05/16/03
America's Children
    by John Cech

One of the first images in America's Children, Picturing Childhood from Early America to the Present, by Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin, is a small, snap-shot-sized, black- and-white photo, taken in 1934, of a child named John Welsey Tofflemire. The little boy is carying a kerosene lantern over one arm and a book under the other. Someone has placed a knit cap on his head and wrapped a scarf around his neck, but little John seems oblivious to the evening's chill. In fact, he is out for his constitutional in a pair of shorts, and his mouth is open, as though he is singing with serious, full-throated joy.

This picture represents, in many ways, the essence of Thompson's and Mac Austin's endeavor in this book. This is not a celebrated child picture -- one of those portraits of innocence or of experienced and beleagured youth that have become the archetypes of our culture's visual memory of childhood. In fact, as many of the photographs in this extraordinary pictorial record have, this photo of Little John Tofflemire came from a private archive -- that is to say, from the albums and scrapbooks and shoeboxes where we keep those treasures of our family history. Here are candid photographs of children, dressed up in their Sunday bonnets, carefully posed for the photographer, though sometimes a child has slid down on the chair while the shutter was being snapped. There are African American babies, like little Coolige Brown; Chinese toddlers, like Chun Jan Yut's 1893 identity photograph for his INS case file; Native American children dressed in beaded ceremonial blankets; and a whole train load of children posed alongside the locomotive and the cars of one of the orphan trains that sent homeless youngsters out from the cities into the countryside, in the latter part of the 19th century.

Thompson's and Mac Austin's journey into the visual history of American childhood covers, in their thematic chapters, a wide spectrum of areas of activity that have involved children -- in family life, at work, at play, in school, and as the original inhabitants of and new immigrants to this country. These images aren't restricted to photographs: there are paintings, engravings, and book illustrations -- all of which are drawn together through a succinct, historical commentary and excerpts from letters, diaries, and interviews with young people. This remarkable mosaic of images and words reminds us how essential children have been to every facet of American life, and it is a moving meditation on their surprising, vital, and indispensible presence in our world.

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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