Childhood isn't what it used to be -- all work and no play

In "Two Children," a portrait by Joseph Badger painted in 1758, the young subjects, although no more than five or six, do not appear to be children at all. They are stiff- backed little figures, swathed head to toe in elaborate silk attire, staring out at the world with solemn, knowing gazes.

But if they do not resemble the modern concept of children, it is only because the modern concept of childhood did not exist in the 18th century. The children in the world that Badger depicted were small adults as tightly laced into a life of hard work, severe discipline, and rigid deportment as they were into their uncomfortable clothes.

Early American portraits of children are poignant records of what it meant to be young in a society quite removed from today's youth-oriented culture. Curators Elissa Cullman and Sandra Brant found them intriguing enough to inspire an important new art exhibit and book (New York: E. P. dutton), both entitled "Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America."

The "Small Folk" exhibit, currently at the New York Historical Society and the Museum of American Folk Art until Feb. 1, consists of paintings, toys, needlework, children's furniture, and other pieces of folk art pertaining to American childhood in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. From New York the exhibit will travel to the First Street Forum in St. Louis, where it will be during March and April. Then it wll go to the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

What visitors to the exhibit see is a stunning presentation of child-related folk art and of how the American attitude toward children evolved from the Puritan belief of infant depravity to the mid-19th-century belief of their innate purity and goodness. So marked was this change that it caused Ralph Waldo Emerson to lament his lot "to have been born into an age when children were nothing, and to have spent mature life in an age when children were everything."

The era when children made the transition from "nothing" to "everything" -- colonial America up through the early 19th century -- is the part of the exhibit at the New York Historical Society. Because toys were rare in this period, this part of the exhibit consists mainly of primitive portraits of children, the work of limners who toured the countryside stopping at farms and offering to paint family or individual portraits. What their work lacked in academic polish, it made up for in originality and charm.

Most of these rare portraits were painted after 1790 when the ideals of the post-Revolutionary War era fostered the unheard of notion that children were worth attention. These paintings show the gradual evolution of childhood. Clothing grew less confining and poses became more natural as little girls were no longer strapped to wooden backboards for hours ensure good posture. The children in the portraits of the early 19th century often clutch playthings or fondle a family pet.

William Bartoll's 1840 portrait of "Boy With Dog" is one of the exhibit's best examples of an emerging benign view of childhood. A boy of perhaps five or six, lovingly dressed in striped trousers and ruffled shirt, sits holding an alphabet book in one hand and stroking the head of his fleecy pet with the other. The attitude of childhood as a time of affection and learning is beautifully portrayed.

In addition to portraits, the exhibit presents, other forms of art created by the children themselves. Needlework was something that every girl who could pick up a needle and thread was required to perfect, usually in the form of a sampler listing her ABC's.

Colorful crib quilts are also on display at the Museum of American Folk art. Many of these tiny quilts were made by the infants' older sisters. Examples of both lively patch- work and fanciful applique of flowers, leaves, and birds are in display. As Cullman and Brant write in the book "Small Folk," "Nineteenth century mothers wisely involved older children in the preparations for the new arrival."

Other objects on display at the Museum of American Folk Art are dolls, doll furniture, wooden toys, and games that illustrate the growing acceptance of play that emerged with the 19th century. In 1705 Cotton Mather had declared that children should not be encouraged to play "lest they should think Diversion to be a better and nobler Thing than Diligence." But just 100 years later little girls would be actively encouraged to play with dolls by a society that believed it would be valuable training for motherhood.

Gradually play for its own sake came into vogue. In the era before mass production many toys were made by parents and sometimes by the children who played with them. Among the toys in the exhibit are a variety of rag dolls, charmingly crude figures sewed and stuffed with whatever a mother's sewing basket would yield. Animals, both wooden and stuffed, were popular toys as well; the collection here includes a beguiling trio of three stuffed cats made from silk stockings and cotton with button eyes and embroidered mouths.

The variety, scope, and quality of the "Small Folk" exhibit stems from a six-month journey throughout the nation during which Elissa Cullman and Sandra Brant searched for artwork for their exhibit, often knocking on the doors of private collectors. "About a third of what we found is from New York and a lot is also from New England," says Mrs. Cullman. "But we would travel as far as California to obtain a specific object."

The two curators also spent a good deal of their three-year project in the library. As a result their book goes beyond being a beautifully illustrated catalog of the exhibit and can stand on its own as a work of insight on American childhood. "A lot of what we found came through reading children's diaries," recalls Mrs. Brant. "Coming from our child- centered society, we were quite shocked to see how children had been regarded. Most of the diaries make dull reading as it was rare that a child would mention playtime. They wrote about what they did most of the time -- work."

Despite the grim aspects of what they discovered, the two curators are not convinced that childhood today is entirely better than what it was. "Yes, it is true that children have come a long way," says Mrs. Cullman. "They have come from being regarded as inherently evil to the embodiment of good. But we also found that childhood has lost something -- children no longer have the beautifully handcrafted playthings that they once did. And, of course, children were taught to make beautiful objects themselves and to do artistic needlework."

Glancing ruefully at her partner who, like herself, is the mother of several children, she adds, "Today it's a struggle to get children to make their own beds. We both hope the pendulum will swing, just a little, back in the other direction."

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