Everyone loves a bit of Victoriana at Christmas, so I thought I’d dig out some of my notes on children’s science books in the 19th century.
(preface of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)
The 19th century was the age of professionalisation of science. The word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1833 [EDIT: or even really used until the 1870s], and the period was one for exploring ways to earn a living from scientific work, developing specialist scientific training institutions (including my own) and establishing a flurry of scientific societies. A boom in popularisation of science was part of this process, as the very notion of something to be popularised is both caused by and helps emphasise a sense of a distinct professional culture of science. As Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman have argued, as well as scientists hoping to push out popular texts, there was a ‘pull’ from a keen market of science fans too. This market included young people, or at least the adults who bought books for them.
Not that writing about science for young people was new. One might argue the very first children’s book was on science, but there does seem to have been a bit of a boom in the period. It’s noticeable how many of the writers of such books were women. Indeed, Richard Holmes, in his Observer article last month on the ‘lost women of science’, argued that one of the ways women have quietly contributed to science has been through science communication.
My first example is a publication that (just) predates the 19th century: Evenings at Home: or, the Juvenile Budget Opened by brother and sister team John Aikin and Leatitia Barbauld. Aimed at 7-10s, this appeared between 1792 and 1796 in six, small volumes, each costing one shilling and sixpence and was reprinted throughout the 19th century. Indeed, it remained in print until 1915, its longevity perhaps down to its continual use as a school prize, as well as the fact that the first edition came out of copyright in 1820, just as publishers were looking for content to cheaply republish.
As with many other similar titles, the book aimed to be both ‘instructive and amusing’ (take that ‘edu-tainment’ snobs, it isn’t some kind of recent abhorrence). It’s writers firmly believed that variety was the way to keep a child’s attention, so it mixed genres as well as subject matter – poetry, narrative, dialogue, all used to discuss history, chemistry and botany. It was unusual, however, in that the book didn’t draw out religious aspects to the science as Aikin and Barbauld, brought up in nonconformist Warrington Academy, did not like to impose their religious ideas upon others. This may also be an explanation of its longevity.
Aikin and Barbauld really were quite unusual in this. Indeed, the Religious Tract Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge were big publishers of children’s science titles during the 19th century. Here nature was presented as God’s creation, something scientific understanding allowed the reader to marvel at. Reading about science was a form of devotional activity. It’s worth remembering the sorts of divisions we now see between science and religion were not quite so set in place at the time (indeed, the 19th century was a key period for the laying down of such divisions).
That isn’t to say all forms of wonder in children’s popular science were explicitly religious. For example, Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea and Sky (1837) aimed to present the ‘thrilling’ nature of geology, geography and meteorology (though I should note there are still references to God in the book). As historian of science James Secord puts it:
Wonders appeals to the expansive, progressive ethos of the early industrial age. It encouraged young readers to think that adventure, travel and exploration were not just to be read about by the fireside, but possibilities to be actively pursued. With its accounts of shooting stars, mysterious caves, erupting volcanoes and scenes of extinct life, the book opened up strange new worlds to its readers. This was how many Victorians first obtained their sense of the vast global territory that was coming under the eye of western science
(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe, 2003, Science For Children, volume 3: ix-x)
Peter Parley was a character of sorts. Originally the mom-de-plume of a New England writer, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Wonders was penned by a London-based writer, Samuel Clark, taking up the Parley brand. The narration is rather personable, talking directly to his ‘young friends’ and discusses things as if he is relaying past travels: visiting Mary Anning’s fossil shop, walking behind the falls at Niagara. Their somewhat avuncular tone is slightly different from many of its competitors, which were more likely to apply a dialogues with mothers or staged presentations between children (e.g. Tom Telescope, 1761).
Another book which applied the role of an explicitly male narrator, although this time a real person, was John Henry Pepper’s The Boys Playbook of Science. First published in 1860, in a relatively expensive gold-decorated cloth binding, it was another favourite of school prizes. It was also the most widely red introduction to physics and chemistry for young people in mid/late Victorian era. Pepper was a star of the London stage (the inventor of ‘Peppers Ghost’) and the book’s biggest attraction was its instructions for activities sometimes known as ‘experiments’ but better described as demonstrations.
