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Children's Consumption in History

Abstract and Keywords

The academic study of children as consumers took root in the 1960s and did not begin in earnest until the 1970s, when the paradigm of ‘consumer socialization’ took hold among psychologically oriented business scholars. In the 1980s, some discussion of the history of children's consumption and popular culture began to appear in edited volumes and journal articles, with full treatments of some aspects of that history coming into view in the 1990s. Even as children's consumer culture takes centre stage in contemporary media reports, political punditry, and academic scholarship, the history of children's consumption remains largely unrecognized in, or otherwise marginal to, both histories of childhood and histories of consumption. Children's consumer lives or the popular culture of childhood most often occupy a side or subsidiary position in the overall historiography of childhood as in, for instance, recent works by Steven Mintz and Hugh Cunningham. It appears that, in a time of severe economic depression, both parents and commercial actors looked to childhood and the ‘child’ as promising bearers of hope for the future.

Keywords: children, consumption, childhood, parents, consumers, consumer culture, popular culture

Children acted as consumers and were regarded as a market several generations before scholars began to address their participation in commercial life. Commercial goods made specifically for children's use have existed since at least the eighteenth century in England and the United States. Yet, the academic study of children as consumers took root in the 1960s and did not begin in earnest until the 1970s when the paradigm of ‘consumer socialization’ took hold among psychologically oriented business scholars. In the 1980s, some discussion of the history of children's consumption and popular culture began to appear in edited volumes and journal articles, with full treatments of some aspects of that history coming into view in the 1990s.

The somewhat lengthy inattention paid the child consumer speaks in large part to the marginal status traditionally afforded, until recently, to social and cultural studies of childhood and consumption. Neither was considered a legitimate field or area of study on its own, but derivative of established fields and disciplines—i.e., studies of childhood deriving from developmental psychology, consumer studies from economics and business. Historical research, initially at least, made for an uneasy fit with these fields that favoured contemporaneous knowledge and more or less precise measurement of effects and outcomes.

Even as children's consumer culture takes centre stage in contemporary media reports, political punditry, and academic scholarship, the history of children's consumption remains largely unrecognized in or otherwise marginal to both histories of childhood and histories of consumption. Children's consumer lives or the popular culture of childhood most often occupy a side or subsidiary position in the overall historiography of childhood as in, for instance, recent works by Steven Mintz and Hugh Cunningham.1 (p. 586) In a similar manner, many ‘general’ histories of consumption and advertising—like those of Jackson Lears, Rosalind Williams, and Roland Marchand—either ignore completely or offer token discussions of the world of commercial goods, spaces, and meanings for children.2 When recognized at all, children tend to be discussed as symbols or symbolic figures—clearly important to study—but not as socio-historical beings who have engaged in consumer practices.3

The marginality of children's consumption cannot be attributed to being simply an artefact of academic myopia, but must be understood also as a social-historical reality. The materials of childhood and the practices and activities engaged in by children have not, until recently, been thought worthy of being saved or recorded to any great extent by adults. As well, children's items—clothing, playthings, books—tend to be fragile, handled roughly by children and are often handed down to younger siblings until they are no longer useful or have been destroyed though use.4

Given these characterizations, it is unsurprising that few themes cut across or unite work in this arena. What scholars do share is the necessity of having to confront and manage the sense of exceptionalism that presents itself whenever children and childhood are at issue. A core preoccupation that underlies studies of children's consumption history revolves around the ever present, felt need of having to assess both the import of childhood to consumer life and culture, and the significance of consumer life and culture to the childhoods of a given time or context. Scholars in this area face the near ubiquitous twin presumptions that children and childhood occupy a marginal place and position with regard to economic life overall, and that consumption is ultimately peripheral to larger, more important factors like labour, the polity, and family structure.5 Researchers of children's consumption history do not necessarily accept these assertions. They serve, rather, as background interrogations that subtly structure the character of inquiry by making the significance of children's consumption and its history something to be demonstrated in ways not asked of studies of ‘adult’ consumption and history.

Epistemological Tensions and Quandaries

These points lead to basic and non-trivial questions that speak to the focus of inquiry. What is a child? What are the boundaries of childhood that are relevant to the questions to be investigated? Age and age range matter of course, developmentally as well as (p. 587) culturally. Social definitions of age and age categories have transformed in some significant ways over the past 150 years, particularly in industrialized, developed, media-saturated societies of the global north.6 Age-related and culturally determined notions of the ‘adolescent’, the ‘teenager’, the ‘toddler’, and the ‘tween’, among others, have arisen as both named phases of the early life course and as marketing/merchandising categories.7 In the 1920s, ‘youth’ in American society could include non-married persons well into their late twenties—where ‘youth’ was as much a matter of behaviour and lifestyle as it was of numerical age.8

To presume the definition of ‘child’ or the boundaries of childhood precludes the ability to inquire about other, equally fundamental issues of analytic import. For instance, what is a ‘child's’ product? What constitutes ‘consumption’? Is ‘children's consumption’ that which is done for children? By children? By adults ostensibly for children, but which enhances the status of the parents? Historians of children's consumption in large part have not posed these questions in ways that would inform their undertakings.

