The first American magazine for children began with the nation. The Children’s Magazine wouldn’t impress us today. No cover illustration—in fact, no illustrations at all. Just 48 pages of cheap-to-produce text: stories, essays, poems, a series on geography, and four rather dense sermons. The magazine apparently lasted only four issues (January through April 1789), but it established a number of traditions for the almost-400 American periodicals proposed or published for children before 1873.

Like every children’s periodical published after it, The Children’s Magazine was intended to be educational: “It is a general complaint among the teachers of schools,” the editor asserts, “that children want some lessons, written in a familiar style and on entertaining subjects, to conduct them in their progress from a Spelling-Book to such reading as is found in the American Selection, Scotts Lessons and the Art of Speaking. It is also a complaint that children are obliged to read too long in the same book; by which means the subjects become familiar and cease to command the attention. To remove these complaints, is the design of this publication.” (“Preface.” Jan 1789: iii)

Here, “educational” means geography lessons without expensive-to-produce maps, a series on arithmetic, and advice on morality. A lot of advice on morality, from “rules for the life of business” and essays on the “pernicious effects of dram drinking” to proper behavior of children. Boys are admonished not to become drunkards, to keep good company, to do “every thing for some good end” (“Rules to be observed by those who remove from their Native Places.” Feb 1789: 92), and to “summon fortitude to bear pain like a man.” (“The Little Boy Who Behaved Like a Man.” Jan 1789: 21) Girls are— Well, there seem to be a lot of rules here for girls. Be sweet, be submissive, be Christian, be gentle: this is the advice woven into many of the poems. The stories get more complicated. Yes, Emma learns to control herself after accidentally killing her puppy in a fit of temper (“The Passionate Child Reclaimed.” Feb 1789). And, yes, the “Female Adviser” asks, “Can there be any thing more disgusting in a young female than an unbecoming forwardness of behaviour, which we must always attribute to the high opinion she entertains of herself?” and proves that, no, there isn’t. (“To the Editors of the Children’s Magazine.” March 1789) But the women in a series of moral tales walk a treacherous path: they can drive their husbands to drink both by keeping their houses too clean (“The Over-neat Wife.” Feb 1789) and by not cleaning house enough. (“The Notable Daughter.” March 1789)

While a number of later periodicals for children were founded by individuals, others were the products of publishing houses who saw an opportunity to expand the consumer base: Our Young Folks (Jan 1865-Dec 1873) was Ticknor and Fields’ magazine for children; Cincinnati, Ohio, printer Howard Durham founded two papers for children in the 1850s. Hudson and Goodwin, of Hartford, Connecticut, probably saw The Children’s Magazine as a sure money-maker. After all, the company published and distributed textbooks, captivity narratives, poetry, religious works, and works for children—all of which could have fed into the magazine.

Because, like every periodical of its time and every periodical after it, The Children’s Magazine reprinted material that had already appeared elsewhere. “[T]he Editors are already furnished with a variety of materials for this work,” the January 1789 “Preface” points out, and, yes, they very much were. Except for that preface, every piece appearing in the magazine’s four issues had been published the year before in one of two magazines printed in England by John Marshall: The Juvenile Magazine or The Family Magazine; or, A Repository of Religious Instruction, and Rational Amusement, edited by Sarah Trimmer. While the Juvenile Magazine included works appropriate for its young audience, the Family Magazine was very definitely for adults. The Family Magazine accounts for the sermons, the essays on temperance, the business advice; it also accounts for a reading level well above the seven- to 12-year-olds for which The Children’s Magazine was intended.

The original sources explain the very “British” tone of The Children’s Magazine, where class distinctions are clearly defined and all schoolboys live at a boarding-school. Poor cottagers are humble and grateful for the charity of their upperclass betters, who condescendingly educate them on arithmetic and morality. While the pieces reprinted from The Family Magazine appear to have been printed exactly as they appeared in England, those reprinted from The Juvenile Magazine are more “localized”: a teacher lays down a “crown piece” in the English version of a schoolboy’s letter (The Juvenile Magazine Jan 1788: 12) and a “crown piece or dollar” in the American. (The Children’s Magazine Jan 1789: 14) A man walking in the Strand in 1788 walks through Boston in 1789. Miss Harriot Truelove has never before seen London in 1788, but has never before seen New York in 1789, though even here she stays with Lady Racket, enjoys evenings at “cards, balls, or the play-house,” and mentors the daughter of a “poor cottager.” (“Familiar Letters on Various Subjects.” Jan 1789)

