The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer

The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer

by Daniel Thomas Cook

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822385431
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/30/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Daniel Thomas Cook is a sociologist in the Department of Advertising at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He is the editor of Symbolic Childhood.

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The commodification of childhood

The children's clothing industry and the rise of the child consumer
By Daniel Thomas Cook

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3268-X

Chapter One

A Brief History of Childhood and Motherhood into the Twentieth Century

As a social production, the child consumer is also necessarily a historical one. A number of historical trajectories converge in the early twentieth century to make the emergence of a nascent commercial world of childhood possible and viable. One trajectory speaks to the social identity of "the child" as an entity, as a being distinguishable from adults. Primary among this child's distinguishing characteristics are its naturalness, its innocence, and the naturalness of its innocence. Another historical strand configures the social location of the child within the sentimentalized, domestic sphere of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, directly implicating motherhood and its attendant morality in the formation of a children's culture. Middle-class mothers transformed their imputed status as moral caretakers into political action in the Progressive Era (roughly 1890-1920), mounting a number of campaigns and creating a number of institutions which sought to improve the health and well-being of mothers and children. A final historical thread to weave into this chapter addresses the rise of women as consumers, particularly in urban department stores in the early twentieth century-a developmentconcurrent with the political action of women. These together provided some of the main supports for erecting a children's culture: a belief in the distinctiveness of the child, a private middle-class home where this child could be nurtured and kept separate and sacred, and a way to connect the child with the market.


The idea that childhood has a history-or better, histories-itself has a history, successfully launched with the publication of Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Aries in the early 1960s. Aries effected something of a paradigm shift in scholarly circles with his assertion that childhood is a relatively recent social invention. Before the twelfth century, he writes, "medieval art ... did not know childhood or did not attempt to portray it." What was portrayed were "little men" or "miniature adults" depicted as small (mostly) males whose morphology mirrored that of grown persons. Beginning in the early seventeenth century, however, Aries notes that children depicted in European painting began to have their own distinctive morphology (face, bodily posture, and features) as well as being marked by distinctive clothing, thereby making childhood socially visible.

The crucial transformation is the eventual segregation of adults' from children's worlds. Aries cites supporting evidence to this effect, including how medieval adults had engaged in activities now generally associated with children, like playing games and reading fairy tales among themselves. The emergence of specialized books and literature for children as well as a host of scholastic practices also emphasized the importance of age and age segregation. He concludes by arguing that the modern family has changed its focus toward full devotion to children based on the division between adult and child spheres and responsibilities.

Of the four-hundred-plus pages in this widely cited study, only about one-fourth is spent on the "invention" of childhood theme, a theme which makes use of about half of Aries's citations. But, it is the "invention" proposition which overshadows all the rest of his work and is often the only argument for which it is cited. Aries is not without his critics. His historiography has been challenged as "presentism" and as being "present-minded," in that he took present-day practices as the standard against which to evaluate earlier centuries. His somewhat uncritical reliance on painting to reflect the real world has been taken to task especially by Lloyd deMause, who states that Aries's "notion of the 'invention of childhood' is so fuzzy that it is surprising that so many historians have recently picked it up." Ross Beales went in search of miniature adulthood in colonial New England but could not find it, leading him to conclude that miniature adulthood "must be seen, not as a description of social reality, but as a minor chapter in the history of social thought."

Aries is equally fuzzy in his explanations for the great change in childhood. From the thirteenth century through the fifteenth, Aries notes something of a change in the types of children depicted in painting, toward types which appear to be "closer to the modern concept of childhood." One type is the "adolescent angel" with the "effeminate" features of a soft, round face. This type lasted through the end of the Italian Quattrocento in the angels of Botticelli and others. The second type, Aries claims, is "the model and ancestor of all the little children in the history of art: the Infant Jesus." As late as the twelfth century, Jesus is depicted like other children-as an adult. Midway through the century, a more sentimental representation begins to emerge: a miniature shows Jesus "wearing a thin, almost transparent shift and standing with His arms around His mother's neck, nestling against her, cheek to cheek." Here is the beginnings of "sentimental realism," as Aries calls it, which carried this "theme of Holy Childhood" beyond depictions of Christ to that of other Biblical characters' childhoods.

