200 Tender Years

Adults' view of children and their place in society has changed significantly and often in two centuries, as illustrated by a Winterthur exhibit

November 27, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

WINTERTHUR, Del. -- One of the most startling objects in "KiDS!: 200 Years of Childhood," at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, is a "walking stool." It is a rigid, late-18th century contraption on wheels, designed to help babies learn to walk.

Also known as a "go-cart," the stool, which has no seat, was thought to strengthen tiny limbs and prevented crawling, an enterprise some deemed unseemingly "animalistic."

This wooden relic would appall most parents today. Beyond illustrating antique child-rearing theories, though, it begs a provocative question: What hasn't changed over centuries of child-rearing? Each generation may pride itself on state-of-the-art parenting strategies, but does that stool/torture device really differ from those rolling gizmos contemporary parents have blithely plunked their young in (at least until declared unsafe and a deterrent to aspiring young walkers)?

In such understated ways, "KiDS!" also encourages viewers to imagine how today's theories and goods will play in coming centuries. What will vigilant parents in the mid-millennium think, for instance, of a civilization that produced classical CDs for prenatal consumers, the Mortal Kombat video game, not to mention those notorious walkers?

The exhibition's "perspective and hindsight" on how the concept of childhood has changed and remained the same is its greatest strength. Through artful use of furniture, toys, books, clothes, diaries, songs, games and accompanying narrative, curator Tracey Rae Beck has not just produced an engaging exhibit for children and adults. She gently reminds us as well that Americans' concern for the physical, intellectual and moral well-being of children predates Benjamin Spock, William J. Bennett and Mr. Rogers by hundreds of years.

Indirectly, the exhibit also admonishes the perfectionists among us that child-rearing was, is and always will be an imperfect art.

It is an art rarely practiced in isolation. Anyone who has ever enrolled a toddler in computer literacy class on the advice of a column knows the drill: "How children are taught, dressed, raised depends on parental beliefs and traditions," the exhibition catalog notes. "Parents, in turn, learn these values from society and from their own parents. Thus, differing perceptions of childhood over time are largely a social and cultural phenomenon and less a matter of individual choice."

Concept of childhood

By necessity, "KiDS!" thematically arranged around children at home, in learning environments and at play, is an exhibition of generalities.

Acknowledged at the outset is the practical impossibility of representing every nuance of childhood: "How past generations viewed childhood depended on many factors, including where individuals grew up, their parents' occupations, and their legal status as free, indentured, or enslaved Americans."

Instead, the exhibit relies primarily on Winterthur's exhaustive decorative arts collection to show how the concept of childhood evolved among the middle class, the socio-economic group most receptive to change and, in the realm of child-rearing theories, debates and debacles, perhaps the most influential.

Each object on display speaks volumes about the challenges and joys of bringing children into a world fraught with peril. A tiny coffin, complete with a tiny skeleton, is an eerily matter-of-fact reminder that even for little ones, "facing death joyfully was considered a virtue "

A paper doll set called "Ellen, of the Naughty Girl Reclaimed" taught that poorly behaved children could lose it all, as did an early board game called "Newton's Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished."

Books and toys about the brownies, elfin creatures that appeared on clothing, school supplies and stamp sets, prove that late 19th-century children were as passionate about fads as kids are today (see Pogs, yo-yos, Pokemon, etc.)

By way of directional speakers that project sound into discrete areas of the exhibit, visitors hear the words of notable American parents and children, from Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who resolves to spend more time with his children, to journalist Lincoln Steffens, who recalls his boyhood love of horses.

On video, Delaware schoolchildren demonstrate age-old games, including Thread the Needle, Oats, Pease, Beans and card pitching.

Handmade items such as a 1770 pincushion studded with the words "Welcome Little Stranger" and a 1771 "baptismal greeting" illustrate the momentous occasion of birth.

Ephemera such as a humorous illustration from "The School of Good Manners" that advises: "Spit not, cough not, nor blow thy nose at the table, if it may be avoided. But if there be necessity, do it aside, and without much noise," should give courage to parents who believe civility was something that existed only before their kids were born.

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