Object of the Week: The Junior Home Play Book

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

After Rita Andrade’s post, I started thinking about objects that point users to other objects and the double layers of meaning this can reveal. Rita’s object was a text, and so is this one, but I wonder if they always must be? “Directions” and "instructions" come to mind, but I wonder if there are objects that are not print that point their user to use other objects? 

 

This is The Junior Home Playbook, an activity book for young children published in 1929 by The D.C. Kreidler Company as a corollary to their children’s magazine Junior Home. (Sorry it's sideways--I can't explain that.) The Playbook works in two material ways. First, its own materiality directs children into the domestic space, ostensibly to play. Second, its content directs child readers to engage with the material culture of domesticity and re-purpose it as material culture of childhood, as playthings, and simultaneously learn domestic gender roles through engagement with domestic material culture.

The materiality of the book itself directs its domestic use.  Its large size and unconventional format make it unwieldy in certain situations. The cover of the book opens to reveal the title page, but continuous turning of pages in this direction will not fully reveal all of the over sized pages. The reader needs to find the center page of the book and open it there. This process converts both front and back covers into one continuous back cover and every page proves to be a two-page spread of already oversized pages. When fully opened, each page spans 42 inches by 14 inches.

The size demands a large space, and as many activities in the book involve tracing or writing, it requires a flat surface. The flimsiness of its paper makes the book unsuitable for outdoor use; a slight breeze would interfere with the book's large, potentially sail-like pages. It is best suited for manipulation indoors, on the floor or large table.

The text of the book instructs the child reader how to make their own playthings out of household objects, including buttons, scissors, paper, paste, scraps of cloth, paint, crayons, a bedsheet, an apple box, a curtain, wire, cardboard, a jig saw (“your older brother has one”), string, curtain rings, and strips of wallpaper. The child is directed to find and make use of the material culture of domesticity and turn it into toys. Many activities suggest using the house itself as part of the activities, for example hanging a bedsheet in a doorway between two rooms to make a screen on which to cast shadows. While the child is being directed to appropriate domestic (and adult) material culture, he or she also being asked to learn his or her way around adult domestic space. 

Most of the activities in The Playbook foster children's understanding of a highly gendered domestic space.  For example, the process of finding the material objects needed to make dolls (in the activity shown here)

 

involves going to mother for buttons and cloth, while activities intended for boys, such as birdhouse building, require tools which they are told will be part of their father's domain. Tracking down the material, then, teaches who uses which objects in the home, and in which rooms, and imparts a gendered meaning to domestic material culture and children’s play.