Sentimental realism took several centuries to move beyond the "frontiers of religious iconography," and it was not until the sixteenth century that a more generalized lay iconography of childhood emerged alongside of and detached from the religious. In the sixteenth century, sentimental realism took the form of the portrait-the depiction of a real, biographical child "as he was at a certain moment in his life" rather than as a miniature adult. Many of the child portraits were of dead children. Initially serving as funeral effigies, portraits of dead children began to be commissioned by families who could afford to memorialize the child in this way for home display. Parental love and emotional attachment had visible expression, at least among the moneyed classes in Europe. For Aries, the absence of portraits of deceased children indicated an absence of the feeling portrayed. Thus, their historical emergence marked a "watershed" in the history of feelings, because they dramatize the child as worthy of remembrance and its death as no longer one of the inevitable losses of life.

Before the eighteenth century, historians argue, parental attitudes toward children were anything but loving. For Lawrence Stone, parents were simply indifferent toward their offspring until about the age of five or six. He explains that high infant mortality rates in England inhibited parents from becoming emotionally attached to their infant children. Parents maintained a detached stance from their newborns, Stone says, indicated by the practice of giving the same name to two living siblings, expecting that one would die. As improvements in medical science and sanitation allowed more and more children to live, Stone argues, parents were freed to over them love and devotion.

Other historians tend to locate the change in sentiments toward children in something other than a decrease in infant mortality. Edward Shorter blames unknowing mothers for what he sees as the widespread neglect of children. He explains the decrease in infant mortality as an outcome of a prior increase in maternal care, which occurred once "sensible" medical advice became widely available. Lloyd deMause characterizes parent-child relations at this time as involving a great deal of infanticide and abandonment. He sees these relations as independent sources of historical change, not tied to technological or social innovation, but to psycho-historical factors.

Linda Pollock offers the most thorough and grounded critique of Aries, Stone, Shorter, deMause, and others who have, in one way or another, accepted the general thrust of the thesis that childhood at one point did not exist and that parents were indifferent, perhaps cruel, to their children before about the mid-sixteenth century. Making use of diaries and autobiographies from British and American sources from the 1500s into the 1800s, Pollock finds that children were wanted, that conceptions of childhood did exist in the sixteenth century, and that the majority of children were not subject to brutality. She points to many provisions made for the "special nature" of children in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as laws regarding children and the beginnings of specialized medicine. What she finds, particularly in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, is great variability in the ways that diarists and autobiographers discussed birth, discipline, and affection for children. She warns historians to be circumspect about assuming a direct connection between "attitudes," as found in advice books and official doctrine about children, and "behavior," as found in primary sources.

Pollock, along with Anne Higonnet, incorrectly accuse Aries of explaining the rise of sentimental childhood in terms of a decrease in child mortality which supposedly allowed parents to emotionally invest in their children. Aries points out that the practice of memorializing deceased children began well before the "demographic transition": the large-scale historical decline in infant mortality in Europe in the eighteenth century. He conjectures that "although demographic conditions did not greatly change between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, and although child mortality remained at a very high level, a new sensibility granted these fragile, threatened creatures a characteristic which the world had hitherto failed to recognize in them; as if it were only then that the common conscience had discovered that the child's soul too was immortal." Newly in possession of a soul, the child materializes as at once sacred and secular. It gradually emerges-in the "common conscience" of Western, Christian parts of Europe-as a dually articulated and articulable being, a member of common humanity, not because of market-like factors of "scarcity" (that is, mortality) but rather a cultural process of reconceptualization.

Aries discusses a new conceptualization in a brief chapter entitled "The Two Concepts of Childhood." One is the "coddling" conception, according to which children became regarded as a source of attention, amusement, and pleasure within the family after the sixteenth century. Coddling represents a fondness for children in which affection and attention are given over to children because they are children and not adults. A second conception, a "moral-development" conception, arose as a reaction to this sentimental attitude. Moralists, pedagogues, and churchman, representing institutions outside the family, "were unwilling to regard children as charming toys, for they saw them as fragile creatures of God who needed to be both safeguarded and reformed." Both conceptions recognized the "special nature" of childhood, albeit with different valences.

What Aries theorized was not necessarily the invention of childhood per se, but the emergence of the multiple, variable child-a child which thereby enters the messy realm of history. This is a figure whose meanings increasingly became subject to public scrutiny, interpretation, and contestation. The malleability of the child's identity is made possible by the dual inscription of being at once similar to adults by virtue of having a soul and separated from adults by their vulnerability. If, as Aries claims, by the seventeenth century Christian iconography and practice recognized the child as the bearer of an immortal soul, then the child was thereby seen as susceptible to influence-to being swayed toward good or evil. What made children different in this regard is their exceptional weakness, their susceptibility to "pollution." In a word, their innocence.

