Victorian Children


The Children of Victorian Parents



Believing that their sons and daughters could rely on a rosy future, and wanting to equip them to drive its maximum benefits, Victorian parents subscribed to ST. NICHOLAS,  and other children's magazines. A mainstay for two generations, ST. NICHOLAS serialized works by some of the nation's foremost writers - among them Louisa May Alcott (EIGHT COUSINS), Frances Hodgson Burnett (LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY), Mark Twain (TOM SAWYER ABROAD) and Rudyard Kipling (RIKKI TIKKI TAVI from THE JUNGLE BOOK). Such celebrated poets as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Louis Stevenson also were commissioned to write verse specifically tailored to its young audience. In this exploding periodicals market, competition was fierce for both circulation and advertising. Dress patterns and other innovative promotions such as CHROMOS, the nineteenth-century version of posters, were offered as subscription inducements. Hungry for color and culture, Americans signed up by the thousands. By 1890, there were 3,000 periodicals in print in the United States, and advertisers were spending $300 million to get their message across.

 Picking blackberries, dabbling toes in a sleepy brook, playing cat's cradle and rolling hoops, weaving clover necklaces and blowing a wish on a dandelion - such were the pleasure of Victorian childhood. And no one caught the gossamer threads of this innocent world, its simplicities and solemnities, like Kate Greenaway, artist, author, illustrator, fashion designer. Her enchanting poems and wide-eyed children in Empire-style gowns, wide sashes and breeches were the JEUNE MODE of two generations. Reading aloud was a national pastime. Poetry, nonsense rhymes, limericks, mysteries, adventure stories were read to and by old and young alike, Picture books - the sentimental, poignant, dewy-eyed children of artist Maud Humphrey, the whimsical, detailed calligraphic illustrations of Walter Crane - were read again and again. BABES OF THE YEAR, a lavish picture book of winsome toddlers, was an instant success when published in 1888. It's author was Maud Humphrey, and for the next twenty years her fat-cheeked children would peer with sweet innocence from advertisements, children's books, calendars and greeting cards. In the 1880s publishers generally preferred women illustrators, believing that they understood children best and had childlike minds themselves. Maud Humphrey certainly did not have a childlike mind, nor was she particularly close to her three children. She was strong-willed and determined - more respected than loved, according to her son, Humphrey Bogart.

 Parents took their children seriously, sparing neither rod nor love. Rules were clear-cut, infractions punished swiftly, but Victorian children were also doted on by an entire world of nannies and nursemaids, a retinue of aunties, cousins and grannies. They were dressed in Lord Fauntleroy velvet breeches and Alice-in-Wonderland pinafores; given elaborate parties; smothered with too many toys; petted, fawned over, adored. Children's parties were often as elaborate as the ones their elders gave for themselves. Tea parties for as many as fifty guests were not unusual. After dancing, games and magic lantern show, children dined at tables set with white linen and silver. Tea, sweet cakes, ices, and fresh fruit in season were served on the family's best china. 

While Victorians passionately espoused education, they were less passionate about paying for it. Teachers had to make do on meager incomes; even governesses were paid a pittance, their annual salary roughly equaling the cost of a mistress's daytime frock. In the little red school-houses that dotted rural America in the 1800s, education was often primitive. Slates, hornbooks and learning by rote were the teacher's tools, and pen and paper if the school district was rich enough to provide them. For rewards, pupils received merits of excellence in punctuality, diligence and deportment - attributes that were highly valued by the new industrial economy. Schoolhouses were built every six square miles, the distance a child could comfortably walk round-trip in one day. The school year was pegged to farm work: children got out of school in May for spring planting and did not return until after fall harvest. School marms came and went with rapidity. Often boarding with a local family, a teacher had little privacy, but sufficiently good visibility to meet a suitor well beyond the six-square-mile range. She was expected to be in good health, neat in dress but not fancy; gentle-mannered and resourceful in the face of discomfort, which could include snowstorms, poison ivy or chilblains. On sunny days there were picnics, games of hide-and-seek, marbles and skipping rope in the schoolyard, declamation contests and box suppers to raise money. In its small way, the schoolhouse was a minor hub of life for the families who lived within its nesting area. 

From Victorian Scrapbook by Cynthia Hart, John Grossman and Priscilla Dunhill









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by Maud Humphrey