Children seen and heard

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. Edited by Paula S Fass. Thomson Gale. pound;325 (3 volumes)

Nicholas Tucker journeys through an exhaustive and eye-opening historical account of young people's place in the world

Only during the past 40 years have children finally been allowed into history books as the main subject. Although sources remain limited and facts often scarce, exciting, pioneering work about what it was once like to be a child is at last an academic reality. And now here is the first encyclopedia of the history of childhood, consisting of 445 articles and 250 illustrations in three volumes written by more than 300 international scholars and costing a whopping pound;325.

The results are fascinating. Take the first and last entries, "Abandonment" and "Zoot suit riot", as brief but stimulating glimpses of the past still very much as a foreign country. From the fourth century onwards, while infanticide and abortion were strongly condemned, no councils or ecclesiastical bodies spoke out against the abandonment of small children.

This was because they hoped that, as in Roman times, "the kindness of strangers" would as often as not see to it that such children were taken in and nurtured - seen as preferable to the likely murder of infants living with parents who could not support them.

Later, foundling hospitals took over this caring role, with parents placing babies in the revolving cradles set in the doors of such institutions and making their exit unobserved. But with child abandonment reaching a peak in the 19th century, first France, then the rest of Catholic Europe stopped this practice, leading to a sudden decline in abandonment that has lasted until this day.

And the zoot suit riots? These occurred during 1941 in Los Angeles, when American soldiers and sailors, newly stationed in a Mexican-American neighbourhood, started attacking local youths identified by wearing the then fashionable outfit of baggy pants and knee-length coats with wide lapels and heavy shoulder pads. Urged on by a sensationalist press and watched over by a sympathetic police force, the serviceman were given a free run, with more than 600 Mexican-Americans arrested during riots in which they were the principal victims.

Because the encyclopedia is arranged alphabetically rather than in themed sections, there is a certain amount of repetition. But the rewards for the casual reader can be great. The entry on "Child witch", for example, could easily have been lost as part of a more general historical section. But sandwiched between "Child study" and "China", it quickly catches the eye, telling the story of children aged between five and 11 who were often the main witnesses in charges of witchcraft against their parents. But alas for any child who showed too much expertise in his or her description of diabolical goings-on, who might then also be accused. It was probably not the first, and certainly not the last, time parents have found their children act as a soft underbelly in their defence against those intent on rooting out forbidden practices or ideas .

There are many other interesting and sometimes bizarre entries, such as the creepy little dolls with black capes used in the 16th century for the purpose of frightening children into obedience. Or the sinister French governess, Celestine Doudet, arrested in 1855 for torturing five English sisters with the approval of their father, ostensibly to prevent them from masturbating. Or the orphan trains, of the type once caught by Anne of Green Gables, that transported lone children deep into rural north America, where they were auctioned off to local families. Or the banning of infant dummies as undesirable objects, carried out by the French Chamber of Deputies in 1926.

But this encyclopedia is no mere collection of diverting stories. All its entries are written by such leading scholars as Anne Higgonet (child pornography), Ruth Bottigheimer (fairy tales and fables), Ann Dally (sudden infant death syndrome), Jerome Kagan (the US inclusion programme Head Start) and Hugh Cunningham (work and poverty). Cross-referencing is extensive and effective.

There are some drawbacks. Illustrations are in black and white, which is particularly hard on Marilyn Brown's excellent entry on Images of Childhood. Accompanying bibliographies are sometimes out of date, and the index - a key factor in any randomly arranged encyclopedia - is sparse. In the entry on Summerhill school founder AS Neill, that strange duo Homer Lane and Wilhelm Reich, who had such an influence upon him, are both mentioned in the text but get no entry in the index. The hundred pages of primary sources at the end of Volume III are often interesting but eccentric, including an extract from pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis's elderly translation of Zola's great novel Germinal. This is a US publication and there is an understandable bias towards trans-Atlantic subjects.

But the level of writing - a potential weak spot in all encyclopedias - is uniformly good, leading to the hope that younger readers might enjoy these volumes as well.

At the moment children are poorly served when it comes to making their own history interesting. Museums of childhood, where they exist, tend to concentrate on toys of the past owned only by the rich, with few glimpses of the harsher realities once suffered by most children of the type that now prove difficult to believe for a better-cushioned generation.

Children's television usually avoids costly costume drama, and children's authors currently seem happier inventing alternative universes than reclaiming past worlds.

There is also limited general recognition, and few public statues, of those men and women who have most influenced the history of childhood. Take, for example, Walter Hunt, whose invention of the safety pin in 1849 ensured that generations of babies would no longer suffer and sometimes die from the wounds they so frequently suffered when being pinned into their clothes.

Now largely unknown, Hunt gets due mention in this encyclopedia, along with other neglected pioneers. All of these would make excellent source materials for the sort of topics that might engage pupils, if only they could get their hands on these sumptuous but expensive volumes.

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