To understand the history of children's consumption it is necessary to keep an eye on its historiography, which itself entails attending to deep, yet changing, cultural beliefs about the place and position of children in social relations and the meanings of various childhoods. For it is the focus on children that sets the main interpretive frame of the studies undertaken—and for good reason. Consumption is about the acquisition and purchase of material and non-material goods (e.g., images, statuses). Children generally—and young children and infants in particular—tend to be highly dependent on adults and the adult world for the procurement and provisioning of goods and services. They have not had and do not have much money or resources, if any at all, to purchase or otherwise acquire commercial goods (one key reason they have for so long remained outside the purview of the economist).

Hence, children's consumption always implicates and is implicated in the practices, beliefs, and contexts of adults, especially parents, and most often mothers. This fundamental structure of children's economic dependency complicates simple, typical presumptions about the autonomy and individuality of social actors. Investigating the materials, contexts, practices, and industries that have made the child consumer a possible and viable social figure in a given historical time and place requires that researchers extend consideration past the nominal focus on children, conceptualized as individualized actors, and into the relationships between children and adults, between childhood (p. 588) and adulthood, and, as well, between child and adult structures and practices like advertising and marketing.9

Given these complications, it should not be surprising that scholarship on children's consumption history is spotty, disjointed, and does not yet hold together as a body of knowledge or tradition of research. That is, there is not much evidence that extant studies have built upon or critiqued each others’ findings, insights, or approaches to any significant extent. Most certainly, authors reference one another as appropriate, but there exists a felt lack of conversation among those who write the history of children's consumption.

Differing frames of reference, interests, and goals can make dialogue between historians difficult. A recent, edited collection by Dennis Denisoff, The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture, highlights some of the difficulties noted above. Many of the contributors examine fiction for clues as to how children and childhood were becoming figured and configured in relation to an increasingly commercialized culture. For instance, chapters on Henry James's sexualization of the Victorian girl, wordplay in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the increasing presence of images of children and goods in Christmas scenes in the Illustrated London News, and reviews of child stage performers all address the increasing interconnections between a growing recognition and acceptance of children as desirers who may consume and children as desirable subjects who may be consumed. Only Liz Farr's account of toy theatres seeks to examine the experiences or practices of biographical subjects.10

The point here most definitely is not to elevate or denigrate one form of inquiry in relation to another, but to point to the epistemological entanglements encountered when seeking to determine what the field or area of ‘children's consumption history’ entails. Certainly, the various ways that the child and representations of children have become associated with commodities must be considered informative of any broad understanding of children's consumption in history. The issues and questions raised here, however, are indicative of the difficulties in characterizing the field of study of the ‘history of children's consumption’—difficulties which are to some extent definitive of the area of study.

In what follows, I take up these difficulties in an examination of several significant histories that deal with living historical subjects—as opposed to those trained on depictions or representations of these subjects. Certainly, this distinction between (p. 589) a ‘living subject’ and ‘representation’ cannot be absolute. It is made to distinguish between different foci and registers of research. Of the many ways the studies could be grouped—e.g., chronologically, regionally, by consumer good, or industry—I have chosen to present them in terms of what the authors considered to be the key actor in children's commercial lives: parents, industry, or children.

Parents as Primary Consumers

Most of the historical work on children's consumption understandably favours research in the United States, the UK and Europe, where modern consumer culture originated.11 In the main, historians of children's consumption focus on the period between about 1890 and 1950. An exception to this periodization can be found in Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb's The Birth of Consumer Society, one of the earliest historical treatments of children and consumption, published in 1982.

