What is An American Childhood? A Photographic Study

Gun Rights

Like the parents in the holiday movie The Polar Express, we do not hear the bell anymore. But if we try really hard, can we at least recognize when our children hear it and leave them to follow its call?

As I worked, I rejected all manner of “calendrical boilerplate” (the wonderfully evocative phrase of my former colleague at American Heritage, Richard F. Snow)—that is, no boy with a bowl of spaghetti drooling over his head, no teenage lovers walking dreamily through a garden of daisies, no cute puppies playing with even cuter babies. I avoided the too-famous images as well, the kind that once carried great power but, like a hit song played too often, have been rendered tiresome and, in some cases, banal. My objective was to surprise and inform, not comfort or amuse. The result is what you hold in your hands or, alternatively, glance at on some device—an utterly unsatisfying way to look at pictures, if I do say so. But don’t get me started.

American Childhood is also about America. I concluded that if snapshots help to form the personal and family myths we all carry around with us (and they do, or why do we choose one picture to frame and hang and not another?), then it can be said that photojournalism provides substance to our national myths.

Indeed, glancing through this volume, there are pictures that mark the recognized rhythms of the American story. Children experienced the triumph of independence and the savagery of the Civil War; and they, too, were made to work in the factories of the industrial revolution. Children suffered from slavery and racism, from the deprivation of the Great Depression. They marched during the civil rights movement and witnessed the attacks on September 11.

Children were the targets of violence and abuse, and they committed acts of violence and abuse. American children lived the story of American income inequalities. But they also inspired American business and innovation, popular culture, and science. In many ways, children drove the story of the twentieth century, and they could be said to be driving it into the early decades of the twenty-first. No, it is a fallacy to think we protect children from the world around them. The child joins society from the crib. And yet because children experience the world differently than adults do, the American story here has a subtlety and nuance that will at times make it feel unfamiliar, maybe even new again.

A boy gets groomeed, above, for the Festa do Espirito Santo, or Festival of the Holy Ghost, a popular Portuguese American event held in Santa Clara, California, 1942. Esther Bubley, FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

My project wasn’t just to look; it was to come to terms with what I saw and read, to find a theme that helps all of this make sense. Having done so, I will alert you here that it is my contention that Americans invented childhood and that now, sadly, Americans are presiding over its demise. And if the notion of demise troubles you, I would ask that you look around. Go watch I Am Jane Doe, an award-winning documentary by Mary Mazzio that shows how backpage.com is used to traffic middle school girls in prostitution. Go to the NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, just beyond a sign labeled “For the Fun of It,” and see the happy display titled “A Child’s Room,” which imagines a boy’s bedroom from the 1950s.

There is a Slinky, a collection of Hardy Boys books, Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap, and a bunch of rifles and shotguns. Somehow the museum’s curators dusted that display and docents guided people through its contents the day after Sandy Hook and the day after Parkland and the day after Uvalde, and the day after—well, you get the point. In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, largely to protect children from the internet. The Supreme Court overturned it a year later, on First Amendment grounds, but if the justices hadn’t erased the law, it would have proved unenforceable anyway. There are no boundaries anymore, meaning that at least childhood as we have known it may never be the same again.

One of the key questions confronting me was how to organize this history. I could have filtered all the images chronologically or by subject matter. I also thought about following the biological age of the child, grouping babies with babies, toddlers with toddlers, teens with teens. But all these approaches seemed too dutiful and encyclopedic. In the end, I decided to throw all manner of discipline to the winds and put pictures together with other pictures simply because I liked how they looked or because together they delivered an ironic or telling message. What resulted resembles something more like a scrapbook one might find in a dusty yet inviting attic, one where the pages may have gotten out of order and found their own logic. That made me feel as if I were thinking more like a child, even if that thought was more of a mild delusion than anything real.

Hine’s picture of a “little spinner” at Mollohon Mill, Newberry, South Carolina, 1908. Lewis Wickes Hine, National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

So what do we learn about children by just looking at the pictures in American Childhood? There is the obvious and yet always revelatory fact that children make great photographic subjects. They do because they are guileless, or at least what we adults see as guileless, and because, like dancers or acrobats or people fleeing the police or running from buildings about to collapse (all good photographic subjects themselves, by the way), they move.