(page 25 of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)
According to James Secord, the Playbook started to fall out of fashion by the First World War. Perhaps it was a victim of changes in science (e.g. the impact of relativity and quantum physics), or more in the style of communication to young people (a revolt against Victorian didacticism). The real difference between the Playbook and its successors Secord argues, is that children’s science books of the post-Sputnik era were about recruiting for scientific careers, where as Pepper was much more about moral improvement. For Pepper, scientific play was a sort of intellectual equivalent of the health and moral benefits of sport, and thus an embodiment and contributor to the increasingly gendered nature of physics in the 19th century onwards.
Young men were not asked to memorize hundreds of experiments, nor necessarily to follow careers as scientists and engineers; instead, what mattered most was mental preparation for the challenges of the modern world of global capitalism, in which life was a ‘race’ both with one’s immediate fellows and with those of other countries. Readers were expected to use the Playbook to build character and prepare for ‘The Battle of Life’, to serve nation and empire
(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe, 2003, Science For Children, volume 6, ix)
I’ve saved the best for last: Arabella Buckley’s Fairyland of Science. Published by the map and travel publishers, Stanfords, in 1879, it was immensely popular and reprinted across north America, as well as being translated into Danish and Polish. The book aimed to cash in on the Victorian mania for fairies, and embossed gilt fairies adorned its cover. Like the Playbook, it had it’s roots in a lecture series; talks given to middle-class children in in St John’s Wood, although it feels more like storytelling than Pepper’s flashy theatrical displays.
Buckley’s mix of science and fairytale might not sit well with everyone, but as with many science writers who have followed her application of fiction or allusions to magic, the point is to imply that science is as wonderful but with the added value of being ‘really real’. Buckley’s fairies were physical forces of magnetism or gravity. I think the best way to share it is simply to quote from the first page:
I have promised to introduce you today to the fairy-land of science – a somewhat bold promise, seeing that most of you probably look upon science as a bundle of dry facts, while fairy-land is all that is beautiful, and full of poetry and imagination. But I thoroughly believe myself, and hope to prove to you, that science is full of beautiful pictures, of real poetry, and of wonder-working fairies; and what is more, I promise you that they shall be true fairies, whom you will love just as much when you are old and greyheaded as when you are young; for you will be able to call them up whenever you wander by land or through air; and though they themselves will always remain invisible, yet you will see their wonderful poet at work everywhere around you.
(Arabella Buckley, 1879)
It then goes on to compare Sleeping Beauty with the initial speed of rushing water transforming into an apparently ‘spellbound’ frozen (or ‘sleeping’) state of ice. Buckley then underlines a point of beauty and poetry with reference to a tiny crystals of ice on bushes as water-drops are ‘napping’, and delicate patterns of breath caught on a window-pane.
In some respects, Fairyland of Science followed a similar publishing pattern to the Playbook, revised and reprinted up until roughly the first World War (20 times until 1919, mainly by Macmillan, as well as religious publishing houses), before slowly disappearing. Not that much-loved children’s books ever disappear as, passed on by parents or lovingly stored in personal archives, they can be very sticky cultural objects.
Looking over my shelves of 21st century kids science books, they reflect similar interests, patterns and styles as many of the 18th and 19th century books. Children’s popular science is a lot less formal now, and the genre lost explicit connections to religion a while ago, but the ghosts of Buckley, Parley, Pepper, Aikin and Barbauld still lurk amongst their pages.
- Much of this post is based on the seven volume Science For Children edited by Aileen Fyfe (Bristol, Thoemmes Press: 2003). This is annoyingly rare – I couldn’t even get a copy at the British Library.
- For a general overview, Fyfe has put a pdf of her introduction to the Science For Children collection on her publications page.
- James Secord expanded his piece on John Henry Pepper for Science Magazine, and comes highly recommended.
- I can also heartily recommend Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace, although you probably need access to an academic library to read it.
- For those with access through the Times paywall, I wrote about children, science and Christmas for this month’s Eureka, which mentions some of these books in a larger context.
- I’ve included googlebooks links above to all the titles I’ve mentioned, so you can read them for yourself. Personally I find these things fascinating, and hope you do too.