In individually authored chapters, they argue that an overall increase in wealth stemming from the Industrial Revolution helped create monied middle classes in eighteenth-century England. The influx of wealth fed a kind of spending and social emulation ‘frenzy’ among those in the middle classes anxious to copy the styles and lifestyles of the well-to-do. Wealth and increased consumption both followed and led rapid changes in styles in clothing and other goods that fuelled this process that Thorstein Veblen would theorize at the end of the nineteenth century. It was, however, a change in the acceptance of commercialism in everyday living in the household that allowed the consumer revolution to take root.12

There is virtually no mention of the place of children in this revolution in most of a publication that deals with fashion, pottery, men's shaving practices, and politics, except for J. H. Plumb's chapter discussing the ‘new world’ of children in eighteenth-century England. This new world, argues Plumb, was one where there arose an increased expectation that children would live beyond the first few years of their lives and hence were more amenable to emotional and monetary investment. Accompanying the decrease in child mortality among this class were new attitudes toward children. Citing John Locke's notion of the child as a ‘slate’ which could be written upon, Plumb notes that a preoccupation with the middle-class child's social future (as opposed to religious salvation) came to predominate parental concerns.13

(p. 590) Here, Plumb contends that a focus on a liberal education for children—both boys and girls in different ways—became seen by parents as a form of intergenerational investment in maintaining and increasing a family's social standing. Children served as the vehicle for a kind of ‘capital investment’, as illustrated by advertisements for small private academies. In addition, the creation of new kinds of children's literature and expenditures on ‘amusements and pleasures’ for children together demonstrate that parents regarded their children not as ‘sprigs of Adam whose will had to be broken’, but as conduits for social display and emulation.14

Plumb offers an explanation about increased expenditures on children's education and educational goods from the perspective of upwardly aspirant parents. Middle-class children occupied a place of importance in the development and transmission of the family's status. They appear as something akin to a social object to be wielded rather than as social objects to be engaged. He makes no effort to represent children's experiences nor makes any mention of children's desires, indicating that perhaps, for Plumb, these are irrelevant or presumed to be given. Nor does he give consideration to the different ages of children, although the focus of the research appears to be at the contemporary equivalent of the elementary school level. Children exist in and are subject to regimes of consumption but are not themselves consumers. Consumption appears to be something done for and, perhaps, to them.

The actions and wishes of parents and other adults, as discussed earlier, cannot be avoided or ignored when contemplating the world of children. How adults and parents figure into the explanatory and conceptual mix does vary among scholars. Gary Cross, the most prolific writer on the history of children's consumption, trains much of his effort on the actions, perspectives, and desires of parents.

In Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood, Cross offers a history of children's playthings focusing mainly on the period after 1900 in the United States. In ways similar to Plumb, he argues that modern playthings have been ‘subject to evolving and conflicting attitudes towards, and styles of, childrearing.’15 Beginning in the first decades of the twentieth century, an expanding market and industry for children's toys was both restrained by and sought to influence parental attitudes toward play. The industry had to overcome both a lingering premodern concern about play as excess, and a more recent notion that toys served as repositories for tradition, in order for the ‘modern toy box’ to flourish. A revolution in marketing—i.e., display and advertising—and the accompanying financial success of the toy industry itself may not have taken hold were it not for a ‘new empathy of parents toward child's play.’16

Over several chapters, Cross outlines what may be thought of as a dance between manufacturers, retailers, and marketeers, on the one side, and parents—more particularly, (p. 591) their changing attitudes toward child rearing—on the other, focusing mainly on the 1900 to Second World War period. Toy manufacturers produced items that reinforced gender norms and catered to children beyond the infant and toddler range, apparently with the assent of parents. Countering the socialization function of most toys, fantasy and novelty toys drew upon folk and literary traditions that invited children into a ‘secret’ garden’ of the imagination. Much less ‘productive’ than dolls that train for motherhood or tools that train for work, fantasy toys—from teddy bears to kewpie dolls, to Shirley Temple and Mickey Mouse, to those derived from comic book characters—reflected the changing ‘meanings and values attributed to childhood by parents.’17 So-called ‘educational toys’, for Cross represented the ‘perfect symbol of the status conscious middle-class family’ whereby parents ‘trained children for life.’18

The story Cross tells is one of the breakdown of certainty regarding children and parents after the First World War, particularly for the American baby boom generation. He explains the acceptance of the ‘rampant consumerism’ embodied in the Barbie doll and the destruction and war play encouraged by the G. I. Joe military doll as, in part, a breakdown in ‘traditional parent-child roles and a loss in confidence of what the child's path to maturity’ should be. In an unacknowledged twist to Plumb's view, Cross sees the parents of baby boomers not ‘investing’ in their child's future through consumption, but purchasing toys ‘because their children wanted them’—something of an acquiescence to a triumphant commercial-media culture.19

In his 2004 book The Cute and the Cool, Cross defines and strengthens his thesis that children's consumption throughout modern twentieth-century history hinges on the feelings and actions of parents. He distinguishes between sheltered innocence—a protective posture toward children derived from Romantic views of childhood—and wondrous innocence—an adult pleasure in witnessing children's pleasure—arguing that the latter form of innocence has fuelled the rise and proliferation of children's consumerism. Wondrous innocence gained its expression through invocations of the ‘cuteness’ of children in dolls, stories, and iconographic representations in advertisements and popular venues like the cover of the famed Saturday Evening Post. For Cross, the threat of a loss of a pastoral past that associated children with nature and of innocent childhood in the face of social change made middle-class parents long nostalgically for their own childhoods. It was through summoning the ‘wondrous child’ through gift giving, Christmas, Halloween, and other rituals that such a feeling could be inspired and experienced.20

