WINTERTHUR, Del. -- One of the most startling objects in "KiDS!: 200 Years of Childhood," at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, is a "walking stool." It is a rigid, late-18th century contraption on wheels, designed to help babies learn to walk.
Also known as a "go-cart," the stool, which has no seat, was thought to strengthen tiny limbs and prevented crawling, an enterprise some deemed unseemingly "animalistic."
This wooden relic would appall most parents today. Beyond illustrating antique child-rearing theories, though, it begs a provocative question: What hasn't changed over centuries of child-rearing? Each generation may pride itself on state-of-the-art parenting strategies, but does that stool/torture device really differ from those rolling gizmos contemporary parents have blithely plunked their young in (at least until declared unsafe and a deterrent to aspiring young walkers)?
In such understated ways, "KiDS!" also encourages viewers to imagine how today's theories and goods will play in coming centuries. What will vigilant parents in the mid-millennium think, for instance, of a civilization that produced classical CDs for prenatal consumers, the Mortal Kombat video game, not to mention those notorious walkers?
The exhibition's "perspective and hindsight" on how the concept of childhood has changed and remained the same is its greatest strength. Through artful use of furniture, toys, books, clothes, diaries, songs, games and accompanying narrative, curator Tracey Rae Beck has not just produced an engaging exhibit for children and adults. She gently reminds us as well that Americans' concern for the physical, intellectual and moral well-being of children predates Benjamin Spock, William J. Bennett and Mr. Rogers by hundreds of years.
Indirectly, the exhibit also admonishes the perfectionists among us that child-rearing was, is and always will be an imperfect art.
It is an art rarely practiced in isolation. Anyone who has ever enrolled a toddler in computer literacy class on the advice of a column knows the drill: "How children are taught, dressed, raised depends on parental beliefs and traditions," the exhibition catalog notes. "Parents, in turn, learn these values from society and from their own parents. Thus, differing perceptions of childhood over time are largely a social and cultural phenomenon and less a matter of individual choice."
Concept of childhood
By necessity, "KiDS!" thematically arranged around children at home, in learning environments and at play, is an exhibition of generalities.
Acknowledged at the outset is the practical impossibility of representing every nuance of childhood: "How past generations viewed childhood depended on many factors, including where individuals grew up, their parents' occupations, and their legal status as free, indentured, or enslaved Americans."
Instead, the exhibit relies primarily on Winterthur's exhaustive decorative arts collection to show how the concept of childhood evolved among the middle class, the socio-economic group most receptive to change and, in the realm of child-rearing theories, debates and debacles, perhaps the most influential.
Each object on display speaks volumes about the challenges and joys of bringing children into a world fraught with peril. A tiny coffin, complete with a tiny skeleton, is an eerily matter-of-fact reminder that even for little ones, "facing death joyfully was considered a virtue "
A paper doll set called "Ellen, of the Naughty Girl Reclaimed" taught that poorly behaved children could lose it all, as did an early board game called "Newton's Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished."
Books and toys about the brownies, elfin creatures that appeared on clothing, school supplies and stamp sets, prove that late 19th-century children were as passionate about fads as kids are today (see Pogs, yo-yos, Pokemon, etc.)
By way of directional speakers that project sound into discrete areas of the exhibit, visitors hear the words of notable American parents and children, from Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who resolves to spend more time with his children, to journalist Lincoln Steffens, who recalls his boyhood love of horses.
On video, Delaware schoolchildren demonstrate age-old games, including Thread the Needle, Oats, Pease, Beans and card pitching.
Handmade items such as a 1770 pincushion studded with the words "Welcome Little Stranger" and a 1771 "baptismal greeting" illustrate the momentous occasion of birth.
Ephemera such as a humorous illustration from "The School of Good Manners" that advises: "Spit not, cough not, nor blow thy nose at the table, if it may be avoided. But if there be necessity, do it aside, and without much noise," should give courage to parents who believe civility was something that existed only before their kids were born.
