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This blog is for long and short reviews of books read,
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23 April 2007

Stories for "Wide Awake" Youngsters

Many children's magazines flourished in the 19th century. While several were published by religious groups and featured highly-moral stories, others were secular, although milder moral stories were the rule, and disobedient children or those urchins who smoked or used slang were reformed (except in the weekly Youth's Companion, where even mention of tobacco or "drink" was forbidden).

While St. Nicholas was the most remembered of these publications and had the second-longest run, others were quite well-known during their time: Merry's Museum (edited for some time by Louisa May Alcott), Our Young Folks (whose merge with St. Nicholas upon the latter magazine's 1873 debut was unknown to editor J.T. Trowbridge until it was a fait accompli), and Wide Awake, published by Daniel Lothrop starting in 1875; he later married Harriet Mulford Stone, better known as "Margaret Sidney," whom he met when she submitted the first of the "Five Little Peppers" stories to the magazine. Wide Awake was also later bought out by St. Nicholas (in 1893).

Having finished my St. Nicholas collection, I thought I would add one or two other titles of the same time period, but so far I've only obtained some bound volumes of Wide Awake. My first was the June-November 1889 volume, "CC," my oldest, "R" from 1884 arrived today (but I won't be reading it for a while as it needs major repairs as did the "CC" volume). The oldest I have read at this point is "Z" from 1888.

In format, the Wide Awake volumes closely resemble St. Nicholas as well as other adult magazines of the time: two column 10-point type, with engravings as illustrations. It has a couple of regular features: "Men and Things," short anecdotes about discoveries, people, or even cute stories about the things small children say, and "Tangles," a short puzzle page.

I'm probably biased by my St. Nicholas collection, but the stories in Wide Awake seem a bit more didactic than those of its competitor. All the fiction, even the continuing adventures of the Pepper clan, seem to emphasize ideals and lessons learned; these qualities are also present in St. Nicholas despite Mary Mapes Dodge insistence that the magazine not be too didactic, but of a lesser emphasis. For instance, one continuing "serial" of Volumes BB and CC is a series of letters from "Daisy," a newly-married middle class young lady in Boston, to her friend "Pattie," in which Daisy usually works some instruction in good manners, for instance, how hurt she felt when a young woman she knew snubbed her due to the part of town she lived in and how snubbing is wrong, or how some of her old friends visit and show poor manners.

However, the Wide Awake volumes also have some articles about traveling in the 1800s that are fascinating and absorbing to read. Olive Risley Seward, for instance, has a series of travel narratives called "Around the World Stories" in which she talks about the dangers, hardships, and joys of two young women traveling the world, including trips to China and Java. Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of pioneer John C. Frémont, has a remarkable series of articles about Western pioneer life.

There are also numerous articles about life in foreign countries and stories about royalty, the latter which seemed to fascinate Americans in the late 19th century. Of course, as with all articles dealing with foreigners in those days, some customs are described as "queer" or "savage" or "barbaric," with American customs generally regarded as superior ("pretty" customs like Japanese flower arranging and other things of that nature are usually conceded as being a good thing, however, and often something that might be emulated in American homes).

There are even some articles in Wide Awake that seem more suited to adults of the time, and were probably written for older children, what we today would call high school/college age teenagers. "The Republican Court," for instance, is a long article about Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, and their contemporaries in "society" in early U.S. politics. A later series, "Children of the Presidents," discuss the offspring of George Washington through James Madison (at least of the issues I have) during both their childhood and adulthood.

The most unique portion of the magazine is the C.Y.F.R.U., the Chautauqua Young Folks' Reading Union. The Chautauqua movement began in 1874, "an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and specialists of the day." Today we pop on the television or surf the internet and watch/read about these subjects and cannot really imagine how isolated communities, especially rural communities, were in the 1800s. Both men and women, and even children, flocked to Chautauqua meetings and classies that brought them knowledge of the outside world.

Wide Awake's Chautauqua sessions-in-articles include "Cooking in the Public Schools," which include lessons on how to make a proper fire in a cookstove and about basic cooking of bread and meat. There is a long series about famous gems and another about geologic and wilderness habitats. One series called "Our Asiatic Cousins," covering the "Hindoos" and other Asiatic peoples, was written by Mrs. A.H. Leonowens, the "Anna" of Anna and the King of Siam/The King and I.

Each C.Y.F.R.U. is concluded with "Search Questions" in various sections of history.

The format of Wide Awake, however, apparently changed between 1889 and 1891, the latter the most recent volume I have received. Perhaps the publisher, due to failing sales, decided to aim the publication more at younger children, because the majority of the articles in the 1891 volume are in larger type over one page instead of in columns, with a simpler vocabulary, and only twenty or so pages near the end of the issue revert to the two-column format with more adult themes (including Margaret Sidney's Five Little Peppers Grown Up).

It will be interesting to investigate this further.

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