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"Pernicious stuff": nineteenth century media, the children who loved them, and the adults who worried about them.

In 1817, an author in the New England Palladium and Commercial Advertiser wrote about the impressive increase in the quality and variety of printed materials being used by teachers and students. He argued that "if the next age, therefore, is not a wise one, the fault will neither be in the books nor the tutors." (1)

What he did not know about the next age was that it would witness the rise of the mass press, and that certain kinds of inexpensive books would aggravate, exasperate, and worry parents and teachers. Of particular concern were dime novels, which became wildly popular among children (and adults) in the latter part of the nineteenth century and whose sensational content was often regarded as inappropriate for children.

The title of my presentation comes from an 1885 issue of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. The article describes the suicide "of a young boy whose mind had become disordered through reading of dime novels." (2) It goes on to talk about a group of boys "calling themselves the 'Jesse James Gang'" who "were indicted for larceny to which they had been prompted by the same pernicious stuff." (3) Other publications from that time described dime novels as "outrageously disgusting," (4) "very distasteful," (5) "miserable stuff" (6) that "sears the better part of a boy's nature" (7) and "depraves the taste." (8)

The language of some of these criticisms might sound quaint and dated today, but the concerns that were expressed about dime novels were remarkably similar to the concerns adults are expressing today about our new media. As we think about the meaning of media change in our children's lives, we need to know that we are not the first to wonder about it. Clearly the media landscape is changing rapidly, but children have been active and enthusiastic media users for centuries. In colonial America, hornbooks dangled from schoolchildren's belts. A hundred years later, children were thrilled that the dime novels called pernicious by their parents and teachers were designed to fit neatly in their pockets, where they kept them stashed away until school was dismissed for the day. Now, children's jackets come with pockets specifically designed for iPods and cell phones, and school dismissals across America produce daily waves of children pulling out all the handheld electronic devices that they kept hidden away during school hours.

According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, (9) 66% of American 8- to 18-year olds owned a cell phone in 2009, and 76% had an iPod or MP3 player. The amount of time children spend using media each day averages about 7.5 clock hours, and nearly 11 hours when "media multitasking" is taken into account. Seventy-four percent of American children in seventh to twelfth grade report having a profile on a social networking site. Many of the statistics in the 2010 study showed substantial increases in media ownership and use from a similar study conducted by the same researchers just five years earlier.10 The media environment of children is changing rapidly, giving us a great deal to think about.

This is where I think we need to turn first to the deep historical context that can inform the present struggle to understand how children and adolescents use media to understand themselves and others, to negotiate social and romantic relationships, and to learn about the world outside their direct experience. Contemporary concerns about the potential dangers of social networking sites and mobile communication devices, evidenced by the increasing incidence of cyberbullying, "sexting," and privacy violations are not all that different from nineteenth century concerns about dime novels, the telegraph, telephone, photography, and the phonograph, not to mention twentieth century media like film, radio, and comic books. We are not the first to experience profound, destabilizing, and disorienting shifts in our media environment. Parents always seem to struggle to understand new media and how those media fit into their children's lives. Educators wonder what to do with new media in schools--welcome them? Harness them for good purposes? Forbid them? Teach children how to use them, or how to understand their impact?

As obvious as it is to media historians that Americans have a longstanding tradition of thinking and talking about new technologies in polarized, hyperbole-driven language, this historical context rarely seems to make its way into discussions of new media and children outside media history classrooms and academic conferences and publications. The popular press grabs onto the stories of cyberbullies and copycat criminals, whereas new media marketing offers us fantasies of life-made-perfect by new media. As much as these two extremes cannot possibly capture all of what matters about what is changing, we as a society seem to be unable to find a better way to talk about what is happening. So whenever I see us getting stuck in this way, my first impulse is to try to establish some historical context, which is where I am headed next in this presentation by taking us back 150 years and taking a look at what was on the minds of the nineteenth century Americans whose media environment was changing dramatically.

Dime novels were fantastically popular from their initial publication in 1860. A generation later, in 1907, Charles Harvey commented in an Atlantic Monthly article that "many Americans who were old enough to read at that time remember 1860 better from that circumstance [the publication of the first dime novel] than they do because it was the year of Lincoln's election and the secession of South Carolina." (11)Harvey described the way that boys "swarmed into and through stores and news-stands" (12) whenever a new dime novel was released. "Conveniently shaped for the pocket," he wrote, "they promptly became an inseparable part of the outfit of the boy (and to some extent the girl) of the period." (13) Their sales were accelerated by the Civil War because soldiers were eager for inexpensive, entertaining reading material.

