*** boys clothing: children literary characters

Costumes in Children's Literature

children's sbook illustrations
Figure 1.--This illustration of a boy sitting back relaxed in a row boat is the back cover of 'The Big Budget for Boys' annual. There is no date but illustrations in the book shows WW1 action scenes. Perhaps this could explain his khaki type brown short pants and brown shirt. Interesting to note his hair has a middle path. Yhe illustration is signed, but I'm not sure who did it.

Actual childrens' literature did not begin to emerge in quantity until the 20th century. Until that time children would red adult literature with gender specific themes. Boys might read exciting tales like James Fenamore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Gradually books written specifically for children appeared. Yhis literature also has some useful information on historical boys' clothing.

Assessments of Children's Literature

Although not perfect, two books that may be helpful are Off with Their Heads, by Maria Tatar, and Children's Literature: An Illustrated History by Peter Hunt (although the latter tends to be perhaps more 'Anglo' then HBC would like). Judith Hillman's Discovering Children's Literature may contain a few details that would be of interest.

Children's Literature

Children's literature is a relativly recent development. The ealiest children's literature dates from the 19th century. Time lines vary from country to country. This literature provides a great deal of valuable information on clothing and life style trends. Here some cre has to be used as to the edition used. Some classic books have proved so popular that they have ben read over generations. Modern editors sometimes mke changes designed to make the books more appealing to modern children. Often thesechnges are in the clothing and illustrations.

Girls' Literature

We have received so many inquiries about girls' clothes that we thought it would be a good idea to create a page on girl's literature. Not only will the books have information on girls' clothing, but there may be information on boys' clothing as for the different eras that these books were written.

Mass Marketing

Literature for children began to be mass-marketed in the early 19thb century. Much of this was done for religious purposes. The American Sunday School Union produced thousands of books for children. [Anne Boylan, Sunday School.]

Secular books for children also were mass produced in these years. [John Curtis Crandall, Jr., supervised by Richard C. Wade, "Images and Ideals for Young Americans: A Study of American Juvenile Literature, 1825-1860," University of Rochester, 1957.]

For many years, Disney (to name one example) maintained a cross-licensing agreement with Golden Books, which produced books purportedly of educational value to children. Disney's Little Golden Books often announced that they were produced under the supervision of Ph.D's in education. More generally, George Hecht publications, particularly Parents', reviewed, wrote features about, and carried advertisements for toys, records, movies, and books deemed beneficial to children.

More than just with historical narratives, the mass market of books for children is one of those "parallel" non-school educational institutions that Lawrence Cremin wrote about many years ago. In some cases (advice books for parents), the book market evolved to have some of the same structure as formal schooling. (If you think about a table of contents as a curriculum outline.) Librarians and even a few bookstore owners pride themselves on advising children and their families on selection of material Some educators wondering whether the children's book market is evidence that those non-formal educational institutions have slowly absorbed or deliberately taken on some of the characteristics of formal schooling (with a deliberately planned curriculum, "content delivery" methods, some aspects of centralized supervision.

Historical Fiction

Some childrn's books have placed children in historical settings. As these are not set in contemprary times, they vary greatly in details as to accuracy of clothing and life style details. Here again my knowledge is primarily American and British, but I hope to eventually add other historical information as well.


I have not yet reserched this topic, but am collecting sources. A good source of information on historical fiction for children with some interesting pages on early (late 18th/early 20th-century) historical writing for children is Monica Kiefer, : American Children Through Their Books, 1700-1835 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948), pp. 150-153. There is also probably some relevant material in Gillian Avery, Behold the Child.

One genre which has to be mentioned in the "dime novel". These were not precisely children's books. In fact, some parents forbade the children from reading them. Yet read them American children did. The most successful purveyor of children's literature during the Progressive Era was the Stratemeyer Syndicate, run by Edward Stratemeyer, which produced hundreds of series-books for children on all themes imaginable. Stratemeyer's Western series was "The X Bar X Boys," written under the pseudonym of James Cody Ferris, about two cowboy brothers who live on a ranch. Their last name, believe it or not, is Manley! The series was published during the 1920s and 1930s. Many of Stratemeyer's other, earlier series also deal with "the great outdoors" (frequently set in the West) as the best method to insure masculinity. Search for books written under the names Stratemeyer and Capt. Ralph Bonehill (the pseudonym he used most often for his outdoorsy books). The reader, however, needs to consider all of the dime novels that were published during the period. Though they were roundly criticized as "trash," many of these novels reinforced traditional and conservative ideas about gender. I had a student who reported on "The Colorado Boys" which is available in Dime Novels, Escape Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. The boys not only prove their masculinity hunting in the West, but also in India. I am sorry that I can't remember the author's name.

