Were There Picky Child Eaters Before 1850?

According to Jennifer Traig, author of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, there is very little evidence in the historical record for “concerns over children refusing what they were given” to eat much before the 1880s.  That makes Betty MacDonald a seeress when she invented “The Picky-Eater Cure” in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1957). This cautionary tale zeroed in the sin of Will Pemberton,which was eating nothing but boiled noodles.  His distraught parents consulted Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and came home with magic crystals, which when sprinkled on Will’s dinner, turned everything on the plate into his favorite (only) food.  In time Will grew tired of nothing but boiled noodles and was forced to dig into other dishes. Before Will, there was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Suppenkaspar, who would not eat his good soup and wasted away for lack of nourishment.  The marker on his grave was a  tureen, naturally.Picky eateritis is surely a disease of affluence, but the condition’s psychological aspects must be of equal importance.   Casual observation suggests that the child who turns down what’s on the plate is a child who knows full well that there are plenty of options in the refrigerator that are more to his liking.  So begins a battle of wills between child and parent, the child reasonably confident that his mother-combatant will throw down her lance rather than let her baby go hungry.

Let’s suppose that abundance of choice is at the heart of picky eateritis.  Then there ought to be evidence in the literature of parenting before 1880s that elite parents were tussling with children at mealtimes.  I didn’t find a Will or Kaspar in my quick and unscientific survey of late eighteenth-century sources, partly because the experts were concerned chiefly with the diet of infants and toddlers.  Among the problems that did preoccupy them were the prevention of letting children consume too much sugar or drinking wine and spirits.

There being no fast foot industry to point the finger at, the blame for getting children off on the wrong foot fell squarely on the shoulders of adults. In 16th edition of Domestic Medicine (1798), Dr. William Buchan thought the practice of sweetening babies’ food with sugar encouraged them to overeat: “Their excesses are entirely owing to nurses.  If the child be gorged with food at all hours, and enticed to take it, by making it sweet and agreeable to the patate, is in any wonder that such a child should in time be induced to crave more food than it ought to have?”   Some parents, he observed disapprovingly, “teach their children to guzzle ale, and other fermented liquors, at every meal.”  Buchan’s advice was considered sufficiently authoritative to have been regularly repeated or plagiarized.

The good news was that sensible mealtime management was possible to establish and maintain, even before children could comprehend why restraining their appetites for certain things was good for their health.  Richard Edgeworth and his co-author/daughter Maria discussed this topic in Practical Education (1798-9), an late eighteenth-century forerunner to Dr. Spock, based on their experience raising a brood of twenty-two: “if they [children] partake of the usual family meals, and if there are no whimsical distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome dishes, or epicurean distinctions between rarities and plain food, the imagination and pride of children will not be roused about eating.  Their pride is piqued if they perceive, that they are prohibited from touching what grown up people are privileged to eat….  In families where a regularly good table is kept, children accustomed to the sight and taste of all kinds of food, are seldom delicate, capricious, or disposed to exceed.”  The thrust of the passage is that children observe the food preferences of adults and are likely to imitate them.  Picky children pick it up from picky adults.

A mother of twelve, Mrs. Trimmer weighed in how to get children to eat in An Essay on Christian Education, which was published in installments in her children’s book review journal, The Guardian of Education (1802-1806).   She made a couple of observations which sound as if they were based on long experience with little people: “Children are generally averse to food which they have never tasted; and, in this case, the difficulty is to get them to taste everything.”   Another interesting remark she made was that “it is next to an impossibility, except in a very secluded situation, to keep a child in ignorance of the taste of rich cakes, &c. &c. and when these are placed before him in profusion, and set out too in the most inviting manner, they are real temptations.”   True words, indeed,

Did children’s book authors portray children who were bad eaters as negative examples?  Yes, indeed.  Here is the opening of “The Boy with the Sweet Tooth” from Profitable Amusement for Children (1802):   “Luke Lickerish was so very fond of sweet things, that, whenver his father or mother gave him a few pence, he immediately ran to the grocer’s or confectioner’s, and bought barley-sugar, licorice, sugar-candy, or something else of the sweet kind.  Besides, at breakfast and tea-time he always watched the sugar-basin; and, whenever he was his mother’s back turned, he slily filched three or four lumps of sugar, thrust them into his pocket, and afterwards ate them in private.  By continuing every day to eat such quantities of sweets, he injured hi health very much and spoiled his appetite, so that he seldom relished his meals, ate very little of wholesome food, and was growing very thin, weak and puny.”

