Weiss, Erica E.  Children's Periodicals ... and the Influence of Mary Mapes Dodge.  The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century Women's Writings.  Ed. Glynis Carr.  Online.  Internet.  Posted: Fall 1999. http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/MMD/weiss.html
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Children's Periodicals in the United States During the Nineteenth Century...
 
 
Children's Periodicals in the United States
During the Nineteenth Century and
the Influence of Mary Mapes Dodge

By Erica E. Weiss
 

The nineteenth century marked one of the most influential periods for an emerging American nation, for British ties were being severed and a transformation of the social, economic, and political structures had begun. Americans developed a nationalistic pride that manifested in their idea of the "American dream," a belief in hope for a better future both morally and economically. The future of this newborn nation stood on the forefront of the American mind, and thus moral character became an important issue to society. Literature during this period reflected the attitude of good moral behavior leading to a promising future. Americans realized that the guidance of children would direct the future of this nation, and therefore the age of children's literature dawned in America. Although children's stories date far before the nineteenth century, it was during this time that careful attention to children's writing and book production took place. The "Golden Age" of children's literature began, and this set the stage for future children's novels and periodicals developed throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.

The American publishing industry developed slowly compared to Britain, for Americans lacked many resources and skills for improving technology when they first detached from England. Significant improvements emerged gradually, but as the technology for printed material became more advanced, the population of readers in society increased and the necessity for books greatly expanded. At first, the main audience for novels and periodicals produced during this time focused on adults; however, with the future of society in mind, many writers shifted their focus away from the adult audience to children. In 1820, fictional juvenile literature emerged and marked the beginning of an age for children's literature. During this period, Americans were concerned with developing and molding their children for the future, and therefore education through books at home and at school focused mainly on moral education.

Most of the fiction produced before 1860 provided models for children of a wholesome life centered around moralistic values. The authors did not concentrate on detailed descriptions of setting, characters, or plot because the purpose of these stories was to teach a proper way of life. The setting did not illustrate the surrounding homes, neighborhoods, or cities of the characters, and also did not provide a sense of unity among the characters of the story. The characters were usually dry and lifeless because the authors wanted the children to easily identify with them. Lastly, the plot was not overly developed but was simple and anticipated by its readers. Adults believed that children would not learn about appropriate behaviors if the story presented complex characters engaged in an intricate and complicated plot. The stories, however, did provide enough entertainment for the children to entice reading.

Authors usually provided moralistic education through the exemplary behavior of "good" children. The "bad" children were characterized by a single fault that lead them to a disastrous experience, from which they barely evaded punishment. For instance, a "girl whose fondness for sweets took her into the pantry by night to lick the honey jar managed to burn down the house with the candle she left there" (MacLeod 91). Tales such as these taught children the importance of leading a "good" life, and following the rules set forth by parental authorities and society. In some stories, good children transformed the bad children and to some extent even the adults to a more virtuous life.

Although early children's books reflected the American nation and hope for the future, authors omitted several aspects of society from these stories. First, Americans began to move from the country to the city for better employment and economic opportunities. The cities, however, were believed to harbor immoralistic behavior, for many pursued a chance to accumulate more wealth no matter the cost. As the nation grew, corruption engulfed the cities, and therefore authors avoided setting their stories among the destructive environments. Secondly, the expansion of the U.S. into the West was hardly mentioned because expansion illustrated another aspect of a selfish society attempting to obtain more land and wealth at any cost. Lastly, authors neglected references to other races in stories, such as encounters with Indians in the West, or the horrors of slavery. Authors wanted to create a peaceful and exemplary model for children to live by without corrupting them during childhood with the destructive behaviors in society.

By the year 1850, the attention of children's literature steered away from the importance of moralistic behavior in society and began to focus on the significance of "life as it is" (Kelly, 380). The most influential literature for children appeared at this time in the form of a monthly periodical. These periodicals provided fantasy stories, verses, biographies, and illustrations only for children. Periodicals focused the attention away from simple and dry plots and instead to extraordinary and sometimes complicated plots and adventures. Periodicals created before this time mainly concentrated on religion, but by the mid-century the content of these magazines completely changed. Periodicals were usually distributed monthly to its readers, but many of these were issued for the Christmas season, in which they were bound and given to children as presents. The cost of magazines was relatively cheap because the distribution was intended for both poor and wealthy children alike. The most influential and well-known magazine of the nineteenth century was created in 1873 and edited by the famous children's author, Mary Mapes Dodge. Dodge's magazine, St. Nicholas, played a significant role in the development and content of children's periodicals during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and even well into the early twentieth century.

