Work hard for a living

I never thought I’d get excited about economic history.  Or economics, in general.  But when everything crashed in 2008, I got interested.  I remember being completely transfixed while listening to This American Life’s podcast about the real estate meltdown (A Giant Pool of Money).  And dumbfounded that I was so fascinated.  I started reading the business section of the newspaper.  And I started subscribing to the Planet Money podcast.

A few weeks ago, they posted the following graphic on their blog–all about “children in gainful occupations” according to the 1920 census.  The timing for this piece was wonderful–at work, we’re currently working on an event where we’ll talk about work at the turn-of-the-century.  We’ve made some exhibit changes over the past few years that make business and economic history much easier to teach.  We will talk about jobs at the General Store, Bank or Hotel, but since this is a family-centered event, I want to make sure that we also talk about children working.  We probably won’t delve too deeply into child labor, but I certainly want to talk about the kids of the past that had to earn money for their family’s (or their own) survival.

So, of course, I turned instantly to kidlit history.  Here are a few examples that I’ll be sharing as part of the pre-visit packet of kids earning money–sometimes for their own purposes and sometimes to help the family.  In roughly chronological order:

Meg and Jo in Little Women.  It’s apparent from the very beginning of the book that these girls need to help their family.  Who can forget those immortal lines:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

In Chapter 4, their work is better described.  Meg, at 16, was a nursery governess for four children.  Jo was a companion for Aunt March, as a companion and helper.

Laura in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.  First, Laura is a seamstress, earning money to send Mary to the blind school.  Later, she becomes a teacher (and has some horrifying experiences!)

Sara in A Little Princess.  When Sara’s father dies, bankrupt, her boarding school could have turned her out on the street.  Instead, they put her to work.  Miss Minchin tells her:

“You are like Becky–you must work for your living.”

To her surprise, a faint gleam of light came into the child’s eyes–a shade of relief.

“Can I work?” she said.  “If I can work it will not matter so much.  What can I do?”

As a child, I don’t think I got how terrifying this situation might have been.  Of course, the magical dinner that appears later might have helped with that illusion.

Perry Miller in Emily of New Moon and Peter Craig in The Story Girl.  There are tons of hired girls in L. M. Montgomery’s fiction–and of course, we know that before Anne found Matthew and Marilla she was working in a household, assisting with the children.  I think it’s really important to remember that not all of the hired boys and girls in LMM’s fiction are as alone as Sara Crewe appeared to be.  Perry had an aunt whom we occasionally see.  But these were still kids that needed to grow up quickly–Perry was only 12 or 13 when he went to work.

Interestingly enough, the divide between the kids who had to work and the kids who just want some extra money lines up  chronologically.  The books mentioned above are set from the 1860s to the 1890s.  The books below are the late 1890s to the 1900s–a sign of how the world was continuing to change?  That may be a bit of a reach, but it is interesting.

Lucinda in Roller Skates.  She wants to throw a proper Christmas party for Trinket, but needs the money to do it.  She finds all sorts of odd jobs with her neighbors–walking a dog to tutoring English.  There’s this lovely exchange, just after Lucinda is offered the dog-walking job:

“How perfectly glorious!  It doesn’t seem right to earn money so pleasantly.  Mama never paid me to do anything except what I positively hated to do.”

“That’s too bad.  I think money ought to be always earned pleasantly.  Think of how much gayer the world would be if everybody went to work in the morning knowing he was going to do something he enjoyed doing all day!”

Amen!

Tom in the Great Brain books.  Oh, Tom.  A pint-sized con man.  He earns money in all sorts of crazy ways–tricking kids and adults.  But, that wonderful chapter about charging kids to see a flush toilet?  Yep, we’re totally borrowing that idea for the event at the Village.  Even cooler?  There’s a story of one of the Sullivan kids doing the exact same thing with “our” toilet.

My goal for all this list was to stick with the museum’s time period of 1840-1910–so no Henry Reed or the Melendys or others.  But these are all such good examples of kids entering into the workforce–sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity.  So often, when we think about the past, we’re using rose-colored glasses.  But so many kids had to work to survive.  It’s a startling thought for many young people, but using these stories is a great way to get started.

And then we can start talking about child labor laws. . .

So, what have I forgotten on my list?  Some friends mentioned Understood Betsy and Five Little Peppers.  I’ve never read the other Betsy, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read about the Peppers.  I was hoping to get a reread in, but I think I’m out of time.  Other thoughts?

