Childhood ain’t what it used to be. Our fluorescent colored, artificial fruit scented, bubble-wrapped perversion today of the growing years of children may seem like evolution but in truth, it’s a regression.
No, I’m not casting nostalgia as fact and pandering to your generation X (or boomer) illusion of your rugged past captured in Polaroids of Big Wheels, Evil Knieval ramps for banana seat bikes, or those golden years when kids were allowed to be kids, get dirty, and play so hard they needed the reinforced knees of Tough Skins from Sears.
The ironically mature childhood I speak of was long before then.
Before James Maury Henson gave birth in 1955 to Kermit the Frog, ancestor to all Muppets we know and love; before 1957 when Belgian artist Pierre Culliford created Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs); and before 1929 when Walter Elias Disney produced “Silly Symphonies,” a historic movie that introduced friends of Mickey Mouse including Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto; before all of that was a mischevious tiny army whose adventures were meant to teach children life lessons.
They were known as The Brownies and they were sprung from the imagination of Palmer Cox, a Canadian-born (1840) railroad worker and carpenter in California before who became a full-time illustrator in New York 1875. The Brownies series made him a millionaire and resourced him well enough to build a “Brownie castle” as his home back in Quebec where he died in the summer of 1924.
What were Brownies? He described them this way:
Brownies, like fairies and goblins, are imaginary little sprites who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.
If that sounds family it’s because the template repeats itself in the several incarnations mentioned above. Palmer’s reasoning behind the goodness of his tiny tribe is one lost on authors of today’s child-centric media, especially in the loud, retarding, and morally empty vacuum that is YouTube.
I see no reason why the comic artist who is drawing pictures to amuse children should think it necessary always to show childhood at its worst. A picture can be just as funny and yet not be a celebration of juvenile depravity; indeed a picture can be just as funny, can give pleasure to an even greater number of children, and yet point a moral.
Great children’s literature treats children as intelligent beings capable of understanding more than the gross echoes of their base nature crudely drawn in youngish colors on short pages.
To that issue, John Taylor Gatto wrote: “There are many ways to cut the young off from the food growing intellects need to become powerful, and to replace it with junk food like talking choo-choo trains.”
One of Palmers many short works, “The Brownies at the academy,” stands out because it has the Brownies demystifying what it is to be a college student in an era when only the elite was on track to be college students. Much like middle-class people today expose their children early to the concept of being college-bound, Palmer does that in a time when the concept would have been foreign to most.
Andrew Carnegie, a towering man of industry, was quoted in Dream and Thought in the Business Community, 1860-1900 as saying:
“Men have sent their sons to colleges to waste their energies upon obtaining a knowledge of such languages as Greek and Latin, which are of no more practical use to them than Choctaw… They have been crammed with the details of petty and insignificant skirmishes between savages, and taught to exalt a band of ruffians into heroes; and we have called them “educated.”
Here is Palmer’s piece:
The Brownies once with capers spry
To an Academy drew nigh,
Which, founded by a generous hand,
Spread light and learning through the land.
The students, by ambition fired,
And men of science had retired;
So Brownies, through their mystic power,
Now took advantage of the hour.
A battery was soon displayed,
And strange experiments were made;
Electric currents were applied
To meadow-frogs they found inside,
Which sage professors, nights and days,
Had gathered up, in various ways.
To making pills some turned the mind,
While some to Dentistry inclined,
And aching teeth, both small and large,
Were there extracted free of charge.
More gazed where phrenologic charts
Showed heads partitioned off in parts.
Said one: “Let others knowledge gain
Through which to conquer ache and pain,
But by these charts I’ll do my best
To learn where Fancy makes her nest.”
Another cried, as he surveyed
The bumps that were so well arrayed:
“These heads exhibit, full and clear,
Which one to love and whom to fear;
Who is with noble thoughts inspired,
And who with hate or envy fired;
The man as timid as the hare,
The man destructive as the bear.
While choosing partners, one may find
It well to keep these charts in mind.”
A microscope at length, they found;
And next, the Brownies gathered round
A stereopticon machine
That cast its rays upon a screen.
A thousand times it magnified,
Till, stretching out on every side,
An object large and larger spread,
And filled the gazing group with dread.
The locust, beetle, and the bee
Soon gained proportions strange to see,
And seemed like monsters close at hand
To put an end to all the band.
Ere long a door was open swung,
To show some skeletons that hung
From hook and peg, which caused a shout
Of fear to rise from those about.
Said one: “Thus Science works its way
Through old remains from day to day;
And those who during life could find
No time, perhaps, to aid mankind,
May, after all, in some such place
For years assist the human race
By giving students, as you see,
Some knowledge of Anatomy.”
At other times, all breathless grouped
O’er crucibles, the Brownies stooped
To separate, with greatest skill,
The grains which cure from those that kill;
While burning acids, blazes blue,
And odors strong confused the crew.
Cried one: “Through trials hard to bear,
The student must himself prepare,
Though mixing paint, or mixing pill—
Or mixing phrases, if you will—
No careless study satisfies
If one would to distinction rise;
The minds that shed from pole to pole
The light of years, as round we roll,
Are first enriched through patient toil,
And kindled by the midnight oil.”
Thus, spicing logic with a joke,
They chatted on till morning broke;
And then with wild and rapid race
The Brownie band forsook the place.
To go back further than Palmer’s generation of children’s writing, see The Origins of Children’s Literature, and/or this brief historical description of John Newbery’s (the “father of children’s literature) “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book: Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly” from 1744.