Another important genre is the early Scouting literature of the turn of the century Progressive Era. There was a substantial outpouring of literature regarding the Boy Scouts (founded during the Progressive Era). The first such book was D.C. Beard's The American Boys Handy Book published in 1882 and intended to show boys who who had been too protected by their middle-class parents how to be "real" boys and live and act in an outdoorsy, freewheeling world. There are chapters about kites, fishing, boats, camping, birding, trapping, dogs, sledding, puppetry and costumes, among other things. The main point is--boys should be enterprising enough to make their own amusements. The book was republished in 1983 by David R. Godine Publishers in Boston. The early Scout Mannuals were very important to early 20th century Amnericam boys. The American Scouting magazine Boys' Life. Especially eraly editions had important literary input. The associated writing of Ernest Thompson Seton,. A good scholarly assessment can be found in: David Macleod's The Age of the Child: Children in America 1890-1920 on children in the Progressive Era. In addition to David Macleod's general work on children in the progressive era, see his Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920.

An important theme in American's children's literature was masculinity. Late 19th and early 20th century children's lliterature sought to perpetuate masuline values. Writers often expressed the need to take boys hunting and fishing and to the west or at least to the country to save them from the cities and endow them with a proper sense of sportsmanship and manhood. The children's books of George Bird Grinnell or a good example. The letters from Theodore Roosevelt to his children and articles in Forest and Stream are other good examples. The works of Mark Twain and Jack London are other examples.

There are a lot of plays for children which were done either in schools or as home entertainments. For an introduction to early children's plays see Jonathan Levy's Gymnasium of the Imagination (Greenwood, 1992) and his and Martha Mahard's Preliminary Checklist of Early Plays (Performing Arts Resources, 1987).

A look at children's textbooks from the Progresssive Era would also be of interest. One researcher has had a look at 19th century U.S. school textbooks. She has looked at hundreds of composition/language arts texts for school-age students, and even in those, there are representations of hunting, often in the form of an illustration, accompanied by directions asking students to write about what they see in the picture. While history textbooks wouldn't ask for that kind of assignment, I suspect they would include representations of hunting.


In Britain, there was quite a lot of historical fiction for children in the late 19th century. The best known of these books nowadays is probably Captain Marryat's story with an English Civil War background, Children of the New Forest. The most prolific writer at the time was G.A. Henty, who wrote novels ranging in historical period from Beric the Briton to various stories dealing with 19th-century battles in which, to anachronistically quote 1066 and All That, the English were very victorious. Most of his books are about English history, and full of what now seems rather gung-ho patriotism; but he did write at least one about American history, With Lee in Virginia". He had plenty of lesser imitators.

There were also a number of writers, mostly female, who placed their emphasis on religious rather than military history. Emily Holt and Emma Leslie were examples. Charlotte Yonge, a much better writer, also wrote such novels. Her best historical novel was probably The Little Duke.

Then there were a few that don't fall neatly into any category. Mary Howitt wrote a number of novels for children in the first half of the 19th century, many of which deal with social conditions. Most of these dealt with then-contemporary issues or very recent history; but I think The Steadfast Gabriel was set in the 17th century. Margaret Roberts wrote a number of historical novels, mostly set in France during or just before or after the Revolution, and usually with political and military issues in the background rather than the forefront--but I could be wrong on some of this as I haven't managed to get hold of most of her books. Two that I have read are A Little Stepdaughter" and Stephanie's Children.

Austin Clare's The Carved Cartoon was another interesting historical novel for children, set in 1660s England.


When a child's series uses an undefined, contemporary setting the covers will get updated regularly but the inside illustrations usually show typical clothes for the copyright date. (Example; current editions of many older Encyclopedia Brown stories show the title character in 1990s clothes on the cover, have the original 60s illustrations inside.)

When a kids' book series is made into a TV show, books in that series will recieve new, photographic covers starring the TV series' cast. These will often be retained for some years after the show's cancellation. (Example; Judy Blume's "Fudge" books) Corollary; if you see kids' books with photographic covers, there probably was a TV series at some point.

As with all rules, there are exceptions; I once found a few Famous Five paperbacks (British edition) where the covers were VERY '80s, the interior illustrations had a late '60s look to them (bell-bottoms, long hair on the boys...), and the text referred to them wearing jeans. Typical printing history; (they were four different stories): First published 1950, This edition 1968, xxth printing 1989. Since I doubt English kids would've worn jeans in 1950, I can only believe the words were changed to keep the story up-to-date.

