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Children, Buffalo and Boston

“Kitchen garden work” “Agnes” the doll has all the care and affection which a dozen feminine members of the “Kitchen garden class” can give. The deaconesses of Grace Church, through the medium of “Agnes” instill a love for household neatness and sanitation as well as the laws of personal hygiene.  Buffalo, NY 1918. 

An Italian, a Jew, an Irish lad, a Hungarian and two American boys, just a part of the class in Basketry which is conducted at Grace Church. Buffalo, NY 1918. 

“Contentment.” Children’s Settlement. Morgan Memorial. Boston, July 1918.

Photographs #H3501 and #H3502 on page 200 of the Mission Albums, Cities #1(Box 2001-4-1). Photograph #H3734 on page 295 of the Mission Albums, Cities #1 (Box 2001-4-1)

       It is no surprise that images of children dominate the “Cities #1” mission album. Children are a powerful symbol, and have served a representational function in multiple cultural narratives that are relevant to this collection. The narrative of nurture enabled women to assume power in a number of professions, which included their ascension as leaders in the missionary movement, at a time when women as a whole were emerging from the Victorian role of ‘angel of the house’ into the New Woman ideology of the Progressive era. This narrative configured children as a primary motivator for missionary work: the education, physical care (feeding and healthcare), and emotional health of children, which, according to this thinking, were best handled by women, and drew on the “angel of the house” ideology of domesticity for its argumentative force. Children were also symbols in an emerging nationalist sentiment that accompanied missionary work, even missions to locations within the United States.  An influx of immigrants (from Eastern Europe in particular), the further encroachment of the U.S. government onto Native lands in the west, and the Northern Migration of former slaves had created an atmosphere of ethnocentrism in many reform movements. Within this atmosphere, children represented a point of origin: if children were raised in a particular way, one which coincided with ideologies of whiteness and Western-ness, their assimilation into United States’ culture would be more complete. This thinking had spiritual implications, as reform movements shifted away from Calvinist ideas of original sin and toward the belief that one could be nurtured into heaven. 

       Visual culture played a key role in supporting and transmitting these cultural narratives. Some theories of visual culture suggest that images are an exceptionally efficient way in which ideologies are communicated because the immediacy of the image stymies critical intervention. And indeed, images of children permeated Progressive era visual technologies, from the family photograph album to Jacob Riis’s magic lantern shows and Lewis Hine’s work for the National Child Labor Committee, from “Fitter Families” contests to “before and after” photographs from Native American boarding schools, as Shawn Michelle Smith, Valerie Babb, and Laura Wexler have documented. 

       In this cultural context, two images juxtaposed on page 200 of the album deserve attention. The top photograph portrays a pair of young girls, identified as members of the “kitchen garden class.” Both are dressed in skirted uniforms with their hair adorned in bows and are playing with a life-like baby doll while surrounded by miniature furniture. One girl braids the doll, Agnes’s, hair, while the other carries a paper-like object  (perhaps a diaper for the doll?) in her hand.  The boys in the bottom image are dressed in trousers with caps atop their crisply trimmed hair. One of the boys hoists a large coil of material for their “basketry” class, another boy draws pieces from the coil, and the rest sit or stand with their projects in various stages of completion. 

       In both photographs, the classes take place on the street, rather than inside a classroom. It is unclear why are they are portrayed in this unusual way, when an education on the street is precisely what missionary work is designed to protect children from. Was it to highlight the contrast between the presumably civilizing and domestic nature of the tasks and the urban environment, which was often construed as a gritty, dirty, dangerous, and wild space? Perhaps it was simply that the light on the street was better (though other photographs of classes that appear in the album were taken indoors)?