Commercial enterprises in a sense conspired with this parental attitude toward children, playing it for all it could be worth with advertisements and ‘appropriate’ goods. But the spectre of the ‘cool child’, who is transgressive, dispassionate, and disobedient, also arose from the commercial milieu of the twentieth century. Seeds of this figure could (p. 592) be found in literary genres of fantasy and juvenile fiction in the nineteenth century. The ‘cool’ kid animated the early comics of the 1930s, migrating into children's television shows in the 1960s, and into edgy comic book characters and video games in the latter part of the century. The result, for Cross, is the development of a commercial ‘dream world’ for children—embodied in the ‘glazed over-intent look’ of a child at the controls of a video game—that is beyond the parents’ own ‘dream world’ of cuteness and innocence. The ‘cool’ kid serves as a foil to innocence, sheltered or wondrous, nurtured by a commercial culture which feeds children's desires that have gotten ‘away from parents’ control and understanding.’21

Like Plumb, Cross places parents at the centre of explanation and action regarding children's consumption and their relation to commercial culture. Unlike Plumb, Cross sees parental ‘investment’ in emotional rather than financial or legacy terms. Clearly, markets and marketeers play a more central role in Cross's scheme than in Plumb's, given that they are discussing developments that occurred well over a century apart. Cross speaks to children's desires and actions as something ultimately dangerous. It is when children have their desires acted upon and indulged by both parents and corporations that the cool, anti-innocent child comes into social power. No attempt or thought is made to locate children's voices or perspectives in history; these tend to be read from sales and the popularity of goods. As well, in both of these efforts, the ages of the children at issue remain unclear. Cross addresses infants and toddlers at one point, middle school children at another, teenagers at another, and is often unclear as to the ages of the children who are of concern in any given argument or for any given historical period.

Industry Conceptualizations of the Child Consumer

In different ways and to different extents, Plumb and Cross position parents and their motivations centrally in the commercial lives of children in their respective eras and contexts. Both acknowledge and address somewhat how business interests and actions figure into the desires of parents—and, for Cross, of children also. To be sure, Cross's ‘cool’ kid arises from commercial and media contexts, but it is the changing views of parents ushered in by a new child psychology and child rearing literature that pave the way for those in the middle class to be amenable to the notion of a child consumer in their midst.

A number of historical treatments dealing with the twentieth century in the United States take the practices of those in industry—among them marketers, manufacturers, and advertisers—as necessary rather than contingent to the creation of the construct or conceptualization of the ‘child consumer’, and indeed of emergent forms of childhood (p. 593) itself. In Raising Consumers, Lisa Jacobson seeks to elucidate how a ‘positive reevaluation of children's consumer identities in the 1920s and 1930s came about’, through an examination of how market ideologies and ideologies of the family helped shape and legitimate an emergent children's consumer culture.22 Making use mainly of parenting, women's, and children's magazines and advertising trade journals, Jacobson analyses the discourses of childhood, money, play, and gender that arise and intermingle during this period.

In contrast to Cross, Jacobson found that parents and educators indeed voiced concerns about children's consumption in the early 1900s. Banks sponsored savings clubs, schools offered training courses on money, and playground clubs emerged that encouraged a sense of thrift on the part of children throughout the early decades of the century. Jacobson sees these efforts as attempts to instil and maintain the values and morals of a culture of self-discipline and sacrifice that was being challenged by one that favoured excess.23 This excess was promoted and given form by the advertising industry, which had discovered the child consumer in the early 1900s. The industry addressed its messages to the parent, mainly the mother, as well as to the child—finding in the former an eagerness to please her child and in the latter an insatiability for things as well as a keen ability to influence parents into purchasing. Moreover, she asserts that the child in early advertising served as an effective icon in its ability to blend precocity and innocence.24

Throughout her excursion into investigating the image of the ‘hero’ boy consumer, the adolescent girl athletes of the 1920s and 1930s, the increasing entanglements of children's play with consumption, and the radio clubs of the 1930s, Jacobson, like Cross, does not often specify the ages of the children at issue. ‘Children’ appear to be something of a piece in her descriptions even as they have particular ages in the advertisements she examines and the products and activities associated with them. It is ultimately the power of advertising to ‘imagine’ children as consumers and ‘imagine’ the consuming household that helps to usher in a new social order based on consumption. It is an order based on a newly ‘democratizing’ family whereby children's desires can hold sway for the middle classes in ways that could not have been considered a generation earlier.

