The roots of 19th Century Nursery Culture in American Puritanism


   The nursery culture which arose in the 19th century owed its existence to the 18th century Puritan idea of domestic worship, which itself was a break from traditional clergy led worship activities.  Prior to the increased authority of Puritanism in Europe the domestic scene was very different. We know fro sources the French gathered together for what was called the veilee or family gathering. This is where the venerable French folk tales were transmitted orally before being written down for posterity and put on the road to becoming children’s fare. It was around these French hearths the mother Goose figure arose. The child certainly had a place of importance in the veilee of France and its counterparts that existed around the world, but the passing of stories was only one aspect of this gathering and its exact importance remains a mystery. Judging from the cultural mores it is safe to say the child’s place was far from what it would become in the 19th century.

   It would be the puritans of the 18th century who would forever changes the place of children as well as the role of the parent in relation to the child. Puritan parents placed tremendous importance on literacy and on the moral corruptibility of their children. The bible was the solemn word of god and unlike catholic tradition it was believed that the individual relationship possible only through ones reading the word of god for themselves was central to salvation. This commitment to literacy, coupled with the deep held desire to Sheppard ones children towards a state of moral decency and ultimate salvation created what was called the domestic worship in which the family, removed from the church engaged in bible reading, scripture lessons and religious discussion with the father acting the part of the official clergy. This was in accord with accepted Puritan practice, which did not require that a minister be set apart from the congregation. In fact, the custom of lay ministers which still exists to day within the Methodist church has its origins in Puritan practice and the Domestic worship. Anyone belonging to the church and who was in good standing in the community had the authority to lead worship services to an extant only slightly less than the recognized clergy.

   Over time books other than the bible but whose purpose was to illuminate the bible found their way into these private family services. Some of these books were designed with children in mind and told bible stories in simplistic terms, usually focusing on those stories that feature adventure and excitement while upholding a virtuous message. These books are worthy of note because there are among the earliest examples of illustrated children’s books.

   The early 19th century saw the final phase of puritan influence on society. New religious thought had made the puritans seem antiquated while America itself was growing and looking ever forward. However, certain lasting Puritan influences could still be felt. This diminishing puritan presence came about during a time when child mortality was decreasing and the middle class was emerging. Domestic worship, which still lingered in various guises, began to transform. Over time the deep religious overtones of Domestic worship diminished and “story time” emerged with its sense of playfulness and imagination, two things the puritans would have found abhorrent. By the middle of the century children were identified as being a unique sort of being with inherent likes and dislikes and interests and in need of literature designed specifically for them and for their amusement. The first literature purely for a child amusement was created and would grow in importance over the latter half of the century, reaching its zenith in the years immediately surrounding the first world War.

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