27 October 2004

100 Years Past

Back in the early part of the century, one of the most prolific writers was a woman named Carolyn Wells. While she wrote articles and mysteries, she was most well-known for her children’s stories, chiefly those for girls.

Wells did several series, including the Patty Fairfield stories, which I believe I’ve spoken of briefly before. The series starts with Patty at fourteen visiting relatives, then follows her to school and college, abroad and then to courtship. Patty’s dad is not rich, but well-to-do enough that Patty isn’t forced to work and always has lots of nice party dresses and things. It’s a much more innocent world, where middle-class girls of seventeen weren’t too old to sit in Dad’s lap while the family gathered around the fire and while descriptions of clothing abounded were full of activities rather than lovesick teenagers mooning over the opposite sex. Patty always had something doing, whether it was a picnic or a charity bazaar or sightseeing.

Wells’ other series was for younger girls and concerned Marjorie Maynard, a lively twelve-year old, again in an upper middle-class family. Unlike Patty, she has siblings: older Kingdon, the only boy, and younger Kitty and the obligatory cute small child with a lisp, Rosy.

The differences are almost shockingly startling, and it has nothing to do with the family having horses instead of a car, traveling by steam train instead of airplane, and using crank telephones. Marjorie at twelve—and her friends of the same age—are still little girls. They play with doll houses and dolls, play tag and climb trees, and the thought of boys as future romantic mates never crosses their minds. It’s so pleasant and relaxing watching them get into mischief no worse than marking up the front stairs with their heavy shoes or splashing water at Grandma’s hired man. They get to be real kids and not premature women, with no sturm und drang about premarital sex, makeup, sexy clothing, and violence in school.

Interestingly enough, they are also smaller in stature as well; one can see how today’s children physically mature so much faster. Marjorie’s Uncle Steve and Grandmother build a tree house for her and her friends and furnish it for her with wicker chairs that are "not of a size for grown people, but were just right for twelve-year-old girls." And these are well-fed well-cared-for children, not underfed waifs from the slums--I don’t think I know a twelve-year-old today who is not adult size and who would fit in those quaint little wicker chairs!

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