Daniel Thomas Cook centres his history on the emergence of the US children's clothing industry, focusing strongly on the discourses of and efforts by apparel (and other) industry members in the construction of children and mothers as consumers. In The Commodification of Childhood,25 Cook examines the establishment of the industry in the 1910s through the lens of key trade journals and supplemental materials. In these, he finds that separate clothing departments for infants and young children in urban department stores did not exist prior to about 1915. Instead, young people's clothing was stocked by type rather than by age—with various sized socks in the sock area, shirts in (p. 594) the shirt area, etc. A purposeful effort was made by some in the apparel industry to gather all things needed for infants and young children into one department. It was an arrangement that appealed to the perspectives and motivations of mothers and mothers-to-be that had taken hold and become standard industry practice by the early 1930s. These women, trade observers noted, also happened to serve as purchasing agents for the family, and thus to draw them to one's store for the ‘baby's needs’ would also keep them there to shop for the rest of the family.

Cook notes an emergent phenomenon in the 1930s whereby entire ‘floors for youth’ were being arranged with the child's, instead of the mother's, orientation in mind. Child-height fixtures and mirrors, child-oriented iconography and music, as well as layouts favourable to the presumed perspective of the child, were, by the 1940s, standard for clothing and other retail areas for children like toys and furniture. The transition from the mother's perspective to favouring the child's marks a significant historical break, according to Cook, particularly in the way that commercial industries began to recognize, appeal to, and ‘speak’ (lexically, visually, and spatially) to the child as a consumer in its own right.

Market recognition, symbolized by the capital investment in retail spaces, did not simply acknowledge what had existed, Cook insists, but had a hand in creating some of the categories, transitions, and perhaps emergent meanings of childhood itself. He analyses the changing named phases of childhood, and particularly girlhood, from the 1920s to the 1950s, finding that stages of childhood and clothing size categories increasingly merged into one another. The ‘toddler’ for instance did not exist to any great extent until the 1930s when it became a clothing size; similarly, the clothing size ranges of ‘children's’ and ‘pre-teen’ also became confluent with their counterpart age ranges. These developments, when examined together over time, lead Cook to contend that commercial practices and interests play a necessary but not independent role in the rise of children's ‘personhood’ status through the twentieth century, which becomes manifest in later decades in such things as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and contemporary concerns about ‘children getting older, younger.’

In addressing this modern consumer culture of the twentieth century, William Leach offers some contained—i.e., segregated—observations about children. In a small part of one chapter of his Land of Desire,26 Leach emphasizes how toy manufacturers and department store merchandisers began to create a ‘child world’ of goods and enticements in the 1910s in the United States. The rise of Santa Claus as a commercial icon and the ties forged between department stores and Christmas shopping were deliberate attempts to make department stores, and specifically the toy section, a destination for children and parents. In a separate article, Leach describes what he calls the ‘institutional collaborators’ that helped usher in a place for children in consumer culture. These collaborators included, in addition to department stores, child welfare agencies and publishers who assisted those in the merchant class to find commercial solutions (p. 595) to problems confronting children, with Baby Weeks and Children's Days that focused on department stores and baby goods but were ostensibly held for children's health and welfare (see below).27

Children's Experiences in and with the World of Consumption

How parents and commercial actors understood, created, and acted upon the figure of the ‘child consumer’ no doubt represent significant realms of social action and practice. Yet, left unto themselves, these perspectives easily permit caricature of children and their experiences. Even as much of children's lives and practices remain hidden in or have been erased from historical records, there are historians who attempt to determine more directly how children may have understood and experienced commercial life.

In The Adman in the Parlor, Ellen Gruber Garvey examines the relationship between magazines and the gendering of consumer culture from the 1880s to the 1910s. Most of the book centres on adults and adult magazines. Significantly, she begins with an examination of children's trade card scrapbooks. Trade cards were small rectangular advertisements imprinted with the name and address of a business, often accompanied by a logo or promotional image, in some ways recalling the ‘calling cards’ (i.e., cartes de visites) of the well-heeled classes.28

Scrapbooks of the 1870s and 1880s were presumably made by children and mostly by girls. Children collected and arranged the trade cards in a variety of ways—some seemed to be simply a collection of cards, others highlighted the appearance of the cards and ignored the message, still others positioned the cards as if to tell a new narrative. As an example of the latter, Garvey describes how images of a scolding woman and sneaky salesman were cut out of one card and pasted onto the scrapbook page so as to comment on images from other cards.29 In another scrapbook, the compiler takes images of infants and babies and arranges them in reference to each other with the word ‘Baby’ across the page cut out from another source. Garvey suggests that, in using only mass-produced chromo-lithographed materials, the complier connects the home and the commercial world and ‘looks for her family in the marketplace of national advertising.’30