You won’t see that by examining any picture here that was taken before, say, 1920, because movement was impossible to capture until then, but once freed from the bounds of slow film speeds, photographs show us the extraordinary ways in which children occupy and communicate with their bodies: leaping, climbing, engaging in mock (and sometimes real) warfare, and imagining they can do all kinds of things that we aged ones know are impossible (aren’t they?). “When my tenancy of a male body was fairly new—of six or so years’ duration,” the writer John Updike once recalled, “I used to jump and fall just for the joy of it . . . Falling is, after all, a kind of flying, though of briefer duration than would be ideal.” Or, to quote Buzz Lightyear, flying is just “falling with style.”

Another discovery is that children are their own beings. You may say that this is obvious, but as any parent knows all too well, childbearing is first an act of survival and self-perpetuation. That’s when we consciously or subconsciously delude ourselves into believing that it is a corrected and refined version of ourselves that we are delivering again to the world, not some new creature. But as any parent also knows all too well, each child has a mind of their own.

It took me a while to get to this understanding, but when people comment that one or the other of my two boys remind them of me, I feel briefly inflated and then, chided by an internal voice, I respond by saying that they may be a little bit of me and a little bit of their mother and even a little bit of what we did together in raising them, but they are mostly themselves, living in their own time, following their own impulses and designs, listening to their own music, believing in their own god (or no god) and—I hope—waking each day with a dream they would like to realize. That is the story of children that is told here, too.

Ernest Hemingway writing while on a fishing trip in Michigan, 1916. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

A third lesson that comes from these words and pictures is the timelessness of childhood. This is a history, yes, but when I look at the picture of the teenage Lincoln assassination conspirator Lewis Powell, I swear that I saw him last week strutting the hallways of our local high school, baseball cap propped backward on his head, a sparse pattern of stubble protruding from his chin. Or maybe he was the one who I saw bagging groceries at Stop & Shop. No, he rode next to me, AirPods propped above his earlobes, head back in somnambulant revelry, on the D train.

Likewise, I look at the picture of a very young Lady Gaga , standing before the family fireplace, and think that I saw her with a more peaceful expression in a nineteenth-century daguerreotype I found in the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs collection, or maybe that is she, a few years older, as one of the “Prince Street Girls” in the picture on our cover, from photographer Susan Meiselas’s series that captured life on the streets of New York’s Little Italy in the 1970s.

Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

The picture above of the A. J. Young family, outside their home in Tifton, Georgia, was taken by Lewis Hine in 1909. In his notes, Hine revealed that the father had died and left the mother, seen at right, with their eleven children. Two had already married and left home by the time of the picture, but that meant that Catherine Young, forty, had nine mouths to feed: (left to right) Mell (fourteen), Mattie (fourteen), Mary (eleven), Alex (nine), Eddie Lou (eight), Elzy (six), Seaborn (five), Elizabeth (two), and Jesse (one).

The picture becomes even more poignant when you learn from Joe Manning, who has carefully researched the stories behind the Hine pictures, that three months later Catherine Young dropped her seven youngest children off at the South Georgia Methodist Orphans’ Home in the Vineville section of Macon. Georgia state law did not allow children under twelve (under ten, if the mother had been widowed) to be employed in the mills, depriving the family of essential income. Children over twelve were not allowed in the orphanage.

Throughout the book, the stories of a handful of individual children are highlighted. A few you will recognize; many you will not. It turns out that famous (and infamous) people were once children, too. In most cases, you can detect how adult success (or failure) is so often predicated on an inspiration from childhood, by an idea too rich and implausible for an adult mind to consider or by a childhood trauma that nags and tugs at them for the remainder of their life. From that perspective, childhood is where we live; adulthood is where we make sense of it, always looking for the road that will take us back. Many years ago, I was assigned by a magazine to write about Bart Giamatti, the erudite Major League Baseball commissioner who had once been president of Yale University. In between puffs on one of the cigarettes that likely led to his early death at fifty-one in 1989, Bart gave great copy, as I knew he would. This was a man who spoke in complete sentences, thought in whole paragraphs, and who had left his job at the highest level of academia to serve as the chief steward of a child’s game, simply because he cared about it so deeply. As he waxed on about his affection for a sport whose origins are shrouded in mystery, Giamatti looked at me. “What genius decided to call fourth base home plate?” he asked. “Who recognized that home is both where we start and where we seek to return?”

Boys trade jabs in 1931 boxing match, above. Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

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