Timeless

This year marked the 40th anniversary of my museum’s biggest event of the year, Candlelight.  As part of the anniversary, we created a small exhibit and I researched the history of the event.  One thing that surprised me was how quickly the key elements of the event came together: buildings decorated by community groups, performances by community groups, and candlelit paths.  The core elements of the event are pretty much unchanged since 1972–which is pretty remarkable in this day and age.  And there aren’t many museum events anywhere that last for decades–events have a shelf life.  Audiences change, staff change, sometimes even missions change.  While finishing up this project, I realized that probably the biggest factor that’s led to the longevity of this event is the timelessness of Christmas.  People crave tradition this time of year.

We had a smaller event (the reading list and post about last year’s event) this past weekend which featured Christmas chapters from books set during the museum’s time period.  I read quite a few bits from the Little House books and Betsy-Tacy to guests.  For some little ones, it was their first introduction to Laura and Mary.  Many times during the day, I would read a passage, turn to the visitors and say “Does that sound familiar?”  And they would nod eagerly, their eyes round with wonder.  Though the concept of thinking a very good Christmas was a tin cup, a cake, a stick of candy and a penny is completely out of their realm of imagination, the worry about how Santa would find them is still a big concern for kids today.

Historically speaking, it amazes me how set some of our traditions have been for the past century or so.  Though variations of the legend of Saint Nicholas have been around for centuries, Clement C. Moore’s famous poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,”  wasn’t published until 1823.  And the visual we have of Santa in a red suit with belly and beard wasn’t firmed up until Thomas Nast drew a cartoon in 1863, smack dab in the middle of the Civil War.  (side note: Nast was more famous at the time for his political cartoons, which I find fascinating.  Early political cartoons and Santa, all in one artist!)  During the 19th century, there were enormous changes in how we celebrated Christmas (for more on this, check out Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which I wrote about last year).  But what struck me on this read-through of some old favorites is how these changes weren’t really thought of as new, but the way it’s always been.

Now, historical purists will remind me that the publication dates on these autobiographical novels don’t match the dates they were set, so it’s entirely possible that the attitudes about Christmas better reflect the 20th century than the 19th.  But let’s just ignore that for right now and see what we can find that’s stayed virtually unchanged over the past century and more.  I had thought about typing out some of these wonderful quote and passages for you, but decided that part of the fun is reading the whole chapter.  So, my gift to you is an excuse to pull out an old favorite!

Worry about Santa finding you?  Check out multiple volumes in the Little House series, including Little House on the Prairie (no snow!) and On the Banks of Plum Creek (no chimney!)

The joy of finding the perfect gift for someone?  Take a look at Anne of Green Gables (puffed sleeves!) or Roller Skates (Trinket’s first Christmas tree).

The worry of not being able to give all you want to?  Probably all of the Little House books and Little Women too (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”)

The importance of stockings!  Again, Little House and also the later Betsy-Tacy books.

Hinting about something you want and not trusting your family to get it for you?  Why, you simply must read “The Brass Bowl” in Heaven to Betsy (possibly my favorite Christmas passage in the BT books.)

Food, glorious food?  Well, descriptions are all over the place, but Farmer Boy immediately leaps to mind.  The description of the feast almost takes up a whole page.

The fun of shopping, even if you don’t buy?  Why, go no further than Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, which also includes one of my favorite bits about the importance of believing in Santa, even if you are grown up.

I know I’m leaving out many Christmas classics.  What are some of your favorites?  These stories have so much in common, even if they were written decades ago.  And I think they’re going to last just fine into the future.  Even as time and technology hurries forward, some things, especially emotions don’t change much.

And now I must run to do a wee bit of last minute shopping myself.  Merry Christmas to you and yours.  And happy reading!

Christmas Classics

Though it’s not quite the holiday season yet, I’ve spent much of this morning reading Christmas scenes from various children’s books.  For Candlelight (the museum’s biggest event of the year), I decided to create a pre-visit lesson plan for teachers visiting in December.  And what better way to talk about how holidays have changed in the last 150 years than kidlit history?

As I was finishing up, I realized that some of you might be interested in the selections and discussion questions.  What favorite scenes am I missing?

 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  (set in the 1860s, during the Civil War)

Chapter 1: “Playing Pilgrims” and Chapter 2: “A Merry Christmas”

Times are tough during the war.  The four March daughters decide to spend their Christmas money not on themselves, but on gifts for their mother.  After they share their breakfast, they put on a play—and end up having a wonderful party through the generosity of their neighbor.

 Favorite Quote

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

 Discussion Questions

How did the Civil War affect their Christmas?

What kinds of gifts do the sisters want for themselves?

What kind of surprises happen on Christmas?  How do their plans change?

Was it a Christmas without any presents?

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder  (Set in the 1870s.)

“Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus”

Mary and Laura are worried that Santa Claus will be unable to reach them, since there is no snow and they live so far from other families.  Ma and Pa are worried because they are unable to get Christmas presents.  But Mr. Edwards saves the day!