(p. 596) Manipulating scrap cards and making scrapbooks reveals, according to Garvey, an active engagement with the images and values of an increasingly consumer-oriented society that functions both as a kind of personal record and expression and as a form of gender training. By the late 1800s, advertisers were keen to enlarge upon these practices and were making trade cards specifically for children to collect. Emerging at this time also were advertising contests and advertising games, encouraging young people to direct their attention and imagination to advertising so that the commercial messages would register—a practice in line with the psychology of advertising of the time.31

Looking at the material culture of childhood, Miriam Formanek-Brunell writes on dolls and the ‘commercialization of girlhood’ in Made to Play House. Focusing on the 1830–1930 period in the United States, she makes use of fiction, autobiographies, and trade and popular writings on dolls, among other things. The bulk of her book seeks to demonstrate how the production of American dolls moved, in the late 1880s, from being locally and regionally based enterprises that were owned and run by women to a large, national, and industrialized male-dominated industry in the twentieth century. In the 1800s in America, the women's crafts on the whole strove to produce lightweight, durable, and somewhat ‘childlike’ dolls made specifically for children's identification and play, in contrast to heavy foreign-made fashion dolls of the time that were less amenable to child play. Parents and child observers of the mid- to late nineteenth century positioned doll playing for girls as a form of training in gender roles, including mourning rituals that were depicted with some regularity in child fiction of the time.32 At the same time, Formanek-Brunell produces ample evidence that girls and boys of the time used dolls in ways that most likely would not have been proscribed by adults, such as abusing them and demonstrating aggression toward them.33

By the beginning of the twentieth century, dolls ‘cease to be objects of resentment and resistance manifested in previous generations’ as doll playing appeared to become accommodated to a ‘new domestic ideal.’34 Formanek-Brunell consults memoirs, autobiographies, and other materials to argue that dolls became important consumer items in girls’ lives in this period, as many girls demonstrated a significant discrimination and consumer acumen in their tastes and purchasing of these objects.35 She points to industry concerns about ‘tomboyism’ in girls—although quietly tolerated by parents—that threatened sales, leading to more direct and specific appeals to girls in advertising copy and images. These efforts culminated in the industry-sponsored ‘Children's Day’—an annual event that sounded like it arose from social reform when in fact it was the brainchild of commercial industry—whereby events emphasizing parenting and child health interwove with commercial products and retailers.36 The result, according to Formanek-Brunell, was a blurring of child experts with promoters of dolls and toys.

(p. 597) Historian David Nasaw finds children—working-class children in particular—actively involved in aspects of commercial culture in the early twentieth century. Focusing his efforts on New York City and other urban areas of the American north-east, he discusses some ways that children searched for and found amusements in commercial outlets, especially in the new Nickelodeon theatre houses. Much to the consternation of reformers, children sought out these movie houses where for 5¢ they could be bemused by the new medium of moving pictures. Reformers expressed their concern and outrage that children would be in dark settings, unaccompanied by adults, taking in images of violence and lewdness.37

Nasaw notes that these were precisely the selling points for both the children, who sought pleasures outside the surveillance of their parents, and for the theatre owner who recognized that it was the children who virtually ‘created’ the Nickelodeon. An effort by Jane Addams, the celebrated child reformer from Chicago, to create ‘clean’ movie houses failed miserably, indicating that the pleasure of the movie house was in part its salaciousness. Children acquired their own money to spend by working as boot-blacks, newsies, and errand boys and girls, and patronized arcades and peep shows as well. Undaunted by newly minted censorship laws and various attempts to keep them out of the movie theatres, children and the theatre owners colluded against the reformers’ efforts, and often with a wink and a nod from local police.38

Concluding Thoughts

Each of the works discussed contributes a piece to a puzzle, the shape and content of which remains unknown. In many ways, the extant work in this area may be thought of collectively as representing a demonstrative phase of the historiography of children's consumption. That is, the general marginality and invisibility of children in history and in consumption make the historian's first task to demonstrate that indeed commercial goods, messages, and spaces for children have existed and held a significant place in the lives of young persons and adults. Each of these treatments, in its own way, takes some element or aspect of an emergent commercial world and attempts to illustrate the import of it on children's lives. The relative lack of shared knowledge and questions among the authors give indication less of an unfocused field as of one in the process of defining itself and its subject matter.

