert Merry, traveling through Venice, are upstaged by a precious letter written by his six-year-old niece ["Uncle Robert's Letters," 55 (March 1868): 108-111]. Children inspire adults to spiritual purity in works like "Mike Smiley" and "Little Jamie". The child's circle of influence and action were narrower now than formerly -- not just in life, but in the Museum as well. "Precocity" in social matters and matters of fashion were frowned upon in the real child and in the fictional child of Alcott's "An Old-Fashioned Girl," serialized in 1869. It was, perhaps, with an eye to squelching "precocity" that the editorial decision was made in 1868 to stop printing letters and pieces sent in by the Museum's readers; but, this decision also points up the widening split between what children could do and what was considered important in adult society that prevailed at the time (Heininger in Century, 21). Safe and protected at home, real-life children were to be content to stay there, according to adults: Robert Merry's last essay in the "Chat" urges boys not to emulate the adventures of Dr. Livingstone [62 (Nov 1872): 240]; and the perils of running away are detailed -- and subtly mocked -- in Charles Barnard's "The Voyage of the Salt Mackerel," in 1872.

Goodrich could not have known that his creation would outlive him when he invented Robert Merry in 1841; and he might not have recognized the magazine he founded when it was absorbed by the Companion in 1872. But, in change, perhaps, lay the key to the Museum's success. Outlasting most of the other antebellum periodicals, the Museum reached what -- for a children's periodical -- is a ripe, old age not just because it inspired fierce loyalties from its readers, but because it was able to incorporate new attitudes and ideas into its pages. Its history is not just the history of a periodical, but the history of its times.


Chapter Two: Robert Merry's Readers


Copyright 1999-2006, Pat Pflieger