Archive for the ‘children’ Category

To those wearing white one week longer,

The great Brian Distelberg, a PhD candidate in history at Yale, returns today to these pages. In case you missed it, check out his musings on Connecticut. And check out his own website, where he writes about his research, contemporary politics and culture, and LGBT issues.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) turns 100 this year, and as Katherine Q. Seelye recently observed in the New York Times, the anniversary finds the Scouts facing “a host of issues”: plummeting membership (from a 1973 peak of 4.8 million to 2.8 million now), an $18.5 million jury verdict stemming from a sexual abuse case, and ongoing challenges to its exclusion of atheists, gay people, and girls under 13.

Given that I currently fall into two of these three categories, it’s not surprising that I often felt a bit ill-at-ease during the eight years I spent as a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout. But memories of that youthful discomfort now feed my curiosity about the remarkably under-examined place the Scouts have historically occupied in American society and popular mythology, and encourage me to look skeptically on the sort of fuzzy ahistoricism that prompted Seelye to declare that the Scouts were “long an icon of wholesomeness in a simpler America.”  As Michael Rosenthal wrote in his 1986 study of the Boy Scouts in Britain, “immunity from critical scrutiny has left Scouting almost entirely in the hands of its own historians and publicists, a situation that is not helpful in trying to understand the origins and meaning of any movement.”

Although now a quarter-century old, Rosenthal’s diagnosis remains surprisingly applicable to the case of Scouting in the United States. David Macleod’s social history Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (1983) examines the Scouts’ Progressive-era origins, and Jay Mechling analyzes a contemporary Scout troop’s summer camp rituals in On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth (2001). A few unpublished dissertations also cover the organization’s early years. But large swaths of the Boy Scouts’ history, including the wartime and Cold War decades when it enjoyed its greatest popularity, remain largely unexplored—to the detriment of our understanding of American political conservatism, youth culture, suburbanization and recreation, and masculinity and male sexuality, among other topics.

Lack of easy access to BSA organizational records is, of course, a major obstacle.  (The National Scouting Museum, which moved to its current Irving, TX, location in 2002, offers few useful exhibits on its website, and researchers must apply, and pay a daily usage fee, to examine to its holdings.) But the digital archive can provide inquiring historians an alternative means of exploring the organization’s place in American society, particularly as revealed through the voluminous print culture produced by and about the Scouts in its century of existence.

The Boy Scout Handbook is probably the best known of these publications. The handbook, which sets out and explains the Scout Oath and Law, describes the requirements to advance from rank to rank, and offers information on subjects from camping to fitness to good citizenship, has passed through twelve editions since 1910. (It carried the title Handbook for Boys until 1959.) Jeff Snowden, scoutmaster of Troop 97 in Fort Collins, Colorado, maintains a detailed online compendium of images of Boy Scout, Scoutmaster, and other Scout handbooks. The images, which accompany Snowden’s study of the handbook’s evolution, reveal telling shifts in the Scouts’ self-presentation and traces of wider social changes.

Around 1950, for instance, the fifth edition’s cover was redrawn reflect the introduction of “overseas caps”popularized in the U.S. armed forces during World War II—to replace “campaign hats” in the Scout uniform. Scouts of color appear on the back cover in 1965, and on the front in 1972. And since 1990, the covers have shifted from depicting hiking, camping, and fishing to emphasizing more “extreme” outdoor activities, especially whitewater rafting and kayaking. (Troop 97’s website only includes handbook covers; the full text of reprint editions of the 1911 handbook and 1913-1914 scoutmaster handbook are on Google Books.)

Between 1910 and 1930, the early handbook was joined by a flurry of inexpensive juvenile fiction featuring the Scouts. (more…)

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Dear Panama-Hat-sporting summerers,