One area of overlap and general relative agreement among the histories discussed, noted above, involves identifying a turning-point in twentieth-century children's consumer culture. It is noteworthy that three of the scholars discussed—Cross, Jacobson and Cook—all found the 1930s to be a pivotal decade. For Cross, this is the decade (p. 598) of the rise of fantasy toys that ultimately break children from the world of adults; for Jacobson, the democratized family arises strongly in this decades and goes hand in hand with the commercial lauding of child consumers; for Cook, it is the time of transition when the child's perspective gains commercial recognition and expression. All three struggle with the relationship between commercial appeals and everyday practices, as well as with the parents’ place in relation to both the commercial culture and their children. None attempt to locate and use children's voices and perspectives to any great degree, with Cross interested more in the parents’ perspective, Jacobson reading children's experiences from advertisements, and Cook finding children's voices in how industry members portrayed them to each other. It appears that, in a time of severe economic depression, both parents and commercial actors looked to childhood and the ‘child’ as promising bearers of hope for the future—an effort that might resemble, though not duplicate, Plumb's analysis of eighteenth-century England. It is a question ripe for concentrated thought, research, and analysis.

As we have seen, intensely focusing research and analysis on children problematizes the often taken for granted understandings of the autonomy and independence of social actors. Parents, in one way or another, figure in every historical analysis discussed. Even if they were not put at the centre of explanation, the spectre of the parent hangs like a shadow over the child in the Nickelodeon and in the playroom, as well as serving as a key addressee for advertised goods for children. The difficulties of locating and representing children's voices and experiences—often erased from the historical record—are highlighted both by the work that sought to feature such experiences and voices (Formanek-Brunell, Garvey, and Nasaw) and by others who examined primarily structural factors or industry actors. It is clear that to investigate children's consumption in history one must be vigilant about balancing attention on the conspicuous, large-scale productions of industries, that might seem to overwhelm children and their worlds, with how children may have engaged with the materials of these industries, while remaining ever aware that children's engagements necessarily take place in the penumbra of family life.39

Historians are not alone in their struggles to come to terms with the problems posed when children's lives and experiences reside at the centre of concern. Over the last several decades, sociologists, anthropologists, media scholars, psychologists, literary critics, and others have continually wrestled with the analytic, practical, and political tensions that arise from the recognition of children as both key and marginalized social actors who engage in social practice, and who are, in many ways, uniquely subjected to the structures and definitions of adults and the adult world. Over the past two decades a ‘new’ childhood studies has taken hold as a paradigm of research, arising mainly from sociology and anthropology, which acknowledges children's experiences as essential (p. 599) to any social inquiry.40 This perspective, which seeks to de-marginalize children by privileging their understandings and voices, informs childhood history,41 debates about children's rights,42 and issues related to education and family dynamics.43 Contemporary research on children's consumer and media behaviour remains entangled in the difficulty of determining who or what a ‘child’ is—beyond simplistic numerical age designations—precisely because the commercial and media worlds of children have a part in changing the definition and boundaries of childhood itself.44

With no easy answers in any field, it is not surprising that the works considered here do not uniformly speak to the same issues or in the same register. They may be characterized as much by the questions they do not ask as the ones they do. Future research in this area necessarily will have to confront the fundamental problems of the boundaries and meanings of childhood in different eras and contexts and hence the related questions of what constitutes ‘consumption’ and specifically ‘children's consumption’. Most certainly, studies of children's experiences that make use of their voices will be valuable additions to the corpus of work discussed here. Finally, the future direction of scholarship in this area must engage directly not simply with the ways in which consumption and consumer culture ‘commodified’ or otherwise commercialized childhood, but also with how children's presence and actions transformed consumption and consumer industries and, as well, with how childhood itself has been transformed irrevocably in the process.


Cook, Daniel Thomas, The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).Find this resource:

    Cross, Gary, Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).Find this resource:

      Cross, Gary, The Cute and the Cool (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).Find this resource:

        Denisoff, Dennis (ed.), The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).Find this resource:

          (p. 600) Formanek-Brunell, Miriam, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).Find this resource:

            Garvey, Ellen Gruber, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).Find this resource:

              Jacobson, Lisa, Raising Consumers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).Find this resource:

                McKendrick, Neil, Brewer, John, and Plumb, J.H., The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982).Find this resource:

                  Palladino, Grace, Teenagers (New York: Basic Books, 1996).Find this resource:

                    Sammond, Nicholas, Babes in Tomorrowland (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).Find this resource:


                      (1) Steven Mintz, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Hugh Cunningham, Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500 (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2002).

                      (2) Jackson Lears, Fable of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Rosalind Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream:1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

                      (3) See Daniel Thomas Cook ‘The Missing Child in Consumption Theory’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 8/2 (2008), 219–43, for analysis on the position of ‘the child’ in theories of consumption.

                      (4) Miriam Formanek-Brunell, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

                      (5) See Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Oxford: Polity Press, 1997).