       Aside from the gendered markers of dress and task these juxtaposed images represent, the captions indicate the nationalist narratives that surround them. The caption of the photograph of the girls emphasizes the “feminine” nature of “care and affection,” which implies that those who were producing the photographs—taking the pictures, assembling the albums, exhibiting the images—and those who later viewed the photographs believed that it was important for girls’ education to be integrated with domestic labor. The language also portrays the girls as in need of civilization, a concept marked here by the signifiers of “neatness,” “sanitation,” and “ personal hygiene.” This perceived need implies a corollary fear on the part of the multiple authors and consumers of the image that the girls’ urban, ethnicized environment could otherwise lead to their de-evolution into filth and neglect. The doll is such an overt tool as to be described as a “medium” of the “deaconesses” (which emphasizes women’s professional role).   When compared to a very different image of children with a doll, an image of children at work in a doll factory, this domestic vision is revealed to be a fantasy and a potentially cruel one. 

       The caption that accompanies the lower image of the boys is even more overt in its ethnocentricism.  The boys are described as if they are types rather than full subjects.  Although it is true that the American boys are also typified, only the Irish and American boys are described with a noun (boys or lad), with ethnic origin standing as an adjective, while the other boys are described with the adjective (Jewish, Italian, and Hungarian) being converted into a noun, a linguistic strategy that connotes the boys’ otherness. Although basket weaving is sometimes construed as a feminine task, the boys, in contrast to the girls, are portrayed as engaged in productive labor that is active and may have implications for the public sphere. 

       The fact that the girls are described in the context of “care and affection” and the boys are described as eugenic types points to a tension that can be observed throughout the album.  Children are variously described with language that ranges from “little mother” to “one of Buffalo’s problems.” (#H104, pg. 6, Cities #1, Box 2001-4-1 and #H3332, pg. 172, Cities #1, Box 2001-4-1) The images that correspond with such language equally reflect this tension—a teenage girl hugging a younger child accompanies the first, while a portrait of a teenage girl facing the camera head on accompanies the second. This tension raises interesting questions for any contemporary viewer of these albums.  Perhaps they indicate the tension inherent in women’s struggle for professional respect as they transitioned in the nation’s consciousness from Victorian idols to “Gibson Girls.” Or perhaps they illustrate the tension described by Laura Wexler in her book Tender Violence, in which she argues that the American imperialism, which intensified during the Progressive era was markedly different than British imperialism. This difference, according to Wexler, is that while British imperialism was coded in primarily (masculine) militaristic terms, American imperialism was coded in primarily (feminine) benevolent terms (Wexler 2000, 21-22). Her primary evidence for this argument is the work produced by professional female photographers at the time. 

       The image of a baby that appears at the end of the Cities #1 album intensifies questions about children’s symbolic role in these materials. In the picture, the child, illuminated by a shaft of light, clasps a plush toy while she gazes away from the camera.  All of the other pictures in the album are captioned with a documentary tone, but this image is captioned in an aesthetic way; it is the only image that bears a title:  “Contentment.”  The title translates the photograph into a work of art rather than a record.  The child’s image overtly becomes a symbol of an abstract, presumably higher, concept, rather than serving as evidence of good works.  Her expression heightens the abstraction. Alan Trachtenberg argues that expression is the element of portrait photography most designed to communicate an “inner essence” or “character,” which distinguished photographic subjects, those that represented respectability, middle-class subjectivity, and often, whiteness, from photographic “types,” those who appeared in mugshots and anthropological studies (Trachtenberg 1989, 27-60). The fact that this image is the only overtly aesthetic one in the album makes it impossible to resist. “Contentment”-- a noun -- the child embodies satisfaction. What does her aestheticization tell us about the representational function of the other children in the album? 


Shelly Jarenski
Associate Professor of English
University of Michigan—Dearborn
Author of Immersive Words


Select Bibliography

Babb, Valerie. 1998. Whiteness Visible:  The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literature. New York:  NYU Press.

Smith, Shawn Michelle. 1999. American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture. Princeton, NJ:  Princeton UP.  

Trachtenberg, Alan. 1989. Reading American Photographs: Images as History from Matthew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill and Wang. 

Wexler, Laura. 2000. Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of US Imperialism. Durham: U of North Carolina P.