Literary critics were not so fond of dime novels, but fans loved them for the very features that critics disliked. One such critic argued in 1903 that the typical dime novel "could not fail to appeal to the eye of a restless boy. There is nothing longwinded about it. There are very few long words. The story opens with a rush, and it closes with the promise of 'worse yet to follow.'" (14) Charles Harvey described how "The things which were done in those little books were physical, and they were told in language that made pictures in the mind. There were no verbal puzzles in any of them, ..." (15) Dime novels initially told the tales of cowboys and Indians, train and bank robbers, and others in the Wild West; later, their protagonists were more often detectives and gangsters. Whatever the subject, it was treated in the most action-packed way possible.

It must have been overwhelming for adults, this huge wave of cheap, easily available media content that seemed to contradict their moral values and undermine their efforts to instill those values in their children. In 1903, a former state superintendent of Iowa schools wrote that "We have fallen upon an age of books, dealing with every conceivable subject, and with every possible motive. Good, evil, and indifferent, like Jeremiah's figs, the good very good, and the poor exceeding poor, they are scattered broadcast as the sower scatters the wheat." (16) At a time when adults were intensely concerned about many aspects of American life that seemed to be challenging their influence on children, dime novels seemed to many adults to be very much part of the problem.

Some nineteenth century periodicals reported copycat crimes that seemed to have been inspired by dime novel reading. For example, an article in Work with Boys: A Magazine of Methods described an 1896 train robbery, committed by four boys who read "blood and thunder" novels. The boys were caught, and the article says that "in the room of one of the boys an officer found a yellowcovered volume, giving the adventures of ... bank and train robbers." (17) This article also told the story of a 1904 arrest where police "unearthed a den that was occupied by a youthful band of robbers, and which was filled with loot," including "several dime novels." (18) A police officer quoted in the same article described how "I often find that boys who have 'shacks' and caves are generally supplied with a stock of cheap, yellowbacked novels, the influence of which is extremely pernicious and easily perverts a boy's imagination." (19) This was but one of many articles written in the late nineteenth century that offered evidence of the negative impact of dime novel reading on children's behavior.

Some critics argued that no amount of good parenting could prevent the negative influence of dime novels. An 1884 article described a gang of boy robbers who copied what they read in a dime novel, boys who "were the sons of thoroughly respectable parents, whose good influence had been counteracted by the stories they had read." (20) The article warns: "the work of the teacher and preacher is made null and void by the Dime Novel." (21) This was the period when more and more families were shifting from agrarian to urban living, when adults were spending more time away from their children at workplaces separated from their homes and worrying about the possibility that they were not able to influence their children's attitudes as effectively as past generations. In that context, it is no wonder that some adults saw dime novels as yet another influence on their children that challenged or counteracted their own influence.

Other people doubted the influence of dime novels on boys' behavior, but were certain of the negative influence on boys' minds. A 1913 article with the title "Blowing Out the Boys' Brains" argued that "the harm done is simply incalculable. I wish I could label each one of these books: 'Explosives Guaranteed to Blow Your Boy's Brains Out.'" (22) The feeling was that these books provided such sensory overload that readers' imaginations would be damaged by them. He went on to conclude that "the result is that, as some boys read such books, their imaginations are literally 'blown out,' and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot." (23) Discussions of various types of mental or emotional overload resulting from use of new media were fairly common in the late nineteenth century, and the concern that dime novels could be similarly overwhelming seems in keeping with discussions of the problem of "neurasthenia" or mental exhaustion.

But it wasn't all bad news. There was a fair amount of discussion about whether there might be some good effect of dime novel reading on certain children. This was a time when people were concerned about child laborers and children living in city slums, and some people argued that even poor quality books, like dime novels, could do some good for these children. Charles Harvey wrote that "between the [dime novel] writer and his constituents there was a bond of affection which incited him to make them glad to be alive ... the producer of dime fiction strewed romance through farm, mining camp, and city street. Out of his surroundings, however sordid, the boy was lifted." (24) So dime novels were seen by some people as an escape from the misery of laboring boys' circumstances.

