Designing Modern Childhoods: History, Space, and the Material Culture of Children.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Cunningham, Hugh
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Designing Modern Childhoods: History, Space, and the Material Culture of Children (Essay collection)
Persons: Reviewee: Fass, Paula S.; Gutman, Marta; de Coninck-Smith, Ning
Accession Number: 209577964
Full Text: Designing Modern Childhoods: History, Space, and the Material Culture of Children. Edited by Paula S. Fass, Marta Gutman and Ning de Coninck-Smith (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2008. xvi plus 346 pp. $24.95).

This exciting collection of essays, cutting-edge in research and wide in scope, opens up in new ways the relationship between modern childhood, material culture and uses of space. Multi-disciplinary in approach--there is a particularly welcome involvement of architectural historians--and handsomely illustrated, Designing Modern Childhoods is an indication of how much work has already been done, but, equally important, it will surely be the stimulus for much more. For historians, a narrative of childhood since the later nineteenth century emerges. Central to it is the theme illuminated by John Gillis, in an Epilogue which readers might well want to treat as a Prologue, the islanding of children. Gillis argues that adults have not only contrived a world in which children live in islands cut off from the adult world--homes, schools, summer camps, and so on--but that they have also invested huge emotional capital in the notion of an ideal childhood. In the middle-class world, first of all, and then in missionary endeavours to spread the idea to the working class and to the undeveloped world, adults tried to separate out the child and adult worlds. Summer camps, children's hospitals, playgrounds, open-air schools were all ways in which this separation took material form, and they crossed national boundaries with ease. Of course there were other forces at work in these initiatives and developments: women, who had often started children's hospitals as homelike places where sick children could learn moral values, were replaced by male doctors who put much more emphasis on medicine; fear of tuberculosis was the inspiration for the founding and design of open-air schools which flourished from the early twentieth century up to the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s. But whatever the complex histories reveal about processes, the outcome was always that children were separated out. Family life, of course, was always messier than an emphasis on institutions might suggest. A close-up study of an upper-class family in Montreal shows little differentiation in household design or lived practice between adults and children--indeed in the absence of a mother a fourteen-year-old girl was the central figure, knitting together different generations.

Schools were the buildings that were in the most clear-cut way islands for children. But for the adults who designed them, they normally had purposes that stretched beyond childhood. Studies of early republican Turkey and of northern Senegal in the late twentieth century emphasise the place of schools in the landscape. In Turkey, built to a common design, they were a symbol of a modernising and secular nation. In Senegal they were intended after the droughts of the 1980s to provide an education for the children of herdsmen, but herding, with intensive use of child labour, was a more reliable route to riches than any amount of education, and the schools stand largely unused as a symbol of how intentions can be frustrated. The same was in part true of the Rosenwald schools for African Americans in the southern States, some 5000 of them across fifteen states and built to a common design. Each came equipped with space for vocational training, but neither parents nor children wanted anything to do with this part of the curriculum. A rather more subtle attempt to mould children was evident in what started in Scandinavia as junk playgrounds, and became adventure playgrounds when they reached Britain. Set up on bomb sites, and heralded as instruments of reconstruction of both children and society, they placed much emphasis on children taking control--but always with the guidance of a play leader whose role, it is argued, was to give children the illusion that they were free.

One message of the essays is that the islands of childhood were always invaded by the concerns of adults. In apartheid Johannesburg, white children in their early years formed close bonds with their African nannies, only to learn from adults, by the time they were six, that there were imperatives in their society that required the breaking of those bonds. But adult wishes were not always dominant. Children could circumvent them or use things to their own purposes, as is very manifest in a group of essays that explore children as consumers and actors in the contemporary world. Close studies of the micro-culture of street-girls in Indonesia, of present-giving in north London, of children's behaviour in McDonald's in Sweden, of the subculture of snow-boarding in Norway, and of the media for children in Japan, show how spaces, not only on the ground but also in the imagination, are used creatively and often at odds with the intentions of those who think they are in control. If these studies may seem at a distance from the concerns of social historians, some are historically grounded, and all raise questions, and point to approaches, that will be valuable for historians.

Children, Gillis argues, should rejoin the mainland of society. In many ways they have already done so, or, as the Japanese study shows, adults have invaded the islands of children. It is this threat to the late nineteenth-century project of separating out children that alarms so many commentators. Designing Modern Childhoods, with its emphasis on the material world, adds a new dimension to our understanding of that project, and to its worldwide scope. It also shows how children are co-agents in the creation of spaces where adults have often imagined they exercise exclusive control.

Hugh Cunningham

University of Kent
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.