Mary Mapes Dodge is the often referred to as the "leader in juvenile literature" (Clarke, 1059), for she helped create and perpetuate the most widely circulated and read children's magazine during a time when American printing technology greatly improved and enabled the mass production of magazines and books. Dodge was born on January 26, 1831 in New York City. She grew up in a prominent family with two sisters. Her "own reminiscences were of 'a devoted father and mother and a happy childhood, a remarkably happy childhood, watched over with loving care'" (Gannon 3). Beginning in her early childhood, Dodge and her sisters were educated by a tutor in their home. Their father introduced them to a large variety of literature from the Bible to Shakespeare because at that time Dodge's father believed that children's literature was "a dreary wasteland" (Gannon 4). Dodge's early exposure to literature enabled her to develop a gift and appreciation for art, music, and writing. In her teenage years, Dodge could skillfully write and she assisted her father with his writings for pamphlets.

In 1851 Mary celebrated her marriage to William Dodge, and within the next 4 years, she gave birth to two sons, James and Harrington. The Dodge family confronted several hardships throughout their life together. In 1857, William faced serious financial difficulties concerning debts and the destruction of the company he worked for. During that same year, at the age of six, their son James was diagnosed with a fatal sinus disease. The effect of these disastrous events caused William to leave his family in 1858. He left for a walk from which he never returned. A month after his disappearance his body was found dead from an apparent drowning.

After the death of her husband, Mary was left in a bad financial position and with two sons to raise on her own. At this time, Mary "resolved 'to take up her life again in the old spirit of rejoicing; to rear and educate her boys as their father would have done; to do a man's work with the persistent application and faithfulness of a man, to gain a man's pay, yet to leave herself freedom and freshness to enter into all her children's interests and pursuits as their comrade and friend" (Gannon 7). Mary would not allow the unfortunate events of her husband's death and financial difficulty stand in her way from educating her sons and providing them with the life they deserved. In addition to educating her sons, she began writing and editing in 1859. Mary worked with her father to publish two magazines, the Working Farmer and the United States Journal. The editorial work she used for these magazines helped to shape her writing skills, which she later applied to edit the most successful children's magazine of her time.

Some of Mary's early writings before the publication of St. Nicholas include The Irvington Stories (1864) and Hans Brinker (1865). Hans Brinker is by far Dodge's most well known story, for it was published in several languages all over the world and this classic was considered "the best and most faithful juvenile story" (Clarke 1063). Four years after the publication and success of Hans Brinker, Dodge began working for a newspaper known as Hearth and Home." Dodge worked on the juvenile and household departments under the editorship of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Roswell Smith, one of the founders of the children's magazine Scribner's Monthly, observed Dodge's work at Hearth and Home. Smith considered Dodge for the editor of his newly created children's magazine, St. Nicholas, named for the patron saint for children. Dodge faced a difficult decision because she wanted to pursue novel writing and other challenging fields, but her heart remained with children. "Many gifted men and women were writing novels; no one was doing all that could be done--ought to be done--for the boys and girls" (Clarke 1063), and thus Dodge accepted the position of editor for St. Nicholas.

Dodge's goal for her children's magazine was to create literature that inspired and interested children. In 1873 she anonymously wrote for Scribner's Monthly,"a successful children's magazine "must not be a milk-and-water variety of the periodical for adults. In fact, it needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the other; its cheer must be the cheer of the bird-song; it must mean freshness and heartiness, life and joy" (Clarke 1063). Mary clearly illustrates here her intention for the path St. Nicholas. Mary hoped to portray the traditional values of society, to educate children, to provide enjoyable entertainment, and to prepare them for "life as it is" (Kelly 380).

