Science & American Childhood Cultures, 1900-80


A review of Science and the Culture of American Childhood, 1900-1980, by Rebecca Stiles Onion.

The circulation of scientific knowledge among laypeople in England and Europe has been beautifully chronicled in the last two decades, thanks to the work of historians such as James Secord, Anne Secord, Bernard Lightman, Lynn Nyhart, and Emma Spary. Popular science in the twentieth-century United States has been less thoroughly explored, however. Recent work by Marcel LaFollette and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt has helped map some of this ground, and Rebecca Onion’s interdisciplinary, highly readable dissertation on what she calls the “science extracurriculum” of American childhood is another useful contribution to this growing field. Onion draws on material culture, childhood, and science studies to examine how, why and where adults in the United States projected ideas about science and scientists onto children and their play.

Between the 1910s and the 1940s, Americans frequently described children as “natural scientists,” citing their keen eyes, their delight in the new, and their innate curiosity about the world around them (p. 338). This perceived affinity between the cultures of science and childhood, Onion argues, was celebrated and exploited for national ends. Adults tried to interest children in science and its coolly rational approach to promote individual empowerment and the ability to navigate the confusion of modern culture. Not all children, though — Onion points out that museum staff, publishers, and toymakers frequently signaled that scientific research was a fitting pursuit for white boys, whose presumed boldness and intellectual independence would lead to productive discovery. Girls and children of color were generally left out of conversations about children and science, or worse, cast as passive and disinterested. Onion’s research complements the work of historians of science education such as Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Margaret Rossiter, and Kim Tolley, confirming that young women were not only excluded from classrooms and laboratories but also from more informal venues of scientific research.

Onion’s first chapter explores children’s experiences in museum settings to establish some of the tropes that characterized adult perceptions of the children’s “natural” scientific inclinations: wonder, curiosity, and unselfconscious engagement with the natural world. Analyzing publicity photographs from the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, she argues that the museums’ approach to childhood science education indicates broader assumptions about science’s social purpose. Onion finds that the American Museum, catering largely to the children of recent immigrants and the working class, attempted to use efficiently disseminated images of science to inspire children en masse and promote social order. In contrast, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, whose young visitors hailed from well-heeled suburbs, encouraged individual exploration of scientific materials. To the adults overseeing the middle-class white boys who frequented the Brooklyn museum, children’s science play was a matter of liberation, not obedience.

Her second chapter chronicles the interwar proliferation of a largely forgotten genre of children’s literature: encyclopedias and illustrated nonfiction books about science and technology. These books echoed schools’ recently popularized “general science” curricula, connecting scientific discovery to children’s daily experiences to prepare children for technological modernity. Rather than escape to the Romantic mindset of fairy tales, authors like Arthur Mee (1875-1943) and Progressive educators like Lucy Sprague Mitchell (1878-1967) of the Bank Street School encouraged children to adopt the kind of scientific mindset that would allow them to comprehend an increasingly complicated material and natural world. Here too, Onion notes the sexism and racism that plague these books; girls and children of color do show up, usually depicted as blithely indifferent or — in the case of The Story of Cotton — happy to be performing backbreaking agricultural work.

In Chapter 3, Rebecca Onion argues that chemistry and other science sets in the 1920s and 1930s reveal ongoing adult attempts to construct young male citizen-scientists. The sets’ marketing, she writes, “emphasized the practice of science as a pursuit intended to sharpen natural curiosity and, at the same time, strengthen children’s more worldly powers of observation, self-regulation, and entrepreneurship” (p. 194). The sets also promised that their purchase might result in productive hobbies, even professional success, reassuring adults unsettled by children’s increased consumption of goods. Onion’s work in this chapter, in dialogue with scholars like Daniel Cook and Lisa Jacobson, is a solid addition to the history of children’s consumerism.

In the postwar era, Onion argues, new social and political pressures complicated the seeming resemblances between the cultures of science and cultures of childhood. Science seemed more powerful, more complicated, more ominous, and assumptions about scientists echoed this shift. No longer hailed as heroic, Onion observes that Americans began to describe scientists as a bit odd, outcasts whose intellectual passions needed shielding for the sake of national security. Older assumptions about the affinity between the tendencies of children and scientists persisted, she explains, but adults’ sunny confidence in the fate of the intrepid child scientist gave way to a desire to protect young eggheads and oddballs from “an uncomprehending peer culture and a fusty education system” (p. 27).

Chapter 4, on the history and culture of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, revolves around organizers’ efforts to help children and adolescents navigate what the 1956 Westinghouse awards banquet speaker, biophysicist Caryl P. Haskins (1908-2001), called “the deep and important paradox at the root of the scientific effort”: the tension between scientists’ pragmatic functions and their spontaneous joy in their work (p. 250). As the development of young scientists seemed paramount — a matter of national defense — contest sponsors and federal policy-makers urged children to pursue scientific hobbies and games in the hope they would become young Westinghouse contestants and eventually, enter the world of scientific research. But, Onion argues, contest organizers worried that peer pressure would force potential “recruits” to abandon their interest in science, and tried to create a cultural space where children and adolescents could achieve scientifically while maintaining a sense of normalcy. Chapter 5, which describes the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), examines these perceived cultural threats to scientific achievement from a different angle. Heinlein also worked to hook children on science, but did so in an era when Americans had no longer saw scientific research as innocent, and no longer considered its pursuit mainstream. These attempts to nurture children’s scientific inclination through informal education were as sexist as it had been before the war, Onion argues. Heinlein, for instance, routinely shoved girls to the side in his books, and the author regularly declared that female teachers and a retrograde education system had diminished the innate scientific impulses of American boys.

By the 1960s, the difficulties involved in translating science into child’s play had become plain. Americans did not stop trying; Onion concludes with a description of Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer’s (1912-1985) attempts to promote the fun of science in the 1970s and 1980s. But she reminds us that we should know better than to empty either scientific research or children’s play of politics and historical context.  Though Americans have attempted to naturalize both categories, Rebecca Onion’s entertaining history ultimately reminds us that these are highly political realms, whose intersection is well worth examining in order to understand their broader place in American culture.

Victoria E.M. Cain
Program in Museum Studies
New York University

Primary Sources

Chemical Heritage Foundation
A.C. Gilbert Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
The Smithsonian Institution Archives
Special Collections at the American Museum of Natural History
The Cotsen Children’s Library

Dissertation Information

University of Texas at Austin. 2012. 421 pp. Primary Advisors: Janet Davis and Julia Mickenberg.


Image: World of Science by Skil Craft No. CA-10 Chemistry Lab. Photograph taken in 2009 by James Vaughan, x-ray delta one. Flickr image with Creative Commons Licence.

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