Small Worlds: The Culture of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France – The work of Professor Sarah Curtis

Have you ever looked over a toy-strewn family room and wondered how kids got so much stuff?  My new research project takes on that question for nineteenth-century France.  In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, toys and books for children were produced and marketed in ever greater numbers.  At the same time, childhood was increasingly romanticized as a special time of innocence in which children’s hearts and minds were shaped, and in France, concerns about a falling birthrate further increased the value of children. 

In a new book-length project, I am examining the development of this child-centric culture, especially among the middle class.  My sources have included material objects, children’s books and magazines, parental advice manuals, department and toy store catalogues, and childhood memoirs.

What has been exciting about the research so far is the chance to consider actual objects in conjunction with written sources.  Dolls, for example, went through a technological transformation in the nineteenth century that made them more lifelike as well as more affordable.  Girls could also read books in which imaginary dolls had adventures and subscribe to magazines where they could learn to sew doll clothes.  They had their choice of doll furniture and accessories advertised by the new department and toy store catalogues, especially at Christmas time, now marketed as the children’s holiday par excellence.  At the end of the century, scientific and mechanical toys exploded (sometimes literally in the case of chemistry sets), right along with the science fiction stories of Jules Verne.  A mere few years after the automobile was invented, boys could even play with a toy version designed to fall to pieces just like real-life racecars.

And just as in our own time, there were plenty of critics who lamented that children had too many toys, that commercial forces were ruining childhood, and that the simple toys were the best.  As the French say -- plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Christmas catalogue cover, Au Printemps department store, Paris (1909)