The Children's Magazine, 1789

Pat Pflieger's picture

The first American magazine for children began with the nation. The Children’s Magazine wouldn’t impress us today. No cover illustration—in fact, no illustrations at all. Just 48 pages of cheap-to-produce text: stories, essays, poems, a series on geography, and four rather dense sermons. The magazine apparently lasted only four issues (January through April 1789), but it established a number of traditions for the almost-400 American periodicals proposed or published for children before 1873.

Like every children’s periodical published after it, The Children’s Magazine was intended to be educational: “It is a general complaint among the teachers of schools,” the editor asserts, “that children want some lessons, written in a familiar style and on entertaining subjects, to conduct them in their progress from a Spelling-Book to such reading as is found in the American SelectionScotts Lessons and the Art of Speaking. It is also a complaint that children are obliged to read too long in the same book; by which means the subjects become familiar and cease to command the attention. To remove these complaints, is the design of this publication.” (“Preface.” Jan 1789: iii)

Here, “educational” means geography lessons without expensive-to-produce maps, a series on arithmetic, and advice on morality. A lot of advice on morality, from “rules for the life of business” and essays on the “pernicious effects of dram drinking” to proper behavior of children. Boys are admonished not to become drunkards, to keep good company, to do “every thing for some good end” (“Rules to be observed by those who remove from their Native Places.” Feb 1789: 92), and to “summon fortitude to bear pain like a man.” (“The Little Boy Who Behaved Like a Man.” Jan 1789: 21) Girls are— Well, there seem to be a lot of rules here for girls. Be sweet, be submissive, be Christian, be gentle: this is the advice woven into many of the poems. The stories get more complicated. Yes, Emma learns to control herself after accidentally killing her puppy in a fit of temper (“The Passionate Child Reclaimed.” Feb 1789). And, yes, the “Female Adviser” asks, “Can there be any thing more disgusting in a young female than an unbecoming forwardness of behaviour, which we must always attribute to the high opinion she entertains of herself?” and proves that, no, there isn’t. (“To the Editors of the Children’s Magazine.” March 1789) But the women in a series of moral tales walk a treacherous path: they can drive their husbands to drink both by keeping their houses too clean (“The Over-neat Wife.” Feb 1789) and by not cleaning house enough. (“The Notable Daughter.” March 1789)

While a number of later periodicals for children were founded by individuals, others were the products of publishing houses who saw an opportunity to expand the consumer base: Our Young Folks (Jan 1865-Dec 1873) was Ticknor and Fields’ magazine for children; Cincinnati, Ohio, printer Howard Durham founded two papers for children in the 1850s. Hudson and Goodwin, of Hartford, Connecticut, probably saw The Children’s Magazine as a sure money-maker. After all, the company published and distributed textbooks, captivity narratives, poetry, religious works, and works for children—all of which could have fed into the magazine.

Because, like every periodical of its time and every periodical after it, The Children’s Magazine reprinted material that had already appeared elsewhere. “[T]he Editors are already furnished with a variety of materials for this work,” the January 1789 “Preface” points out, and, yes, they very much were. Except for that preface, every piece appearing in the magazine’s four issues had been published the year before in one of two magazines printed in England by John Marshall: The Juvenile Magazine or The Family Magazine; or, A Repository of Religious Instruction, and Rational Amusement, edited by Sarah Trimmer. While the Juvenile Magazine included works appropriate for its young audience, the Family Magazine was very definitely for adults. The Family Magazine accounts for the sermons, the essays on temperance, the business advice; it also accounts for a reading level well above the seven- to 12-year-olds for which The Children’s Magazine was intended.

The original sources explain the very “British” tone of The Children’s Magazine, where class distinctions are clearly defined and all schoolboys live at a boarding-school. Poor cottagers are humble and grateful for the charity of their upperclass betters, who condescendingly educate them on arithmetic and morality. While the pieces reprinted from The Family Magazine appear to have been printed exactly as they appeared in England, those reprinted from The Juvenile Magazine are more “localized”: a teacher lays down a “crown piece” in the English version of a schoolboy’s letter (The Juvenile MagazineJan 1788: 12) and a “crown piece or dollar” in the American. (The Children’s Magazine Jan 1789: 14) A man walking in the Strand in 1788 walks through Boston in 1789. Miss Harriot Truelove has never before seen London in 1788, but has never before seen New York in 1789, though even here she stays with Lady Racket, enjoys evenings at “cards, balls, or the play-house,” and mentors the daughter of a “poor cottager.” (“Familiar Letters on Various Subjects.” Jan 1789)

When The Children’s Magazine apparently ended its run in April 1789, that may accidentally have solved a problem for the editor. “The Schoolboy” as published in England (April 1788) includes a page-and-a-half description of the glories of the British system of government which fell out of the version published in Connecticut (April 1789). And the next installment of the serial as published in England extolls the British legal system through the mock trial of a schoolboy. So, the death of the magazine meant the editor didn’t have to cut, rewrite, or simply ignore a rather entertaining piece that American audiences might not appreciate.

And when the magazine ended so abruptly, it was in keeping with another tradition for American children’s periodicals: many later periodicals didn’t last beyond a year. Some found few subscribers after producing a sample issue; some didn’t get to the sample issue stage. Subscribers didn’t always pay; profit margins were too slim to keep the enterprise going.

Why did The Children’s Magazine fail? Distribution may have been a major factor: the magazine was advertised in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but the early postal system made distributing a magazine difficult. There may not have been enough citizens willing to take a magazine just for their children. And it’s tempting to think that some who were willing to subscribe also had received John Marshall’s English magazines and were noticing an … overlap.

The schoolboy in the April 1789 issue injures himself jumping over a hedge into a ditch and is gently admonished by his teacher, who hopes that “the next time, prior to jumping over a hedge, you will observe well, whether there be a ditch on the other side.” (“To the Editors of the Children’s Magazine.” April 1789: 153) It seems good advice for editors, too: there may be hidden obstacles on the way to success. But, luckily, while there were a lot of ditches in the history of early American periodicals for children, there also were a lot more hedges.

Where to read it:  The American Periodicals Series I (18th century) has January, March, and April issues, though the March issue is incomplete.  The American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals database reproduces all four issues; January and April are reproduced from originals in the Library of Congress.