                      (6) See Howard Chudacoff, How Old Are you? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

                      (7) On the invention of the ‘toddler’, see below and Daniel Thomas Cook, ‘The Rise of “the Toddler” as Subject and Merchandising Category in the 1930s’, in Mark Gottdiener (ed.), The New Means of Consumption (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), 200; on teenagers, see Grace Palladino, Teenagers (New York: Basic Books, 1996); on the history of the ‘tween’, especially the tween girl, see Daniel Thomas Cook and Susan B. Kaiser, ‘Betwixt and Be Tween: Age Ambiguity and the Sexualisation of the Female Consuming Subject’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 4/2 ( 2004), 203–27.

                      (8) Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); see also Chudacoff, How Old Are you?, 39–72.

                      (9) Daniel Thomas Cook ‘The Missing Child in Consumption Theory’; Lydia S. Martens, Dale Southerton and Sue Scott, ‘Bringing Children (and Parents) Into the Sociology of Consumption’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 4/2 (2004), 155–82.

                      (10) Liz Farr, ‘Paper Dreams and Romantic Projections: The Nineteenth-Century Toy Theater, Boyhood and Aesthetic Play’, 44–62, Michèle Mendelssohn, ‘ “I’m Not a Bit Expensive”: Henry James and the Sexualisation of the Victorian Girl’, 81–94, Carol Movor, ‘Forgetting to Eat: Alice's Mouthing Metonymy’, 95–118, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, ‘Home Thoughts and Home Scenes: Packaging Middle-class Childhood for Christmas Consumption’, 151–72; Marah Gubar ‘The Drama of Precocity: Child Performers on the Victorian Stage’, 63–78, all in Dennis Denisoff (ed.), The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

                      (11) Outside of Western or global North contexts, children's consumption and its attendant social-moral concerns, have come to the attention of social researcher in recent years. Most notably, the ‘Little Emperor’ phenomenon in China in Jun Jing, Feeding China's Little Emperors: Food, Children, and Social Change (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), and consumption by children and youth in globalizing India in Ritty Lukose, Liberalization's Children: Gender, Youth and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

                      (12) Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982).

                      (13) On Locke, McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer, 287–90.

                      (14) Capital investment and quote, McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, 287 and 292.

                      (15) Gary Cross, Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 8.

                      (16) Ibid., 33.

                      (17) Ibid., 85.

                      (18) Ibid., 139.

                      (19) Ibid., 187.

                      (20) Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

                      (21) ‘glazed over-intent look’: Cross, The Cute and the Cool, 161; ‘away from parents’ control’: ibid., 163.

                      (22) Lisa Jacobson, Raising Consumers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 3.

                      (23) Jacobson, Raising Consumers, ch. 2.

                      (24) Ibid., 21.

                      (25) The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

                      (26) William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Pantheon, 1993).

                      (27) William Leach, ‘Child-World in the Promised Land’, in J. Gilbert et al. (ed.), The Mythmaking Frame of Mind (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1993), 209–38. In a somewhat different vein, Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), examines the intertwined histories of Walt Disney, the man, Disney the corporation, and developmental psychologists's views of the ‘child’ in the 1930–1960 era, and how these entered into an existing ‘discursive matrix’ that had constructed a universal, generic child.

                      (28) Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

                      (29) Ibid., 32–4.

                      (30) Ibid., 34.

                      (31) Ibid., 51–67.

                      (32) Formanek-Brunell, Made to Play House, 22–3.

                      (33) Ibid., 23–9.

                      (34) Ibid., 162.

                      (35) Ibid., 163–7.

                      (36) Ibid., 170–4; see also Cook, The Commodification of Childhood, 51–7, on similarly sponsored and run Baby Weeks in the 1910s and 1920.

                      (37) David Nasaw, ‘Children and Commercial Culture’, in Elliot West and Paula Petrik (eds.), Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850–1950 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1992), 17.

                      (38) Nasaw, ‘Children and Commercial Culture’, 18–25.

                      (39) Investigations of the place of sibling relationships and peers for children are notably absent from these extant histories. Those who study teenagers and teen culture of the post-Second World War era address peer relations, but the relationship between children's peer relationships and consumption remain to be examined for any time period.

                      (40) Allison James and Alan Prout, ‘A New Paradigm for the Sociology of Childhood? Provenance, Promise and Problems’, in Allison James and Alan Prout (eds.), Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Children (London: Falmer Press, 1991), 7–34; and Chris Jenks, Childhood (London: Polity Press, 1996).

                      (41) Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-century American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

                      (42) Barbara Woodhouse, Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children's Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

                      (43) See Peter Pufall and Richard Unsworth (eds.), Rethinking Childhood (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

                      (44) see David Buckingham, After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).