And a wondrous assortment of belongings, from tiddlywinks, marbles and toy soldiers to rag dolls, chirping birds and a mechanical merry-go-round, makes visitors' imaginings of childhood past all the more tangible.
As Beck assembled the exhibition, she relied heavily on "Children in the House: the Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900" by scholar Karin Calvert, who maintains that parents have "consistently tried to mold their offspring to the prevailing notion of childhood."
The exhibit's "Children in the Home" segment is organized around Calvert's identification of three distinct eras in American child-rearing during which children were treated first as "inchoate adults," then "natural creatures" and finally, "innocent nestlings."
A stark tableau illustrates the first era, the early 18th century, when infancy was a time of high mortality to be completed with dispatch. To that end, babies were swaddled and constrained in narrow cradles to hasten walking and self-sufficiency, and few objects were made solely for their amusement.
With the mid-century came the Enlightenment and the coinciding belief that young character was more in need of molding than a young frame. Parents, according to the exhibit, "began to recognize childhood as an important and natural stage of human development." Toys, be they dolls or farm animals, were more available and intended not just for fun, but "as an educational opportunity" to help kids prepare for future roles as homemakers and breadwinners.
Early in the 19th century, the perception of childhood as a time of innocence took hold, and children stayed in the nursery, far from their parents' corrupting influence. By the end of the century, play was viewed for the most part as a recreational activity, and along came hoops, games, small toys and other factory-made play-pretties.
Getting an education
In the exhibit's "Learning for Life" section, visitors are introduced to a broad realm of educational goals. Reading was an important skill, first for knowing the Bible and overcoming inherent moral depravity, later for being a well-informed citizen. Schools didn't appear until the 1820s, and then mainly in urban areas.
Apprenticeships were a common way for children to learn a trade. And even middle- and upper-class children had chores, from toting water to emptying chamber pots.
Young visitors to the exhibit can try their hand at cross stitch, turning a lathe and butter churning to get a feel for the life of their 19th-century counterparts.
Although children were viewed as innocents, many nevertheless toiled in factories and mills under punishing conditions. Child labor in the 19th century was "considered a social fact, not a social problem."
But, according to curator Beck, without the general belief that children should be protected from the degradations of adulthood, reformers seeking to protect children from abuse wouldn't have had the public's ear.
The exhibit's Playtime section addresses the world of children's entertainment in greater detail. By the end of the 19th century, play was mostly a "just for fun" activity, and mass production made toys affordable to nearly everyone. Outdoor activities such as rolling hoops, jumping ropes, and playing "shuttlecock," a game similar to badminton, engendered physical and mental agility.
And while girls were encouraged to engage in more lady-like pursuits, there were books like "Healthful Sports for Young Ladies," published in 1822, that encouraged girls to play hide and seek, to seesaw and swing.
By the end of "KiDS!," the question pops to mind: What is childhood today? Future scholars will have the perspective to hazard a guess.
But for a faster response, look to the journal recording visitors' comments on "KiDS!" Partial answers emerge, as does a notion of what childhood should be -- out of the mouths of babes.
As one 15-year-old boy writes: "I believe that we should let children be children. We shouldn't rush them into adulthood as soon as possible, it comes soon enough as it is."
A child's life
What: "KiDS!: 200 Years of Childhood" and "Yuletide at Winterthur 1999: Visions of Sugarplums."
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. "KiDS!" exhibit continues through Feb. 19, 2001. "Yuletide" exhibit ends Jan. 2, 2000.
Where: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Winterthur, Del. six miles northwest of Wilmington.
Tickets: $8 for adults; $6 for seniors and students; $4 for children 5 to 11. Children 4 and under are free. (The "Yuletide" guided tour is an additional $5. Reservations are required for tours, which depart frequently.)
Information: 800-448-3883 or visit the web site,www.winterthur.org.