If you are interested in learning more about how adults have tried to keep children from being bored by dreaming up interesting projects, this post about a pioneering magazine for children may be of interest.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a child with time on its hands must be in need of something to do. This was a truth understood very well by Dr. William Fordyce Mavor, the editor and chief compiler of The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine, which appeared in monthly numbers between February 1799 and January 1800. One of the features that sets The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine apart from its predecessors, The Lilliputian Magazine (1751) and The Juvenile Magazine (1789-1790) was the promotion of learning through doing across the disciplines.
One of the magazine’s chief selling points was its engraved plates. Their function was to encourage accurate observation and artistic activity. A subject from botany or natural history was reproduced in two versions, one professionally hand-colored, the other in outline “intended as an Exercise for the juvenile Pencil.” The passion flower graced the pages of the seventh issue, and the male bird of paradise the third.
No instructions to the juvenile wielding the pencil were offered, as if Mavor assumed most of his readers’ parents employed drawing masters. Perhaps to remedy this oversight, in the sixth issue Mavor ran an article with directions for mixing colors. It seems to have been contributed professional artist, who noted that he hoped this would alleviate the frustration he had observed in children attempting to complete the plain copies.
Brainteasers could be found in every issue. There were complicated charades and enigmas to solve, with the understanding that readers were invited to submit their clever verse answers or original specimens for possible publication. In the correspondents’ sections, Mavor always politely acknowledged the receipt of readers’ efforts, but accepted only the best ones (most of them were probably by himself). Arithmetical word problems only appeared in the first three issues and they may have been too forbidding to have very wide appeal (how many children in the audience were burning to learn how to convert French livres to pounds sterling?). Another more engaging example of a different kind of brainteaser was a piece that consisted of a model dialogue of two boys playing “Twenty Questions.”
Raising the spirit of enquiry was among Mavor’s other educational priorities. He did not want to spark his readers’ passive sense of wonder through descriptions of inventions and discoveries, he wanted them to roll up their sleeves and try to replicate the results of easy experiments. One that many children probably would have wanted to try at home was making “sympathetic (i.e. invisible).” The recipes are vague as to quantities, so I suspect there were unsuccessful trials and tears of rage. One of the suggested uses of sympathetic ink was the sprucing up of artificial flowers, an inducement to the young ladies in the audience. They probably employed them in the writing of letters whose contents were supposed to be kept secret.. Much messier would have been the preservation of birds and butterflies caught in the field. Directions for butterflies follows, being the less gory of the two. I wonder how well this method actually works and if similar methods can still be found in children’s books now.
While none of these features looks revolutionary to us now, it gave The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine a much more modern feel than eitherThe Lilliputian or Juvenile Magazine, whose contents were very similar to any eighteenth-century miscellany. Dr. Mavor’s attempt to include more hands-on projects for children may well have been a response to the increased anxiety in the 1790s about making sure children did not waste leisure time in stupid, cruel, or unproductive ways, at least in families that were sufficiently well-off not to need children’s paid labor for the unit’s maintenance. Dr. Mavor may not have been among the great writers for children of this era, but he certainly deserves recognition in the history of British magazines for children for mixing up the contents of The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Magazine with non-fiction materials to appeal to a much broader range of interests..