One of the things that has always interested me in life, has been old
children's books--particularly school books. The combination of quaint
artwork, culturally acceptable racisim/culturism, and bizarre morality
is probably their main appeal. I was introduced to them very early in life.
My mother somehow acquired a genuine McGuffy Reader at a point before I
was born, and I used it when I was learning to read. (Dull stuff, really
dull. If you think "Run, Spot, Run" was boring, wait until you try lines
like "a an and the boy" with an etching of a Little Lord Fauntleroy
and his hoop at the top of the page). I learned to read in spite of (not
because of) the content in children's books. I also had an uncle who was
somewhat of a cheapskate. Every time he would visit, he would bring a gift
because that was part of the culture that he came from. (He only visited
once a year or so). On the fourth of July he would bring flags and little
Declarations of Independence, sometimes with candy. On other holidays,
he would bring books. The cheapest thing you could get for a child in a
used bookstore were outdated/discarded school district text books, so that's
what I got--armfuls of them. The plots in those old reading books were
seldom better than "Run, Spot, Run" but the artwork, particularly on the
ones from the first quarter of the 20th century, was fabulous.
Consequently, when I go to a used book store, the first place I usually head to is the children's shelf. I check out the old reading books for their artwork, and if the art is good, and the price not too dear, I buy them. Once in a great while I actually check out what is written in them. I've found some strange things. Remember, these are books intended for CHILDREN--little children.
THE BABES IN THE WOOD
My dear, do you know
How, a long time ago,
Two poor little children,
Whose names I don't know,
Where stolen away
On a fine summer's day,
And left in a wood,
As I've heard people say.
And when it was night,
So sad was their plight,
The sun it went down
And the moon gave no light!
They sobbed and they sighed,
And they bitterly cried,
And the poor little things,
They lay down and died.
And when they were dead,
The robins so red,
Brought strawberry leaves,
And over them spread:
And all the day long
They sang this song:
Poor babes in the wood!
Poor babes in the wood!
And don't you remember
The babes in the wood?
From the New Century Series, the Silver-Burdett Readers, second book, Silver, Burdett and Company, 1906
Another element that makes these books bizarre is the morality they try to instill in their readers. Just about all turn of the century readers are full of little morality tales such as:
THE CRANE AND THE FARMER
crane wicked also spread everybody
In the spring a farmer sowed his field, but some crows picked up the
The farmer then spread some nets to catch the wicked crows.
One day he found some crows caught in a net, but with them was a crane.
"O, I am not a crow!" said the crane, "I am a good bird. Everybody knows I am good. O, do not kill me!"
The farmer laughed, and said, "If you go with those who are wicked, everybody will think you are wicked also. You must die with those wicked crows."
From the New Century Series, the Silver-Burdett Readers, second book,
Silver, Burdett and Company, 1906
We tend to think of the Pledge of Allegiance as some old-time tradition-steeped recitation that has been around as long as our nation. It is actually of recent creation. I have no insight into how it, and it alone, became a the dominant patriotic slogan of our country. At the time it was written there were hundreds of such expressions of patriotism presented to small children in much the same way as that pledge. These appear in many old school books, not as part of the text, but set aside at the start of a text book, often with pictures of the American flag or children doing other patriotic things. This particular one is in the front of a Health book, but they appear in all kinds of children's text books throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century.
The American's Creed
I BELIEVE in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign nation of many sovereign states; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon the principles of Freedom, Equality, Justice, and Humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.
I THEREFORE believe it is my duty to my country to love it; to support its CONSTITUTION; to obey its laws; to respect its FLAG; and to defend it against all enemies.
From Primer of Hygiene, California State Series, 1910
Actually, the more I look at that long-winded thing, the more I am convinced I know how the Pledge of Allegiance came to replace it, and the other examples of its kind: The Pledge is shorter.
I have no clue what body authorized this particular pledge, but it appears to be the state schools of California used this in much the same way the Pledge was later used. It is obvious this particular one was written after the Civil War with that war's outcome as its foundation. (I don't have any California State textbooks from the 1870's/80's to see when it originated). But I can hardly see anyone writing the line "a perfect union, one and inseparable" a generation later. These kind of prefaces are all different, but they all have that same sort of tone. They went out of favor sometime between WW I and II.
Not all patriotic exercises are that long winded. Here is another from the turn of the century:
Pledge by the class.
I give my hand and my heart to my country;
One country, one language, one flag.
From the New Education Readers, Book One, American Book Company, 1900
If offered in a schoolbook today, that pledge would probably be challenged by civil rights groups as discriminatory against Hispanics.
We all know that people before the invention of modern medicine (particularly antibiotics) had some truly queer notions of what caused disease. Colds were said to be caused by the cold. Indoor air was also blamed for disease. If you look at homes built between the 1880's and 1920's, you often find screened porches adjacent to each bedroom. The modern assumption is that these porches were for temperature control before the invention of air-conditioning. That is only a partial explanation. Obviously, the big windows were used to let air flow through homes on hot days, but if you study further (blueprints of the era) you will find these are called sleeping porches. It was believed that sleeping in outdoor air (particularly cold air) would prevent tuberculosis (which is called consumption during that era). It is also believed that cold, outdoor air could cure that disease.
Outdoor sleeping. The best place of all to sleep is out in the
fresh air, where the impure air that comes from from the lungs is blown
away so that it can not be breathed in again. Usually an upper porch is
the best place for outdoor sleeping, and houses should be built with porches
that can be used for this purpose. In some places these porches need to
be screened from flies or mosquitos. That great benefits come from outdoor
sleeping is shown by the fact that persons who are sick with consumption
or pneumonia often improve when they begin sleeping in the open air.
