J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Were British Children Reading in the 1700s?

Earlier this month McGill University in Montreal shared an interview with Prof. Matthew Grenby of Newcastle University on children’s books of eighteenth-century Britain. Some of those made their way to New England, first as imports and later (especially after independence) as models to be pirated.

Some extracts from Prof. Grenby:
…children’s books from the eighteenth century became so rare that often the collectors didn’t have much choice, and had to acquire copies that children had torn, written on, coloured in, sometimes almost worn out. For the book historian, these are more valuable. They give real insight into the way that children used their books and what they thought of them in the period when children’s literature was being invented.

For instance, sometimes a book’s user pencilled marks into the margins to record their progress though the book. From these we can calculate how long it took a child to read a story, or to complete the tasks in a geography textbook (if indeed they did). Other kinds of ‘marginalia’ give children’s comments on the books they were reading – or record what they were planning to do that afternoon, or what they thought of their teacher or classmates. . . .

A lot of the books also have inscriptions: the owner asserting (sometime very menacingly) his or her ownership of the book.
I’ve seen such inscriptions in copies of the textbooks used in Boston’s Latin Schools. Often a boy wrote out a warning against theft—in Latin. Since I doubt there was really a wave of Latin-reading book thieves, I think those inscriptions signal pride in owning both the book itself and a knowledge of Latin.
What we now know is that, in the first years of children’s literature, more girls owned books than boys, books penetrated all social classes and religions, and that ownership was spread widely in geographical terms. . . .

Morality, and piety, was an important element in eighteenth-century British children’s books. They could be surprisingly relaxed about religious conformity though. A book might talk about how important it was, on Sunday, to go to church, but the author could give the alternatives of chapel, or the Quaker meeting house. Sometimes we have evidence of parents who reacted angrily to this ecumenicalism, crossing out ‘chapel’ and ‘meeting house’ to keep their children orthodox.
The most reprinted book in eighteenth-century New England was almost certainly The New England Primer, a schoolbook for children learning to read. And the reason it had the New England name is that it was tailored for the region’s dominant Puritan faith. A typical edition included a picture of a Protestant martyr being killed in front of his children (example above courtesy of Stanford) and the shorter Westminster catechism. I doubt books suggesting Catholic chapels or Quaker meetings would have been popular here, but perhaps the culture opened up after independence.
We now tend to think of reading as quite a private, personal experience. But in the eighteenth century this probably wasn’t always the case, particularly for children. Children’s books were generally supposed to be read aloud and in company. They were supposed to form the basis of conversation. That’s not just chat, but rather ‘conversation’ understood as a distinct and systematic educational practice. It was imagined that parents or teachers would read the book first, then select certain parts for the child to read over him or herself, probably aloud, followed by carefully directed discussion.

Whether this actually happened much in real life is debateable.
Proper parenting can be exhausting, after all.

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