Aries thus uncovered not the invention of childhood but the invention of childhood innocence. Childhood innocence retains a sense of the sacred in secularized conceptions of children by the necessary insistence that it is an original and natural state of affairs, only to be corrupted by adult intervention or by virtue of life experience. Just as there is no unringing of a bell, there is no way to reverse innocence lost; it is by necessity a prior and primary state of affairs, like the possession of a soul. For Anne Higgonet, the Romantic Child of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe remains iconic of a particular, ideological version of childhood in which "innocence must be an Edenic state from which adults fall, never to return ... The image of the Romantic child replaces what we have lost, or what we fear to lose." Childhood innocence, in a way, makes reference to the original innocence of the Garden of Eden and, at the same time, offers a counterpoint to the Original Sin committed there by Eve in Judeo-Christian doctrine and tradition. Gill Valentine, in a similar vein, finds expressions of this dual conception in the contemporary "angel/devil" construction of European and North American children.

In the context of American Puritanism, childish innocence and weakness were an invitation for Satan to do his works. According to Stannard, the inability to read signs of Election (of eventual salvation) made Puritans err on the side of caution, assuming that the Devil was in all things, including children. Stannard quotes Cotton Mather discussing children in 1689: "They are no sooner wean'd but they are to be taught ... They go astray as soon as they are born. They no sooner step than they stray, they no sooner lisp than they ly. Satan gets them to be proud, profane, reviling and revengeful as young as they are." Children, especially infants, in this view are in a state of depravity and require conversion, and an early conversion at that, lest they die before they are saved. Religious conversion implies that human nature is a malleable thing, that children and others possessed the ability to change.

Malleability cuts both ways. The innocent child may be weak and easily influenced by Satan or some other form of pollution, but it can also be guided in proper or desirable directions. For instance, Karin Calvert's study of early American material culture illustrates how beliefs about children's physical malleability indicated their spiritual plasticity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To the "seventeenth century mind," she writes, "human beings were quite literally made, not born." Infants were seen as a danger to both the cosmic and social orders, their crawling placing them in postural proximity to members of the animal kingdom: "Western culture inculcated a very powerful symbolic language of the hierarchy of things, from Hell below to Heaven above, from the crawling of beasts to the marching of kings. Children, if they were to assume their rightful place in the divine order, had to do so on their feet, not on their hands and knees." Practices such as swaddling, and materials such as walking stools and narrow cradles encouraged children to be physically straight-to be what Calvert calls the "upright child"-as quickly as possible, in order to bring the danger of animalness under control.

"Shaping" children is also a central preoccupation in the work of the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who sought to mold character, not bodies. Locke offered the conception of the child, and thus the person, as a tabula rasa, influenced not by predispositions or values but by experience. As James, Jenks, and Prout point out, however, the blank slate conception is tempered by what they call Locke's anachronistic liberalism: "children are charged with a potential, as citizens of the future and as imperfect but latent reasoners. Thus, although in Locke's view there are no innate capacities, no knowledge lodged in a universal human condition, the drives and dispositions that children possess are on a gradient of becoming, moving towards reason."

The extent to which Locke influenced parental care is difficult to determine. Pollock found scant evidence among some British parents of trying to actively mold the child's character and virtually none among Americans. However, for the historian J. H. Plumb, Locke's influence on the development of a "new world of children" in eighteenth-century England is enormous. During this time, parents of the newly emerging middle classes began sending their children to the increasingly numerous private academies, finding in Locke's views an alternative to Calvinist doctrines of "negative" innate dispositions, including infant depravity.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction

2 A Brief History of Childhood and Motherhood into the Twentieth Century

3 Merchandising, Motherhood, and Morality: Industry Origins and Child Welfare, 1917-1929 41

4 Pediocularity: From the Child’s Point of View 66

5 Reconfiguring Girlhood: Age Grading, Size Ranges, and Aspirational Merchandising in the 1930s

6 Baby Booms and Market Booms: Teen and Subteen Girls in the Postwar Marketplace 122

7 Concluding Remarks 144

Appendix: Figures and Tables 153

Notes 157

Bibliography 181

Index 201

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