American Girl

One company has sucessfully merged children's loterature and selling clothing. The American Girl is a non-book company that sells very expensive collectors' dolls that has commissioned a series of four or five fictional biographical books to accompany each doll. The dolls and matching expensive clothing for the girls has classical styles and replicated the costumes of books created to stimulate an interest in the clothes and associated products. Thd concept is specificaly directed at girls. Boys would certainly have less interest in wearing clasically styled clothes.

The American Girls collection obviously was crafted to at least appear as educational as well as entertaining. The American Girls company has some minimal background information at the end of each book, unlike earlier historical novels.

One of the MAJOR tourists sites in Chicago is the American Girl Store just off Michigan Avenue. It's an astounding display of the merging of the marketing of history with the marketing of gender roles. The place is packed, every day, with billions of little girls and their parents; the historical "exhibits" inside also double as sales promotions, and the whole ambiance of the place is designed to create a feel of how "good" American girls used to be. There are also special girl events like tea time in the restaurant and performances by the ballet etc. Also amazing in a totally postmodern way is that there are about twenty dolls (selling for about $80 each) with different skin tones and facial and hair characteristics. One observer who visited the place, a few little girls were standing in front of the exhibit of the model dolls and pointing to the ones that looked like them saying "That's me!" The place needs to have a good critical historical analysis immediately!

Mattel's attempted to ride on the coattails of success of the American Girl series. A few years back, Mattel started producing "historical" Barbies. There were dolls, for example, like "Civil War Nurse Barbie." Given that an HBC contributor found her and her cohort on the drastically reduced shelf, I take it Mattel's attempt was not very successful.

The increase of this informal type of education in the context of progressive education may be part of a conservative force to promote "American values" where there are "clear models" of what American boys and girls are "ideally like". The gendered modelling of the Scholastic book series provide some such clear guidelines. Scholastic is a prime example of that. A review of one of the scholastic books in the Dear America series found that the attitude was that the "market place" should decide whether the errors and stereotypy were acceptable. .Scholastic was the publishing component of an educational institution which was purchased to be a free standing publisher. A visit to their website demonstrates the merchandising links and of course Scholastic books are available through schools which gives them an enhanced credibility and tacitly suggests endorsement by the educational system.

Other Cross Marketing Enterprises

The American Girl phenomenon has raised the question of whether children's books were marketed with toys and other promos in the past. I can think of a couple of examples.

Palmer Cox in 1887 published a series of children's books about the adventures of The Brownies, humorous but didactic stories of little fairies who played pranks on humans. His delightful pen and ink illustrations were then sold to companies who sold everything from threat to soap with them. He also marketed children's toys (stamp sets, cards) and dishes and silverware with the brownie designs.

The biggest entrepreneurial enterprise of the genre, until the American Girl, was probably that built around the Little Colonel books by Annie Fellows Johnston. Department stores had whole sections devoted to the "Little Colonel dresses." Notably the market was little girls not boys. Of course, their popularity had as much to do with the Shirley Temple movies as with the books. And their were dolls, diaries, and other toys marketed as well. So the American Girl phenomenon is certainly not new. The difference today is probably that the books are sold because the toys/dolls are appealling, rather than the other way 'round.

Academic Conferences

We note an interesting academic conference: "The Child Reader 1740-1840", a conference at De Montfort University, Leicester, U.K. supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, held July 5-6, 2002. It is planned to tie in with the end of the first phase of the Hockliffe Project the English Department of De Montfort University will be hosting a two-day conference to examine the culture of children's literature in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Papers read at the conference addressed aspect of children's books and children's reading before 1840. Topics were to include: the reading practices of readers, depictions of children reading (either visual or textual), the reception histories of children's texts, the intended audiences of specific children's literatures, the material culture of children's books, recurrent themes in early children's literature, the work of individual writers or illustrators of children books, the gendering of children's literature, the development of a canon of children's literature, bibliographical problems and opportunities for scholars of early children's literature, methodological problems and opportunities in the study of early children's literature, translated and trans-national children's literatures, the implications of electronic projects for the study of children's literature, and other topics. Confirmed speakers include Brian Alderson, Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Julia Briggs, Andrea Immel, Kim Reynolds, George Rousseau, and Nigel Wood


B. Hurlimann, Three Centuries of Children's Books in Europe Tr. & Edited by B.W. Alderson. xviii,297pp., 28 plates. (Oxford UP, 1967).


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Created: October 22, 1999
Last updated: 1:24 AM 12/8/2007