Some people argued that dime novels could be used as a point of entry to get children interested in reading. The argument was that children needed first to want to read, to enjoy reading, and then they could be directed them toward higher quality books. As more and more libraries established children's reading rooms in the late nineteenth century, librarians, in particular, debated the question of whether any good could be derived from dime novel reading.

Some people, especially librarians, maintained that communities with good libraries were communities where dime novel reading would, and did, diminish. The "home library" was one attempt to bring good books to the poor and un- or under-educated; this was a collection of books provided by a library that would be maintained in the home of a volunteer in an underserved community. Another heavily promoted effort was the collaboration between employers and public libraries to make books available to child laborers, to set up libraries in factories and other places where children worked. Yet another was the push for libraries to be open during evenings and weekends, with good children's librarians on duty, when child laborers were most likely to be able to go to a library. (25)

It is also worth noting that dime novels were not the only kind of fiction that people were worried about. There seemed to be a fairly common concern that fiction of all kinds was potentially dangerous reading material, that any and all fiction, consumed in large quantities, was a problem. Fifteen years before the dime novel was published, a New York State superintendent of schools reported that "so much of what is generally termed 'light reading' is but fostering a too luxuriant growth, that spirit which, if not checked, will be productive of the worst consequences to the freedom and happiness of our people." (26) "Fear of fiction" had been expressed for quite a long time before dime novels were first published, but the widespread availability of inexpensive fiction triggered more intense fears that now the masses would have easy access to reading material that they somehow could not handle responsibly.

As the mass press flooded nineteenth century America with inexpensive reading material, fiction was not the only target for criticism. Newspapers, with their sensational coverage of "low" subjects, were also under attack. Of particular concern were the serial stories that were popular in daily newspapers. Where dime novels could at least be praised for steering clear of romantic or sexual subject matter, the serial stories were full of romance and intrigue. An author in an 1884 issue of Literary News wrote that "far more injurious to the morals of the young [than dime novels], and far more false in its view of life than this sort of literature, is the vast amount of stuff that appears in the form of serial stories in the weekly papers printed in New York. ... I see them in the hands of old men and shopgirls on the elevated trains. ... Many of these stories are unfit for decent people to read." (27) So to some extent, it seems that people were reacting not just to dime novels, but to the new flood of cheap printed material in general.

Adults struggled with the question of what to do about this medium whose content they found so troublesome. One option was to try to forbid children from reading pernicious fiction, but it seems that banning popular media then worked about as well as it works now. Henry Sabin, a former state superintendent of schools, wrote in 1903 that "In a certain [class]room the teacher burned three dime novels in one half day. The pest disappeared as by magic, and we congratulated ourselves upon our easy victory over sin, until we discovered that the boys still brought their dime novels to school--and hid them under the sidewalk. On their way home at night they exchanged with each other, and laughed at their teacher." (28) Sabin went on to recommend that instead of banning dime novels, teachers should encourage students to bring them to school, then talk about the books with students and offer alternatives on similar themes.

Some men who had themselves been avid dime novel readers as boys advocated a different approach--namely, to stay calm and participate in children's media consumption. For example, one author argued the following: "don't think that the boy's craving for the nickel library is an indication of depravity, or that indulgence in it will start him on the road to perdition. The appetite for these books is a normal one. ... Do not regard this kind of reading as a menace to the boy's morals, but as a stepping-stone to something better and more beneficial. Do not, either by rule or ridicule, drive the boy from his home to seek it, but stay with him and guide him through it." (29) In this way, parents could discuss the books with their children and offer their own viewpoints in cases where the books seemed to be promoting values or behaviors that could be in some way harmful.

Another approach was to promote the publication of inexpensive good fiction for children. Frank Buckelew wrote in 1903 that "I heartily endorse the idea of fighting the devil with his own weapons. The thought occurred to me ... 'Why not put within the reach of boys booklets for the same price, with plenty of action, recounting the heroic deeds of men and boys who are doing something worth while?'" (30) There are some accounts in the periodical press of this time of book publishers moving toward releasing inexpensive editions of "good" children's literature, and of sales of dime novels dropping, perhaps as a result.