 Favorite Quote

“They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny.  Think of having a whole penny for your very own.  Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  p. 250

Discussion Questions

Why is the Ingalls family worried about Christmas?

 How is Santa Claus described?  Is it different than the way we describe Santa Claus today?

 What were the presents that Mary and Laura received?

More Adventures of the Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (set in the 1890s)

Chapter 1: “The Night the Monster Walked”

Tom Fitzgerald, aka The Great Brain, has reformed and is no longer tricking his friends out of items.  But in the aftermath of Christmas, he’s up to his old tricks.

 Favorite Quote

“It was the first Christmas parents bought presents for their sons, believing my brother wouldn’t try to connive their kids out of them.”  p. 2

 Discussion Questions

Have you ever tried to be a better kid to get what you wanted for Christmas?

 What reasoning does Tom give for his bet with Parley?  What do you think the real reason?

 What do you think of the reaction of the town to the tracks of the “monster”?

 Do you think Tom and John’s punishment was appropriate?

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace (set in the 1900s)

Chapter 10: “Christmas Shopping” and Chapter 11: “Mrs. Poppy’s Party”

Every year, Betsy and Tacy go shopping and this year, they bring a new friend along.  Christmas celebrations last longer this year, with the addition of Mrs. Poppy’s party.

 Favorite Quote

“You see,” Betsy explained to Winona when they invited her, “we usually make our Christmas presents, or else our mothers buy them for us. . . the ones we give away, I mean.”

“Then why do you go shopping?” Winona asked.

“We go shopping to shop,” said Tacy.

 Discussion Questions

What kind of stores do the girls visit?

 Why do the girls choose to buy an ornament every year?

 How does the Ray family celebrate Christmas?

 How do they continue celebrating at Mrs. Poppy’s?

 Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer  (set around 1900 in New York City)

Chapter 6: “Born is the King of Israel”

Lucinda decides to plan a special holiday surprise for her friend, Trinket.  She takes odd jobs around the   neighborhood to earn money for presents.  And all her friends join them for a party—and Trinket’s very first Christmas tree.

 Favorite Quote

 “It’s the nicest tree I ever had, and it will be Trinket’s onliest up to now.  I do hope you’re as excited about it as I am, Miss Nettie.”  Lucinda spread sugary fingers about Miss Nettie’s neck and said something that surprised them both: “I do love you, Miss Nettie.”  p. 112.

Discussion Questions

How do Lucinda’s neighbors help her in throwing the Christmas party?

How is the Christmas tree decorated?

What kind of traditions does Lucinda have to celebrate?  How are some of those shaped by where she lives?

Why do you think this was such a memorable Christmas for everyone?

General Discussion Questions

Of the traditions mentioned in these stories, what traditions do you also use to celebrate?

 How are some of these Christmases from the past different from your Christmas?

If you read more than one selection, what do these celebrations have in common?  How are they different?  What are some reasons for these differences?

If you could pick one Christmas to celebrate with some of the characters mentioned above, which would it be?

The best presents. . .

I admit it–my favorite part of Christmas just might be presents.  And it’s not so much the receiving (though don’t get me wrong–I do love receiving), but the giving.  It’s the joy in finding just the right thing, something that is more than the sum of its parts, and seeing the reaction when it hits its mark.

Below, in no particular order, are some of my very favorite gift-giving incidents in kidlit history.  Most of them occur around Christmas, but not all of them.  Most of these scenes I first read as a child, and they certainly stuck in my head–particularly the first one. . .

Puffed Sleeves!  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  Anne finally has a group of friends, but Matthew notices there’s something different between her and her friends: she’s not dressed like the other girls.  So, he does his very best to get her a fashionable dress for Christmas, first braving the store (and winding up with rakes and brown sugar) and then enlisting the help of Rachel Lynde.  And Anne’s reaction is wonderful to see:  “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment.  I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress.  I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable.  It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them.”

Why I love this scene:  First, what girl hasn’t wanted something fashionable, only to be denied because it’s not “practical”?  And then, lovely Matthew comes along and does it anyway.  Anne has been so lonely for so long, and Matthew’s gift is so thoughtful.  She was already a part of the family, but this is the first time she gets a gift where others are thinking of what she wants.  Quite a change for an orphan!  And yes, part of me still wants a dress with puffed sleeves.

The feast in A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett).  Though not a Christmas gift, I can’t help but include it.  Sara and Becky are in deep trouble, and the Magic won’t save them.  But they awaken one morning and the attic has been transformed: “In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimon rug; before the fire a folding chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curius wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slipper and some books.  The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland . . . ‘It does not–melt away.'”

