From the 19th century to the present, the photos collected in Todd Brewster’s latest book offer glimpses into the lives of our nation’s youngest members.
“It is a fallacy to think we protect children from the world around them,” Todd Brewster writes in AMERICAN CHILDHOOD: A Photographic History (Scribner, $36). “Children suffered from slavery and racism, from the deprivation of the Great Depression. They marched during the civil rights movement and witnessed the attacks on Sept. 11.”
With the more than 200 images collected in this book, culled from flea markets and library archives across the country, the journalist and documentarian attempts to capture the experiences of the youngest members of our society, from the Civil War to today.
Adhering to no chronology or age-grouping or theme, these photos appear throughout “American Childhood” as though in a “scrapbook one might find in a dusty attic, one where the pages may have gotten out of order and found their own logic.” Boys and girls, 1 and 5 and 16, living in 1862 and 2019, rich and poor, Black and white and Qahatika, ballerinas and students and soldiers and farmers and children of celebrities, appear alongside one another to convey both the temporality and the “timelessness” of youth.
But is this youth something biological, or constructed? Brewster cites the founding fathers’ “self-righteous” ideas about “the virtues of progress,” ideas that gave natural rise to new attitudes about child-rearing, new delineations around what children should be exposed to.
“Americans invented childhood,” he boldly claims. And yet, from online trafficking of preteen girls to the “Child’s Room” at the National Firearms Museum in Virginia, Brewster provides ample evidence that, “now, sadly, Americans are presiding over its demise.”
Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.