Luke sounds a lot like children today who crave heavily sweetened cereal, marshmallows, and Swedish fish.  Perhaps children haven’t changed as much in certain respects as popular historians suppose…

The Jacob’s Ladder Toy and Its Mysterious History

The Jacob’s Ladder is an old-timey pastime that has made a surprising comeback recently. Twenty years ago wooden versions were available only from retailers making a stand against modern soulless plastic toys.  Jacob’s Ladders now can be obtained in different designs and materials quite inexpensively because they have been redefined as a “sensory” or  “fidget” toy that can help relax and focus autistic children. It is also  recommended as a good distraction for small, restless travelers or pupils having trouble sitting still. The kinetic illusion has been demystified by all the bloggers who have posted step-by-step illustrated instructions for crafting a Jacob’s ladder at home.

Cotsen has three or four old Jacob’s Ladder toys and I decided to try and confirm the date of manufacture for the earliest one, which is supposed to be late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Digging up material about the toy’s origins and history is a lot hard than finding instructions for making one!  Almost every scrap of information I  found was suspect, starting with the claims that the toy dates back to the Pharoahs.  The name, it is confidently asserted, was inspired by the account of Jacob’s dream in Genesis, but the earliest use in the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in 1820 and makes no reference to the Bible.  From the colonial period, the Jacob’s Ladder was supposed to have been a favorite Sabbath toy, so the wealth of  nineteenth-century American texts on-line would surely yield up a reference,  advertisement, or picture or two.   But searching on “Jacob’s Ladder toy” and all the alternative names–Aaron’s Bells, Chinese Blocks, Click-klack toy, Magic Tablets, Tumbling Blocks–failed to turn up anything useful. The pile of authoritative books on the history of toys in my study were no more helpful.

The most unlikely finds–two pieces by Charles Dickens, a short story “A Christmas Tree” from Household Words (1850) and an essay, “Toys, Past and Present” from All the Year Round, October 1 1876– turned out to contain pure gold.  The Jacob’s Ladder hanging on the tree in the short story describes it as “made of little squares of red wood, that went flapping and clattering over one another, each developing a different picture, and the whole enlivened by small bells, was a mighty marvel and a great delight.”  The passage in “Toys, Past and Present”  explains in greater detail how the marvelous effect was created and why gave so much pleasure: “It consisted of six oblong pieces of wood, adorned with pictures on both sides, and so connected with tapes that when the top piece, which was held in the hand, was turned down, all the others would turn down likewise by an apparently spontaneous movement, causing a new series of pictures to be presented to the eye, which was highly gratified by the change, as were also the ears by the clattering of the wooden tablets and the tinkling of some little bells which they were decorated.”

Dickens would have had no trouble recognizing this as a Jacob’s Ladder. There were differences, of course, between the ones with which he was familiar and the one in Cotsen. The six pieces of wood were covered with colored paper instead of painted and there was no sign that it had ever had bells.  It does click when the blocks tumble down.  The most important similarity is the presence of pictures on both sides of the pieces of wood. Dickens doesn’t say anything about the subjects or style of the pictures.  The prints on the Cotsen Jacob’s ladder were likely cut out of lottery sheets, a kind of ephemeral engraving, and glued to the paper covering of the boards.   Not much is known about lottery sheets beyond that they were being produced for children to “play with” as early as the late seventeenth century.  These sheets certainly would have lent themselves to craft projects of all kinds, but the presence of cut-outs from commercially available prints on a toy like this probably doesn’t prove it was homemade.  Cutting up lottery prints may have been the a cost-effectivel method of applying illustrations to a toy before technology existed to print directly on the wood. Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library has a German Jacob’s Ladder that is very similar to Cotsen’s, except that there are two little rings piercing the long edges.  Bell fasteners, perhaps?  It has been dated to the same period as the English example in Cotsen.Another thing Dickens’ two descriptions establish is how much the appearance of a modern Jacob’s Ladder has changed in the twentieth century. The essential wooden (or plastic) pieces and the tapes are the same, but the use of bright contrasting primary colors is one of the hallmarks of the modernist toy aesthetic the Bauhaus developed. It is possible to find modern Jacob’s Ladders with patterns or pictures painted on the surfaces of the pieces, but pieces of unfinished wood or in solid colors with contrasting colored tapes are much more common. Bells must have been eliminated along the way as a swallowing hazard, as well as too expensive, too troublesome to attach securely. Maybe one day there will be another opportunity to find out more about this mysterious interactive object, that is neither a puzzle nor optical device  nor transformation toy, but has elements of them all.