Dodge took careful consideration for the layout of her magazine so she could fulfill her goals for a successful children's magazine. Two important obstacles confronted Dodge when she considered the type of articles to include in her magazine. The first problem she faced was how to entice her readers and maintain their attention. Dodge's technique to overcome this problem was the use of "regular departments" and "reader involvement" (Gordon, 380). The most famous regular department found in her magazine was 'Jack-in-the-Pulpit'. 'Jack-in-the-Pulpit' was "the inimitably wise and witty little preacher whose tiny discourses of the keenest sense and most inspiriting nonsense, . . . were a feast for the mind and souls of young folks every month" (Clarke 1065). Jack was a maternal type character that reflected Dodge's own personality. Dodge hoped to instill value and morals into the children without directly preaching to them. Jack provided an advantageous resource for accomplishing this goal because he was witty, humorous, and sincere. The children reading the story could easily identify with Jack's "preachings" and accept them because they were not directly aimed at the reader. In addition, Dodge added two more characters, Deacon Green and Little Schoolma'am, to provide authority figures and the introduction of new and interesting knowledge for the readers.

The second technique Dodge employed for her periodical was reader involvement. Dodge included two features, "The Puzzle Box" and "The Letter-Box." "The Puzzle Box" provided entertainment for the readers through riddles or games. The answers to these games, however, were not included in the issue of the magazine. Readers had to send their answers to the publisher for judging, and only then could they find out the true answers. "The Letter-Box" included letters written to Dodge from the readers. Publication for readers was not only included in this section, but Dodge also encouraged children to contribute their own literature to the magazine.

The second problem Dodge faced when creating this magazine was the criterion for the material contributed to the magazine. Dodge wanted to avoid only focusing on moralistic values for the children, and rather present the world as it was. Dodge accomplished these goals through her assemblage of non-fiction and fiction contributions from the many writers and artists during that time. The non-fiction material sought to provide information about the modern world, while the fiction material focused on a virtuous world. The non-fiction and fiction material can be broken down into several different categories to reflect the nature of the material Dodge used. The non-fiction content can be separated into travel and geography, biography, history, science, and practical matters. Dodge attempted to provide children with information about far-away places, historical figures and events, natural biological wonders, and skills for living in their society.

While the non-fiction content provided information concerning life and the world, the fiction material "intended to equip them [readers] for the world as it ought to be" (Kelly 383). The fiction content can be broken down into four main categories---technical, fantasy, historical, and dealing with everyday life. The fictional material provided knowledge about scientific discoveries, courtesy and manners, historical events, and domestic life. Although some of these categories overlap with the non-fiction content, the material is not presented in the same manner. The fictional stories were more imaginative, did not adhere to a specific structure, and appealed to the readers because of the contemporary issues addressed. The historical fictional stories, for instance, included race issues such as Indians and slavery. These ideas are fairly new in the publishing world, and early periodicals did not address the issue of race. Dodge also brought domestic life to her fiction by including daily life, parental occupations, play, chores, and school, which was also a new idea in magazines.

St. Nicholas clearly contrasted to early periodicals of this century. First, the vocabulary and issues addressed were mature and developed. Dodge did not cater to the children because she did not want to water down adult issues for the children, but rather address the issues directly as if adults were her audience. St. Nicholas also illustrates many traditional values present in the second half of the century that were drastically different before 1850. Before 1850, readers learned about moralistic behavior and were sheltered from the world and society. Dodge wanted to instill good behavior into the children, but she also wanted to present the world as the children will see it as they grow up. Dodge did not want to hide reality from these children, but to teach them how to survive in the world. Lastly, Dodge represented her teachings and materials through entertainment and fully developed characters and themes. The characters of magazines were no longer lifeless, but instead quite lifelike, for they represented children of the world during that time. The plots became more imaginative and less predictable because the contributors added fantasy and adventures not seen in early literature.

St. Nicholas became one the most successful magazines for children during the second half of the nineteenth century. Circulation increased to almost 70,000 children all over the U.S. The success of this periodical can be attributed to Dodge's dedication and the many contributors. Dodge's persistence in finding extraordinary talents such as Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, President Theodore Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sarah Orne Jewett provided a variety of intellectual and artistic material for children every month. St. Nicholas' began in 1873 and continued for the next 30 years with a few publications after Dodge's death in 1905. Dodges dedication to children is clearly evident in the hard work she devoted to this magazine. Dodge is an inspirational women who set goals people thought impossible, but ones she was able to achieve. In a memoir written after Dodge's death in a St. Nicholas publication, Dodge is described as a woman who put her heart into her work and achieved the goals she put forth. "What she attempted, she performed. There was no emergency, great or small, to which she was not equal; there was no Hill of Difficulty" (Clarke 1064). She was a woman to be truly admired, for her thirty years of work dedicated to children has influenced the world of periodicals ever since.

 
 

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