Children & changing culture, 1865

The Youth’s Companion went to great lengths to inform its readers on almost every aspect of life, though many pieces tended to be brief paragraphs. These bits scattered through issues in 1865 center on children and on the changing times; and include a piece reminding young readers that they were works in progress.

That some boys had full-time jobs didn’t strike many 19th-century Americans as a problem; often they were seen as young businessmen acting on their ambitions. The “Keen Retort” below, however, is a rather complex piece with a variety of points: it contrasts an ideal of childhood—in which the child has plenty of leisure and keeps early hours—with the reality factory children faced—long work hours and no leisure at all; it pits a view of children as needing the nurturance of adult guidance against the boldness of a boy who knows he must fend for himself; and it chastises the adult for setting long hours in the mill, for acting on an overblown sense of his own importance, and for not remembering who is primarily responsible for his “standing.” And it shows a clever child getting back at an unreasonable, bombastic adult. Readers who worked in the mills probably enjoyed seeing “one of their own” getting in the last word.


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“Negro Quickness to Learn” (from The Youth’s Companion, February 23, 1865; p. 31)

The eagerness of the blacks, young and old, to acquire a decent education, is remarkable, and is, indeed, one of the signs of the times. Freedom, with all its attendant privileges, is as much a discovery to them (so suddenly has it come) as was Californian wealth or the oil deposits of Pennsylvania. The emancipated blacks gather and settle around the spelling-book with as much avidity as prospecters settle around a gold-mine, and the rapidity with which they master its knowledge is as much a wonder as it is a shame to idle pupils who have been favored from infancy with free schooling and do not value it. An exchange says:

There are more scholars of African descent in Nashville than of the other race, and they are learning the rudiments of an education with surprising ease and rapidity. A little nine-tenths African urchin, not over five years, was passing our door two days since, and seeing a hospital library just unpacking, asked if he could have a book. He was promised one on condition he would read it. He stepped up, took off his hat, put himself on a line, brought his book to the proper elevation, with chin out, and started off, pronouncing with proper emphasis, and without hesitation, the longest words, and, to all appearance, understanding what he read. I do not believe there are ten boys in New England, of his age, that can do it as well—not one who can do it, as this boy has, in nine months’ training.


“A Keen Retort” (from The Youth’s Companion, July 20, 1865; p. 116)

Rather keen and suggestive was a repartee made the other evening by a little fellow in a Pittsfield, Mass., barber-shop. A gentleman of standing, and an owner in one of the factories, came in, and, impatient at being delayed, while two boys had their hair cut, remarked that “Little boys ought to get their hair cut in the day time, and go to bed in the evening.” “Yes,” replied one of the juveniles; “but little boys who have to get up in the morning at five o’clock and work in the mill till seven at night, must get their hair cut when they can.”


“Simple Gratitude” (from The Youth’s Companion, August 10, 1865; p. 128)

An aged woman was seen kneeling outside of the school-house at Port Royal. “Why don’t you go inside, aunty?” said one of the teachers.

“O bless you, honey! I’m too old to learn; but I’ve got a grandchild in there, and I’m just praising God, outside here, for the chances she’s got.”


“ ‘Shine Yer Boots?’ ” (from The Youth’s Companion, October 19, 1865; p. 167)

A gentleman communicates to the New Bedford Standard the following praiseworthy instance of ambition, combined with other good qualities, as illustrated in a juvenile boot-black:

While walking at an early hour in the morning, near the great pump in the centre of the encampment, a bright-eyed boy saluted us with the customary morning question,—“Shall I shine your boots, sir?” We pleasantly responded—“You may,” and took our seat to allow him to do so. As the appearance of the lad indicated both intelligence and honesty, we asked—“Well, young man, have you done well while you have been here?” He replied—“I began last Wednesday morning, and last night I sent $25 to Fall River, by a friend, to be put into a bank there for me. I have taken that sum in one week, besides paying my board.” He then added—“From the third of June to the fourth of August I put $100 into a bank there, which I earned blacking shoes, and paid my board besides.” He told us his age was fourteen years, that he lost his father and mother—at reference to whom his eyes moistened with tears—and that he had a little sister ten years old whom he supported and kept at school; and that he attended school himself in the evenings of winter. These statements were confirmed by some gentlemen present who knew him. To cap the whole, he had beautifully painted upon a very neat box, this motto:—“I am bound to shine!


“What an Iron Bar Became” (reprinted from The Child’s Paper; from The Youth’s Companion, October 19, 1865; p. 167)

A bar of iron worth five dollars, worked into horseshoes, is worth ten and a half; made into needles, it is worth $355; made into penknife blades, it is worth $3,285; made into balance springs of watches, it is worth $250,000.

What a drilling the poor bar must undergo to reach all that; but hammered, and beaten, and pounded, and rolled, and rubbed, and polished, how was its value increased. It might well have quivered and complained under the hard knocks it got; but were they not all necessary to draw out its fine qualities, and fit it for higher offices?

And so, my children, all the drilling and training which you are subject to in youth, and which often seems so hard to you, serves to bring out nobler and finer qualities, and fit you for more responsible posts and greater usefulness in the world.—Child’s Paper.

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