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2 Mar 2023

The invention of ‘childhood’

Written by Sophie Torrens, Visitor Services Assistant
A book called The Little Duke is displayed next to another called The Cruise of the Midge. The cover is illustrated in a typical Edwardian style.
The Edwardian era saw the invention of ‘childhood’. This article takes a look at the important role books played at this time.

The literary world of the late 19th and early 20th century is filled with depictions of children, from Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Tiny Tim to Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J M Barrie’s Peter Pan. The turn of the century saw a change in how these children were portrayed, from the starving Victorian orphan Oliver to the Edwardian Peter who never had to grow up.

For much of the 19th century, poverty and disease meant that infant mortality was high. Children in poorer families were seen as potential earners almost as soon as they could walk; they were viewed like small adults, and childhood was not seen as a separate or important distinction. However, the end of the 19th century brought rapid changes. The 1878 Factory and Workshop Act saw a complete ban on the employment of children under the age of 10, and the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 had made it compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 13 to go to school. Charitable foundations such as Barnardo’s were founded to provide care and support for vulnerable children.

In part due to these changes, the beginning of the 20th century saw the concept of childhood become properly cemented within society. For the Edwardian child, childhood became something to be cherished, particularly for the middle and upper classes who had the means to lavish their children with toys, games and days out. Authors at the time capitalised on this new children’s market, with Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit published in 1902 and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows in 1908. These offered fantastical worlds of anthropomorphised animals for young readers to escape into.

However, this experience of childhood was limited to the middle and upper classes. It has been estimated that in 1904 around 18% of working households were in absolute poverty. Working class children had far less free time and their parents didn’t have the financial means to lavish them with fancy new toys, instead making their children carved wooden toys and peg dolls.

While children growing up in the early 20th century would have had more freedom to play and learn than previous generations, their time was still controlled by rigid societal expectations. Children could only play with certain toys on a Sunday, and there were clear divisions in what boys and girls were expected to play with, and how. For boys, toy soldiers and trains presented them with an exciting world to escape into, and a glimpse of all the opportunities their future could present. For girls, playing with doll’s houses and dolls enforced a maternal, nurturing role.

When the Blackie family moved into the Hill House in 1904, they had five children, ranging in age from 3 months to 13 years old. The Blackie family owned a successful publishing business – Blackie & Son – and the changing perceptions of childhood in the early 20th century presented a huge opportunity for their business. Following the Education Acts, many more children were literate (even if their parents weren’t), so there was a market for reasonably priced children’s books and school textbooks. Blackie & Son had focused on education from its formation in 1809, with founder John Blackie arguing that books were ‘tools of enlightenment.’ Newspapers at the time advertised Blackie books as the ‘ideal Christmas present’. Blackie & Son remained in business until the 1990s, with many people today remembering receiving Blackie books as gifts and as Sunday school prizes.

The Hill House was remembered as the perfect place to grow up by the Blackie children, full of hiding places and fun design choices to inspire their imagination. It was built at a time when children could truly be children for the first time in history, instead of small adults. Authors of the time created characters and worlds that captured this sense of innocence, fun and imagination.

Blackie & Son became synonymous with children’s literature from the Edwardian era and beyond, with many visitors to the Hill House today having a childhood connection to the company. The ideal of childhood as a time to play and learn was promoted by Edwardian writers and was clearly at the forefront of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s mind when he designed the Hill House, with plenty of spaces to read, play hide and seek, and even a space to put on plays.

This World Book Day, we’ll all be dreaming of a place like this to curl up with a book!

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