So life went on, media change went on--most notably, the movies were born, and there are a number of references in early twentieth century periodicals to motion pictures and their potential to elevate children's imaginations above the offerings of dime novel content. Unfortunately, we don't have time today to talk about how that turned out, but I trust that most people here know at least a little bit about the intense anxiety that adults would come to feel in the 1920s and 30s about children and movies ... and then about children and radio ... and children and comic books ... and children and television. ... Suffice it to say that every new medium gets adults thinking, wondering, and worrying, and we twenty-first century adults are no exception.

So now that we have arrived back at the present, I would like to point out at least a few themes that emerge in the story of nineteenth century "new media" that still resonate today. One is the tendency to assume that a new medium will certainly have a powerful impact on children, and that the impact will be negative. Media scholars generally know better than to simplify the issue in this way, but it is very common in the popular press to hold up isolated incidents of possible copycat behaviors as "proof that a medium is "bad." I am less concerned about people believing this than about the way in which these stories tend to eclipse more nuanced and productive conversations about the real impact and meaning of media change. People get so busy pointing to the web sites a criminal kid visited, or the video games he played, or the music he liked, that they miss most what I think is more important to notice and think about.

Another area worth exploring is one about media literacy, or media education, and theories about how and why to engage children in some sort of critical analysis of media. The parents and teachers who banned dime novels, read dime novels with their children, encouraged children to bring dime novels to school, burned them, looked at their contents and suggested a higher quality novel on a similar theme, etc., all had different ideas about what to do about children and media, but they all represent strands of media literacy work that are still being practiced by people today. We now have names for some of the approaches that they advocated; we have theories; we have studies to point to that defend or refute one approach or another. But we are not the first to work on these things.

Finally--and this by no means exhausts the possibilities, but it is all we have time for today--is the expression of an intense longing for the "good old days" that we hear so often today, and that it turns out people longed for even back in the days that we think of as "good" and "old." As I read these articles from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I feel like I am reading about our own, twenty-first century, overscheduled family lives. People at that time were yearning for the days when kids went outside and played--when, according to a librarian writing in 1913, "there was more family life. ... The complexity of modern life, ... the multiplicity of interests have deterred many parents from being actively concerned in the growth of the minds and the souls of their children." (31) Another author wrote that "some of us might like occasionally to see time's clock turned back to the days when the world was young enough and rich enough to have illusions that make us glad." (32) It is so common for people today to look back on their own simple, happy childhoods, filled with innocent childhood delights (or so they seem to remember), that I find it very interesting to think about what might motivate these expressions of longing, and why people of different ages share this longing.

So whether we are talking about adults' concerns about what children are doing with their cell phones and social networking profiles, or what they are learning from comic books, or what they are seeing in the movies, or what they are reading in dime novels, we see adults projecting their hopes and fears onto the new media that seem to be competing with them for their children's attention. I do not mean to suggest that just because people have always done this, we can just sit back and stop worrying because it is just part of what people naturally do when something about their lives is changing. I do think that our children's media environment is a very complicated one and that we need to think hard about how to help them navigate it. But I think that by situating today's concerns in their historical context, we can start re-directing the conversation away from the polarized hyperbole that so often characterizes it and toward something more nuanced and productive. I think we should accept Langdon Winner's invitation to "seek better ways of talking about technical devices, more reliable ways of imagining their possibilities and problems," (33) in all aspects of life, but especially where children are concerned.

Notes

(1.) "School Literature," New England Palladium & Commercial Advertiser Pecember 12, 1817): 1.

(2.) "A Boy's Appetite for Fiction," The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine Vol. 30(1885): 650.

(3.) Ibid., 650.

(4.) Henry Sabin, Common Sense Didactics for Common School Teachers (New York: Rand McNally & Co., 1903), 319.

(5.) Frank R. Buckelew, "Nickel Fiction: A Study," Work With Boys: A Magazine of Methods Vol. 3 (1903): 163.

(6.) Ibid., 163.

(7.) Ibid., 164.

(8.) Ibid., 164.

(9.) Victoria J. Rideout, Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010).

(10.) Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria J. Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005).

(11.) Charles M. Harvey, "The Dime Novel in American Life," Atlantic Monthly Vol. 100 (1907): 37.

(12.) Ibid., 37.

(13.) Ibid., 38.

(14.) Frank R. Buckelew, "Nickel Fiction: A Study," Work With Boys: A Magazine of Methods (1903): 164.