From Primer of Hygiene, California State Series, 1910
Hmmm...I doubt that "fact".
Some other ideas prevalent among educated persons of the era include:
The evil effect of breathing through the mouth. Mouth breathing causes the upper teeth to turn forward and the lips to thicken and turn out, thus spoiling the appearance of the face. What is more serious, it allows millions of bacteria into the mouth, and it allows cold and dusty air to reach the throat and lungs. Worst of all, the general health of the mouth breather is weakened.
Cold baths. Those who take a daily cold bath do not catch cold so easily as do others, and many strong, vigorous persons are greatly benefited by this practice.
Both examples from the Primer of Hygiene, California State Series, 1910
Prohibition seems a curious era to us as we approach the 21st century.
Were the majority of American voters such strange Christian extremists
that they really believed ending the sale of alcohol was a moral issue,
best dealt with by government regulation? It is true that some religions
preach anti-alcohol. But many more make it (particularly in the form of
wine) a major part of their ritual. How were those people convinced to
vote in favor of prohibition? How was a majority ever assembled to pass
The answer to that has to do with the "modern medicine" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Just as people believed sleeping outdoors could cure and prevent tuberculosis, the established medical authorities of that era claimed to have scientific evidence that alcohol caused everything from tuberculosis to bad hair days. The 1910 California state Primer of Hygiene reads like a temperance tract in many places. Remember, this is being presented to elementary school children as fact:
The effect of alcohol on the lungs. The chief injury to the lungs and air passages caused by alcohol is that it makes them more easily attacked by germ diseases. It has long been known by physicians that pneumonia is much more likely to kill a user of alcohol than a temperate person, and that drinkers suffer far more from consumption than do persons who use no alcohol.
Alcohol injurious to the digestive organs. Beer, wine, and whiskey contain alcohol, and they are all injurious to the digestive organs, even when they are taken in small amounts. They injure the stomach especially and interfere with its work, so that hard masses of food pass undigested into the intestine. Bacteria then grow in this food and form poisons that are carried through the body.
The effect of alcohol on the heart. Alcohol often causes the heart to become weakened; and in drinkers, especially beer drinkers, great quantities of fat sometimes gather about the heart. In this condition the heart cannot do its work properly; and in sicknesses like typhoid fever or pneumonia, it is likely to fail.
All of the above examples from Primer of Hygiene, California State Series, 1910
Germ theory and the process of digestion are not the only bodily concepts persons of a century ago had unusual understandings about. The heart was believed to be an incredibly delicate organ, subject to breakdown from the slightest force. It was believed that exercise could kill you (especially if you were female). While today's near-worshipful concept of aerobic exercise as a cure-all for everything up to and including breast cancer will probably be laughed at by persons 100 years from now, it is hard not to wonder how this opposite concept of heart activity became "fact":
Violent exercise injurious to the heart. Run up and down the stairs two or three times, or run a hundred yards as fast as you can. Then notice your heart and you will find that it is beating much harder and perhaps twice as fast as it beats when you are sitting quietly in your seat. From this you can imagine how enormously the work of the heart is increased by Marathon races,...or hour after hour of tennis playing. When the heart is overworked, it often becomes enlarged and diseased, and this condition is found so often among those who engage in hard games and sports that it is called "athlete's heart." Young persons are especially liable to have their hearts injured by very severe games and long races.
From Primer of Hygiene, California State Series, 1910
To be fair, the authors of the book come out highly in favor of exercise as a part of child's life, but in moderation. They even devote a whole chapter to appropriate exercises to perform with ones classmates, while in school. (Mostly stretching, deep breathing, swinging arms and legs in various ways, and knee bend sort of stuff--nothing that would make a heart beat faster).
As I said earlier, my real interest in these books is graphic. The meticulous
etchings of the 19th century, the art nouveux and later deco line drawings
of the first quarter of the 20th century, and the intricate watercolor
works of the mid 20th century are the reason I buy these books. Unlike
"art" works (bowls of fruit, landscapes, or portraits of people made during
the era) childrens' school books give one a glimpse into everyday life,
and therefore the real culture experienced by persons of the era, instead
of some idealized nostalgia world. They are full of kitchens, bathrooms
(one even explained that the small sink in the room was only for tooth
brushing, the large sink for washing, so as not to get nasty mouth germs
back into the body). When one looks at old fashion-magazines, one does
not see what average humans were wearing in an era. In children's readers,
one does. One sees cars, and one sees what adults felt was important about
their knowledge and culture to pass on their children. Even the deplorable
Dick and Jane series of readers has a message hidden within it. Ever notice
that Jane was really dumb? Not only was she blonde, but she forgot to count
herself as a person when she set the table, so ended up a place setting
short, had to be helped to discover her mistake. She painted herself into
a corner and had to have her (brunette) brother Dick rescue her another
time. The cluck couldn't do anything right. Compare her supposedly humorous
adventures to the time period in which they were written (early WW II,
though the books continued to be published with mostly superficial changes
into the early 60's). It was a time when men were going off to war and
women were taking their places in the factories--a time of great social
change and upheaval. And out of them came this insipid Wonderbread/Doris
Day concept of normal family life...
Children's text books are a lot more interesting than "Run, Spot, Run." even when that's what is on their pages.