When The Children’s Magazine apparently ended its run in April 1789, that may accidentally have solved a problem for the editor. “The Schoolboy” as published in England (April 1788) includes a page-and-a-half description of the glories of the British system of government which fell out of the version published in Connecticut (April 1789). And the next installment of the serial as published in England extolls the British legal system through the mock trial of a schoolboy. So, the death of the magazine meant the editor didn’t have to cut, rewrite, or simply ignore a rather entertaining piece that American audiences might not appreciate.

And when the magazine ended so abruptly, it was in keeping with another tradition for American children’s periodicals: many later periodicals didn’t last beyond a year. Some found few subscribers after producing a sample issue; some didn’t get to the sample issue stage. Subscribers didn’t always pay; profit margins were too slim to keep the enterprise going.

Why did The Children’s Magazine fail? Distribution may have been a major factor: the magazine was advertised in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but the early postal system made distributing a magazine difficult. There may not have been enough citizens willing to take a magazine just for their children. And it’s tempting to think that some who were willing to subscribe also had received John Marshall’s English magazines and were noticing an … overlap.

The schoolboy in the April 1789 issue injures himself jumping over a hedge into a ditch and is gently admonished by his teacher, who hopes that “the next time, prior to jumping over a hedge, you will observe well, whether there be a ditch on the other side.” (“To the Editors of the Children’s Magazine.” April 1789: 153) It seems good advice for editors, too: there may be hidden obstacles on the way to success. But, luckily, while there were a lot of ditches in the history of early American periodicals for children, there also were a lot more hedges.

Where to read it: The American Periodicals Series I (18th century) has January, March, and April issues, though the March issue is incomplete. The American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals database reproduces all four issues; January and April are reproduced from originals in the Library of Congress.



Firsts and lasts

October 17, 2014

One of the most frustrating things about studying early American children’s periodicals is just listing them. We rely on earlier references (Betty Longenecker Lyon’s 1942 dissertation, “A History of Children’s Secular Magazines” is a classic) or articles by collectors and earlier scholars. R. Gordon Kelly tried to pull together as much info as possible in 1984, in Children’s Periodicals of the United States.

Because it can be so difficult to even find the periodicals we want to study, a lot of us look at these lists and at the info in library catalogs like the one for the American Antiquarian Society and run with the info. Unfortunately, it’s not always accurate, because—well, okay, because it can be so difficult to even find the periodicals we want to study.

So, that’s where the research comes in. You work with what you can find; you look at eBay; you scroll through pdfs of city directories or county histories or general surveys of local publications; you search newspaper and magazine databases on general terms like “children’s magazine”; you look at the notices and advertisements in other periodicals. This, by the way, is just to get a list of what was published. I’m up to 388 titles published before 1873 (and counting: right now I’m trying to find more info on what appears to be the only Spanish-language children’s periodical published during the period).

And sometimes it turns out that we have the wrong dates for some periodicals we’ve been studying for decades. First issues and last issues seem to be the most difficult to establish. If all you have is a bound volume of the 1841 issues of Robert Merry’s Museum, you won’t know that the first issue wasn’t January 1841, but February 1841.  (October 1841 was a double issue.)

It’s more difficult when we’ve had the wrong year the whole time. Which is what I realized once I looked at advertisements for The Slave’s Friend.  Standard reference works list the first year as 1836. However, according to advertisements, the first issue was April 1835.

And we really should have known this. The Friend was published as the result of a meeting in January 1835 (at least one other magazine was published a month after it was proposed). Copies of issue number 3 were famously burned in South Carolina in July 1835.

Why have we had the wrong date all this time? Partly because the issues themselves don’t have dates on them. (Thanks a lot, American Anti-Slavery Society! And editor of The Sunday-Scholar’s Mirror, for that matter.) Since the Friend seems to have been thought of mostly as a religious tract to be “scattered unsparingly through the land” rather than subscribed to, dates were unimportant. And we’ve had the wrong date partly because— Okay, who really wants to wade through periodical after periodical, looking for teeny advertisements and one-line notices? Well, yeah, I do; but it’s really not as much fun as it sounds.