(15.) Charles M. Harvey, "The Dime Novel in American Life," Atlantic Monthly (1907): 44.

(16.) Henry Sabin, Common Sense Didactics for Common School Teachers (1903): 311.

(17.) Frank R. Buckelew, "Nickel Fiction: A Study," Work With Boys: A Magazine of Methods (1903): 168.

(18.) Ibid., 168.

(19.) Ibid., 169.

(20.) "The Reading of Children," Literary News: A Monthly Journal of Current Literature V (1884): 25.

(21.) Ibid., 25.

(22.) Franklin K. Matthews, "Blowing Out the Boys' Brains," The Outlook: A Weekly Newspaper CVIII (September 2,1914): 653.

(23.) Ibid., 653.

(24.) Charles M. Harvey, "The Dime Novel in American Life," 44.

(25.) Faith E. Smith, "Changing Conditions of Child Life," Bulletin of the American Library Association Vol. 7 (1913): 184-188; and Gertrude E. Andrus, "How the Library is Meeting the Changing Conditions of Child Lie," Bulletin of the American Library Association Vol. 7 (1913): 188-193.

(26.) S. Young, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Common Schools of the State of New York (Albany, NY: Carroll and Cook, Printers, 1845).

(27.) "Dime Novels," Literary News: A Monthly Journal of Current Literature V (1884): 31.

(28.) Henry Sabin, Common Sense Didactics for Common School Teachers (1903): 318.

(29.) Carl A. Werner, Bringing Up the Boy: A Message to Fathers and Mothers from a Boy of Yesterday Concerning the Men of To-morrow (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1913), 74.

(30.) Frank R. Buckelew, "Nickel Fiction: A Study," Work With Boys: A Magazine of Methods (1903): 166.

(31.) Faith E. Smith, "Changing Conditions of Child Life," Bulletin of the American Library Association (1913): 184.

(32.) Charles M. Harvey, "The Dime Novel in American Life," Atlantic Monthly (1907): 45.

(33.) Langdon Winner, "Sow's Ears from Silk Purses: The Strange Alchemy of Technological Visionaries," in Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach, eds., Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004), 46.

Works cited

"A Boy's Appetite for Fiction," The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine Vol. 30 (1885): 650-652.

Andrus, Gertrude E. "How the Library is Meeting the Changing Conditions of Child Life," Bulletin of the American Library Association Vol. 7 (1913): 188-193.

Buckelew, Frank R. "Nickel Fiction: A Study," Work With Boys: A Magazine of Methods Vol. 3 (1903): 163-170.

"Dime Novels," Literary News: A Monthly Journal of Current Literature V (1884): 30, 31.

Harvey, Charles M. "The Dime Novel in American Life," Atlantic Monthly Vol. 100 (1907): 37-45.

Matthews, Franklin K. "Blowing Out the Boys' Brains," The Outlook: A Weekly Newspaper CVIII (September 2, 1914): 652-654.

Rideout, Victoria J., Foehr, Ulla G., and Roberts, Donald F. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010).

Roberts, Donald F., Foehr, Ulla G., and Rideout, Victoria J. Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005).

Sabin, Henry. Common Sense Didactics for Common School Teachers (New York: Rand McNally, & Co., 1903).

"School Literature." New England Palladium & Commercial Advertiser (December 12, 1817): 1.

Smith, Faith E. "Changing Conditions of Child Life," Bulletin of the American Library Association Vol. 7 (1913): 184-188.

"The Reading of Children," Literary News: A Monthly Journal of Current Literature V (1884): 25.

Werner, Carl Avery. Bringing Up the Boy: A Message to Fathers and Mothers from a Boy of Yesterday to the Men of To-morrow (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1913).

Winner, Langdon. "Sow's Ears from Silk Purses: The Strange Alchemy of Technological Visionaries," in Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach, eds., Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004), 34-47.

Young, S. Annual Report of the Superintendent of Common Schools of the State of New York (Albany, NY: Carroll and Cook, Printers, 1845).

Margaret Cassidy, PhD. is an Associate Professor in the Communications Department at Adelphi University. Her research interests include historical perspectives on media, children, and American public education and the role of new media in the lives of children and adolescents. This paper was presented at the 58th Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture & Symposium, October 29, 2010.
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