Saturday, September 17, 2016

Time Traveling to 1909 Through The Youth's Companion

This week in INFO 268 History of Youth Literature, we are looking at the history of juvenile series and one activity involves exploring a historical children's magazine. As our professor makes good use of jigsawing, each student only needs to focus on a particular journal and issue. For me, this happens to be the February 11, 1909 "Lincoln and Washington" edition of The Youth's Companion.

Personal Note: I picked this issue since my mom's birthday is February 11th!

Advertisements as a Window into the Times

As described in the magazine itself, "The Youth's Companion is an illustrated weekly paper for all the family."

Given the context of our current times, it is hard for me to imagine children enjoying a publication like this today; but then again, reading the scanned magazine makes it clear that life was quite different then. What illustrates this best to me are the advertisements. Here are just a few.

Kellogg Corn Flakes! Here is a product that is still around today,
but the "sweetheart of the corn" is long gone.

You sure don't find ads today with children polishing stoves! I also love how they highlight:
"It is absolutely safe for a child to use - not inflammable or explosive like some inferior so-called liquids"

This is just the top portion of a full quarter page ad about a vacuum cleaner.
There are seriously a lot of ads related to cleaning products.

Prophylactic has a whole different meaning today.

The early version of Cutco knives sales?

This pen ad most reflected the theme of the issue by highlighting that the company's
"Quarter Centennial Anniversary" just so happens to coincide with the
"Centennial Birthday" of Lincoln, "the emancipator of a nation's slaves."

The advertisements provide an interesting backdrop for the main content. This reminds me of a listserv message that I recently read (I can't find it again!). A teacher wants to study magazine advertisements, but the online databases with magazine content only provide standalone article text. This is an interesting point that sometimes we may think about information as simply what is conveyed through words without considering the impact of layout and the context of the overall publication.

Oh, The Variety of Content

Ads aside, the content in The Youth's Companion spans a wide range of topics and forms, from fictional stories to short news blurbs and scientific updates. To give you an idea of the array, here are a few snippets that I found amusing.

This article gives serious attention to the technology of the umbrella.

It is newsworthy that flat-top desks are surpassing roll-top desks,
and even back then, the Fourth of July prompts safety warnings about explosives.

Discussion regarding the death penalty hasn't necessarily progressed much today.

While the magazine largely features shorter informational writings, it opens with a more substantial headline feature, which is chapter ten of Homer Greene's eleven part serial "A Lincoln Conscript." The author does not spare any drama, starting off the piece - and thus also the entire issue - with graphic detail. In the first paragraph, the character Bob Bannister is described with his scalp "torn loose."

Later in Greene's piece, after Lincoln has been shot, the president's body is described as an "unconscious burden" and he dies.

As this is the tenth installment of the serial, I am now curious to know what happened in the previous nine parts and how it ends!

Evidence of Existing Cultural Norms

Throughout the magazine, cultural values of the times present both a striking contrast with today, as well as eery parallelism. 

As if the ads were not telling enough with women doing all of the cleaning, the articles echo rigid gender stereotypes. In "A Life-Preserver," it is asserted that "one of the tragic facts of life" is "the midde-aged, untrained woman suddenly left without means of support." These women are labeled a "melancholy, struggling army of the unfit" and their position in life is deemed to be a "catastrophe." 

The "pathetic" woman is meanwhile contrasted with what is being considered to be the ideal in articles such as "Just Like Teacher." In order to be successful, all that a girl has to do is "marry a man that'll always have a steady job. And when I'm cookin' and washin' dishes I'll be smiley in my eyes all the time, just like my teacher."

The idealized female teacher is also portrayed in the short story "Maddalena Bottesini American" by Mabel Nelson Thurston. In this piece, the model American teacher is to be "worshiped" by her subordinate - and "dirty" - immigrant students, which include Italian American Maddalena.

Patriotism is extolled through a lesson about taking good care of the American flag.

And, in fact, proving oneself patriotic is celebrated, even if the results are one's own tragic death, as is the case with little Maddalena.

Cultural stereotypes may also be seen in the editorial piece "Slaves of Superstition." While the authors opens with an acknowledgment that some people of the times promote religious tolerance, he warns "against this easy theory" in favor of what he considers to be the "facts" of "the honest student of civilization."

The author uses fear tactics, suggesting that it is common that Hindus engage in a "frightful ceremony" of burning wives alive with their dead husbands. Although, what is perhaps most telling is the emphasis on equating anything that is "unchristian" as being "unscholarly." 

One final clipping that I'll share is a news brief regarding anti-Japanese bills in California. As a Japanese American living in California, this immediately caught my eye. I am used to finding information about Japanese in America during World War II, but it was interesting to see this antecedent from 1909.

It could be easy to read these clips from the past with judgment. However, as much as I'd like to hope that our American society has progressed in terms of being more open-minded, this recent political season has generated language that is immediately reminiscent, whether demeaning the role of women or setting bars for proving one's patriotic worthiness. If we were to time travel another century into the future, I wonder how our current day may appear just as antiquated.

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