Saturday, January 19, 2008

where has childhood gone?

the other day while riffling through my box of old family photos I ran across this picture taken in 1910. unfortunately there was no information as to who these kids are or where the picture was taken - since it's a "family photo" the only thing I can surmise is that it was taken in pennsylvania - the area where both sides of my family settled after they arrived from 'the old country. even though I don't know what kid I'm related to in the picture I am none-the-less quite taken by the faces and fashions of the children. I wish had a key to identify the children and some landmark to place the picture - alas there's none. I'm sure whatever grandparent held on to this picture imagined that the pertinent facts would always be known.

this picture relates to a wonderful little exhibit I encountered earlier this week at the 'western reserve historical society' where e works. the exhibit, 'short and sweet: two centuries of american childhood" showcases childhood fashion and clothes. the exhibit draws primarily from the museum's permanent collection but it looked as if there were also some items that were on loan from private collections. the exhibition was quite fascinating and reminds us of the truth in the adage that everything old is new again.

I often hear folks remark about how horrid it is that young children are dressed like 'little adults' - however, little do we realize that this fashion proclivity has been de rigeur off and on for eons.

the exhibit at WRHS presents examples of children's clothes from the late 1700s through the 1940s. the first item in the exhibit was a very posh silk brocade tunic for a toddler which was fashioned to be nearly identical to that of his or her mother (until the 20th century toddlers regardless of sex were pretty much dressed the same - both quite fem!). the tunic was worn over an rigid undergarment made of whalebone and tightened around the child's torso with laces. I've read a lot about wealthy women being subjected to the tortuous conditions of wearing these constricting undergarments, little did I know that children also were subjected to such 'fashions.' the practice of rigid undergarments however, for both children and women was somewhat confined to the wealthier classes. of course for the children of the poor and working classes there were other cruel and exploitive practices going on in the ' good old days' - like unhealthy and oppressive working conditions to name just one!

the exhibition was very educational, sociologically speaking - along with displaying trends and changes regarding clothing it also presented a sampling of toys and pastimes with accompanying commentary on the moral 'guidance' or nature of these artifacts. for example during the 18th and 19th century young girls were encouraged to keep their hands busy with needlework. samplers were a preferred means for young girls to work on their needlework skills. these samplers served a spiritual function where many of the quotes and affirmations which the girls worked on were designed specifically to instill moral virtues. given my own fascination with samplers I found this part of the exhibit particularly fascinating!

if you find yourself in cleveland with some time to kill and are a bit of a history buff, I suggest you check the exhibit out. it is a wonderful display of artifacts detailing the social construction of childhood (fashion) over the last two centuries.

5 comments:

Ladron de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I love the photo and have a number of such mystery prints in our family treasure trove, some going back to my mother's side in Quebec. Sadly, we have none from Europe, but photographs were not exactly common among German-Jewish and French peasants in the middle of the 19th century.

That exhibit is yet another reason to visit Cleveland! The sled makes me want to cry out "Rosebud!".

Reya Mellicker said...

Very cool! Lettuce eating has posted some pics from an exhibit she visited this week as well.

I love it that we can share these wonderful shows with each other. Very cool!

Colette Amelia said...

This is indeed interesting for our little tramps are just mocking what we as a society of older folks are wearing? hmmm what does that say about our taste? bare bellies, slogans on the buttocks, the fcuk label, what in the world will be next? Oh my now I am sounding like a fuddy duddy! And an unfashionable one at that!

Salty Miss Jill said...

Oh, very cool. Say what you will, but I always thought Cleveland had a vibrant arts and history scene. :)

Merisi said...

Very interesting photo and post, thank you (I came over from David's Authorblog).
You may already knowNeil Postman's 'The Disappearance of Childhood', if not, I found it a fascinating read. The link leads to reader opinions at amazon.