And, probably, we’ve had the wrong date because it just didn’t occur to anyone to pay attention to the fact that issues of the Friend were around to be burned in 1835. (Yes, I knew about the incident, but … Okay, I didn’t actually know the date of the incident. That’s my story, and I will be sticking to it.) The 1836 date may come from a library’s bound volume of the first year, which was available in July 1836 and may have that date on the title page. (My bound volume is missing any page before page one of issue one and may have been created from individual issues, so, no title page for me to check.)

End dates can be just as iffy. Apparently, the Friend had 38 issues. (And where are we getting that? I’m really not sure.) The usual date of last issue is 1838. (And where are we getting that? Hmm.) But a May 1839 issue of Youth’s Cabinet has a notice of an issue (not enough details, of course, to figure out which one).  More confusingly, an ad for the Cabinet in April 1839 mentions that the Friend has been discontinued. Sounds like more wading through periodicals is in order.

It was easier to find the date of the last issue of The Little Pilgrim, which reference works have ending in December 1868. Because the date of last issue right on the front cover. Of the April 1869 issue. And inside that cover is an announcement that it is, indeed, the last issue.

LC70And, suddenly, a major problem is solved: that it apparently took six months for the Pilgrim to merge with The Little Corporal.  Oh, you didn’t know about that? (Neither do the reference works.) The merger shows up on the early 1870 covers of the Corporal, which is why I spent a month or two feeling like a confused researcher: why hadn’t anybody else noticed?

Because nobody was looking at both magazines. Because they didn’t see the covers. Because they couldn’t find all the issues. Because it’s tough to find all the issues in covers.  Because other researchers spend brainpower remembering the names of their friends and family and their own phone numbers, when they could be using it wondering just why the Little Pilgrim is creeping up on the Little Corporal on the cover.

So, research. Luckily, a lot of stuff formerly available only on difficult-to-find microfilm or even-more-difficult-to-find paper (oh, long, juicy argument over Youth’s Gazette, where art thou?) is now digitized. And winter’s coming, when I won’t be pining quite so much to be out somewhere.

Okay, still pining.  But not pining as much as I could be.

It’s still weirdly startling to find a name I recognize contributing to the periodicals I study, whether it’s Winslow Homer illustrating for Our Young Folks or F. O. C. Darley illustrating for the Riverside Magazine for Young People.  So I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to find that Thomas Nast illustrated the entire first issue of The Little-Pig Monthly (1859).

Nast drew for Harper’s Weekly; he’s probably best known for his enduring images of “Boss” Tweed and his roly-poly Santa Claus.  But he drew for children, too, most notably a picture of the mascot of The Little Corporal rising from the ashes of the Chicago Fire, which had destroyed the Corporal‘s editorial offices:

A single illustration is one thing.  But Nast drew all the illustrations in the first issue of Little-Pig Monthly.  Don’t let anybody tell you mid-nineteenth-century periodicals for children had few illustrations:  they were a selling point.  The May issue of Little-Pig Monthly was 104 pages and had 45 illustrations of animals and people (and pig tails–two, at the “tail end” of two works apparently intended for young readers), every one of them drawn by Nast.  This is a good one:

an editorial pig

He also probably drew the original illustration for the cover, at the top of this piece.  The number of colors on the cover is unusual, given the expense of printing in color.

Unfortunately, the magazine failed pretty quickly–if it got off the ground at all.  Publishers often published sample issues, to gauge interest and to advertise the magazine (I have a unique issue of Youth’s Pictorial Magazine, which failed to launch in 1848; the editors are very clear that this is a sample issue and that the actual magazine will be much better printed).

Little-Pig Monthly did have a weird sense of its potential audience:  it wasn’t for adults or for children, but for both.  This meant that half the magazine might appeal to adults, and half the magazine might appeal to children.  Given that a subscription was $3 a year, when a subscription to another magazine might run you $1, it’s easy to guess why the magazine failed to thrive.

Not that the editors didn’t try.  The first issue is dated “May.”  It advertises the July issue.  The Library of Congress web site has a scanned advertisement describing what the advertisers say is the June issue; the description is of the May issue.  In September, a notice of the July issue appeared in Godey’s magazine.  Still no takers, apparently.

It was a tiny blip in the career of Thomas Nast.  But it’s the kind of thing that makes opening a magazine I’ve not seen before a lot more fun than most people expect.