04 April 2004

"Let's See What's in Johnny's St. Nicholas..."

The classic Christmas scene is, of course, the small boy not being able to play with his electric trains because Dad has commandeered them.

The joke goes back a long way, even into my collection of St. Nicholas children's magazines. One or two children are liable to write to "the Letter Box" and mention how Dad sneaks away the issue once they are finished with it, and testimonials from mothers appear frequently.

So I wondered what the adults were reading while the children were happily perusing the new month's issues, since St. Nicholas was the offspring of Scribner's Magazine, which later became The Century. I had my chance: someone had a reasonably priced copy of the bound issues May 1890-October 1890 of The Century on e-Bay sometime back.

Over a year later, I'm still trying to slog through May 1890.

The first article is "Archibald Robertson and His Portraits of the Washingtons," a profile of an artist who did many paintings of George and Martha Washington. Perhaps only in a modern painting magazine would this many pages (11, in 9-point type) be devoted to an artist. The story begins with the minutae of Robertson's early life, including the English royalty he was related to (British royalty seemed to obsess Victorian Americans; this subject comes up several times within the magazine issue, along with other Victorian novels I've read), with depositions from various owners of these portraits to "enliven" the text.

Another article about George and Martha Washington follows, this "Some New Washington Relics," about memorabilia of our first President and his wife, including fans, firestands, and candlesticks, again with affidavits from the people who own them. Ten pages are devoted to this subject.

The next article is "Two Views of Marie Bashkirtseff." Who? Apparently the young woman was a recently celebrated artist, but the article begins by asking if the lady's lifestyle and her "absence of reserve" does not "seem a very abdication of womanhood"! Evidently the artist in question...gasp!...expressed strong opinions as well as led an unconventional lifestyle. Wonder what the opinonated writer would think of today's celebrities pregnant out of wedlock and wearing next to nothing?

Next, a fiction offering, chapters twelve and thirteen of "Friend Olivia," which is a classically overwritten Victorian romance involving a Quaker woman, another woman named Anastasia who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man although she is in love with someone else, founder of the Quaker movement George Fox, a gentleman named Nicholas, Oliver Cromwell, and pages of descriptions of brocaded gowns and the English countryside.

Following this potboiler is...I kid you not..."Chickens for Use and Beauty," 14 pages of descriptions of the various breeds of domestic chickens, their laying abilities and feather details, etc., and then we have a four page (with illustrations) poem about the bravery of a minister who fought during the Revolutionary War.

I've made it as far as "Blacked Out," a 8-page dissertation on censorship in the Czarist Russian press. Upcoming seems to be such exciting subjects as "The Women of the French Salons" (and we're not talking about beauty parlors here!), "Institutions of the Arid Lands," and "Valor and Skill in the Civil War." Plus the autobiography of the great actor Joseph Jefferson and a few shorter pieces of fiction.

One can certainly view the times, however, within the pages. Interspersed within the articles are other poems, which either seem to be about the death of a loved one or are memorials of the Civil War.

I can't stand the mindless drivel in today's magazines like People, but if this is the sort of "interesting and instructive" articles that 19th century adults had to wade through, I'm not surprised they swiped Johnny and Janie's St. Nicholas for more lively reading!