Most of what I knew about fraternities I learned from watching Animal House and Old School. Until, that is, I read The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities by Nicholas Syrett, assistant professor of history at University of Northern Colorado . Published in 2009 by UNC Press, Syrett’s lucid, ambitious, and dizzyingly well-researched book follows the birth and growth of the American fraternity from the 1800s to the present, with anecdotes and evidence from chapters across the country. Casual readers will certainly walk away with plenty of fascinating facts to wow their friends (first fraternity: Kappa Alpha Society at Union College, founded in 1825; first residential frat house: Zeta Psi house at UC Berkeley, built in 1876; first instance of beer funneling: okay, no evidence on this one just yet). But the book truly excels in tracking the shifts in “manly” and “masculine” behavior among fraternity brothers over two centuries, as standards around scholarship, intimacy, sexuality, and aggression continually changed.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on two projects at the moment.  One, that will probably result in an article considers a male couple together from the 20s to the 60s in Illinois and Hawaii, who lived as father and son though they were not biologically related.  The elder actually adopted the younger in the 1960s.  The second is what I’m hoping will be a book about the history of child marriage and the regulation of child sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth-century United States.  I’m interested in how the institution of marriage has been used to legitimize that which we otherwise prohibit (child sexuality) and also the ways that children themselves manipulated the law because they recognized this.

What digital resources do you rely on?
Given that the web existed by the time I got to college, I am remarkably un-savvy about matters technological. I use JSTOR religiously for academic articles and am a recent convert to the American Historical Newspapers database.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Someone once told me that if writing wasn’t going well, and if you were the type of person who could generally recognize when it was (as most of us probably are), then just take a break.  As a result I saw many movies at the Angelika, Sunshine, and Paris (my very favorite) theatres in the middle of a weekday afternoon.  And was much better able to return to writing the next morning.

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
I was really fascinated by the way that men (mis)behaved in groups and the history behind this sort of behavior.  Why was it that I found myself scared when I walked down the street and noticed that a group of young men approached from the other direction?  Why was this fear actually a rational response, given what sociologists and anthropologists have told us about young men’s behavior in groups?  From there I just picked a group of men (white college fraternities) and started researching their history.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
I concur with Tania Modleski’s earlier advice that you should pick something that you truly love.  To that I would add that you should envision your dissertation as the book that it will most likely become.  I have seen many people postpone a crucial area of research while writing their dissertations, thinking that they will leave it “for the book.”  Once you get a job, finding the time—in the midst of the rest of one’s life as well as that job—to do all the extra research and transform a dissertation into a book is hard.  If it’s in a state of looking and reading like a book already, your first few years of teaching are a lot easier and a lot less stressful.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
I’m going to pick two, but they’re both by the same person.  Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).  In both of them Goffman is really smart in talking about everyday behavior and the ways that we, as humans, are cognizant of how we behave and what it says about us as people.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You has little to do with my own academic interests but it still haunts me, as does most of his fiction.

What primary source do you dream of finding?
Of course the answer depends on the project, but right now: the diary of a child bride, circa 1850.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?
I am much more likely to be distracted by things non-web related—cleaning, food, the telephone—but I tend to check email obsessively (sort of a website?) and I do love the ladies of GoFugYourself.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
I get really irritated by self-conscious affectation in writing.  When people invent new words to describe things for which words already exist, it just seems such a transparent attempt to link one’s name to something in hopes of securing a reputation.  Claiming the invention of a new and innovative methodology that looks suspiciously similar to what many of us are already doing is also rather precious.

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Dear power nappers,

On Saturday, David and I headed to the vertical Long Island—that is, New Jersey—to meet my new nephew Sammy, a beautiful little boy who has the eyes of his father (my brother), the ears of his mother, and the sleep patterns of a lazy-scholar-to-be: he spent the majority of our visit napping, waking up only to say hello and to eat.

Detail from Baby's Rhyme BookSo in honor of Sammy, I bring you today the marvelous Baldwin Library of Children’s Literature, courtesy of the University of Florida. The digital archive includes over 5000 books from the early 1700s to the present, including Baby’s Rhyme Book, from 1886, which starts out with the rousing tale “Kit-ty’s Day”: “9 A.M. Hungry, and tired of waiting for those people who will not come down; so I am obliged to help myself. Cream not so thick as it ought to be, but I do not complain.” Though if any book deserves a reissue, it’s the handsomely illustrated Jolly Animal ABC (1888), which features a fiddling pig and a truly relaxed hare.


Far less kid-friendly today is the 1876 book Simple Addition by a Little Nigger, published in New York, which follows an ever-increasing number of black children as they get into trouble.

Simple Addition

For Sammy’s sake, when choosing children’s books for bedtime, I’ll stick to clever fauna, like this finely-dressed specimen from Palmer Cox’s Funny Animals.


Sleep well little ones!

Sartorially yours,


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