Why I love this scene: On the magical level, this is right at the top.  Yummy food and beautiful things!  I am amazed that neither she nor Becky heard a thing, but then, I guess that’s part of the magic.  Another moment where an orphan realizes she’s not alone.  Plus, the makeover of the attic sounds delightful–it’s like an early home makeover show.

Jo’s HairLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Marmee must rush off to tend to their sick father.  Money is tight, and so Jo sells her hair.  She insists it was the best thing to do in the situation, but does confess: “I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table and felt only the short, rough ends on my head.  It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off.  The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep.  I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by; for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”

Why I love this scene:  Yes, Jo makes a big sacrifice for her family.  But the real reason I love this scene is the series of exclamations from her family when she reveals her shorn head.  Best line in the book: “Oh Jo, how could you?  Your one beauty!”  Makes me laugh every time.  And could anyone but a sister get away with that?

The Brass BowlHeaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace.  Mrs. Ray falls in love with a brass bowl and insists that her husband buy it for her.  Mr. Ray keeps insisting that he would never give her such a gift.  The entire family visits the brass bowl and insists that it’s right for Mrs. Ray.  On Christmas Eve, he caves, but the bowl is gone.  Panic sets in.  But on Christmas morning, the brass bowl is there–because Mrs. Ray bought it for herself!

Why I love this scene:  There’s almost a domino effect as each family member becomes convinced that the Brass Bowl is the Perfect Gift.  But Mr. Ray stands strong–until that last minute Christmas Eve panic sets in.  I just love how Mrs. Ray takes matters into her own hands.  It’s a scene that makes me giggle and rings oh so true.  On this reread, I also couldn’t help but love the following lines:   “‘I have no intention of buying it,’ Mr. Ray answered.  ‘I’m going to gie you a personal present, not a house present.’  ‘I love this new house so much that it’s practically me.”  My sentiments exactly, Mrs. Ray.

As You Like It Besty and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace.  “It was proper for a boy to give a girl only books, flowers, or candy.  It would be proper for Betsy to give Joe nothing more.”  And so she purchases the red, limp-leather edition of As You Like It.  Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Tony asks Betsy to the New Year’s Eve dance first, and Betsy and Joe fight over it: “Either you’re my girl or you’re not.”  He tosses her present at her.  She opens it and realizes it is the exact same edition of As You Like It.  “Inside he had written ‘We’ll fleet the time carelessly as the did in the golden world.’ But Betsy knew he had written that before he knew that she was going to the dance with Tony.  She put her face into her hands and began to cry.”

Why I love this scene:  Well, it’s certainly not because it’s as happy and joyful as some of the other gift giving scenes.  But for an old-fashioned romantic like me?  Well, it’s perfect.  Not quite on the level of the O. Henry story, “Gift of the Magi,” it still has to mean something extra special to give the exact same present to each other.  If nothing else, it’s another sign that Betsy and Joe are made for each other.

Trinket’s First Tree  Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer.  Lucinda realizes that her little friend Trinket has never had a Christmas tree.  And one can’t just have a tree–but a party and presents too.  So she works extra hard to earn money in December and invites the whole neighborhood to surprise Trinket.  She is completely captivated.  “There is always one Christmas that belongs to you more than any other–belongs by right of festival and those secret feelings that are never spoken aloud.  This Christmas belonged to Lucinda in that way, and I think it belonged to many of her friends.”

Why I love this scene:  Lucinda is only 10, and it may be a bit hard to believe that she’s so thoughtful.  But I love the way the ornaments are almost all handmade and everyone joins in.  And it’s so easy to imagine the look on Trinket’s face when she first sees the tree.  What magic!  It’s not so much the gift, but the experience–they’ve made a wonderful memory.

Mr. Edwards as Santa Claus Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  No snow and a practically flooding creek means that Santa won’t be able to get to the Ingalls family in time for Christmas.  Luckily, Mr. Edwards meets Santa in Independence and is able to bring the gifts after all.

Why I love this scene:  First, it’s really funny.  When you read again as an adult, you sense the worry that Ma and Pa have that Christmas won’t happen as planned for his kids.  And when Mr. Edwards arrives, the story is told with plenty of ( )s and interjections and questions–exactly the kind of questions any kid would ask about Santa.  For example, when Mr. Edwards says he meets Santa, Laura asks: “‘In the daytime?’ She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime.  No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.”  Giggle.  The presents themselves are simple–a tin cup, peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a penny.  “Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  What puts this tale over the top for me though is Mr. Edwards–that man knows how to tell a story and keep kids believing in Santa.

Originally, I set out to find 10, but at 7, I ran out of steam.  Do you have a favorite scene that I’ve left out?  What is the greatest kidlit history gift of all time?