Cultures of Boys’ Play in Mid-19th-Century New England
by Rebecca R. Noel
Why did New England boys of 1850 go sledding in winter? This apparently simple question poses a challenge for historians interested in play, sport and childhood.
Perhaps boys went sledding due to an eternally irresistible coincidence of snow and gravity. Even where cultural limits intruded, one might guess, whenever cultural anti-sledding muscles relaxed, down went the boys. By contrast, this study investigates boys’ play in antebellum New England from a cultural history perspective, setting aside any assumptions that children’s play is entirely “natural,” “spontaneous” or “universal.”
The diary of one sportive and verbal boy, James Edward “Ned” Wright, can help situate play within both history and culture. Ned Wright kept a journal from age 11 in 1850 until he was 21. He detailed his life in Montpelier, Vt., and his relocation to Boston in 1852 with his parents and sister Fanny. His father’s dry-goods store flourished, and the family took lavish scenic train tours of New Hampshire’s mountains. Ned also chronicled his academic success at Boston Latin School and eventually Harvard. But the journal’s dominant topic is Ned’s involvement with sports and play; Ned’s 33 different athletic activities total some 1,300 instances.
Because Ned moved from a small town in rural New England to the region’s largest city, he makes a good case study of the notion of cultures of play. Cultural and historical elements converge to solve a mystery that arises in the journal’s first several years.
My discovery of Ned Wright was pure luck. I had a research fellowship at the Winterthur Library in Delaware to pursue my doctoral dissertation on children’s health in schools before the Civil War. The library had recently acquired a diary of a boy from Montpelier, Vt., where I then lived. Ned Wright’s diary revealed two distinct sport cultures in quiet Montpelier and dynamic antebellum (pre-Civil War) Boston.
Most of Ned’s sporting activities, including sledding, took place at two helpfully hilly venues, Montpelier’s Statehouse grounds and the Boston Common. But the sledding was not identical: Ned immediately adapted his language to local culture. In Montpelier, he used the word “sliding,” as Vermont children still do. In Boston, after his sled’s first jaunt, he reported that he had gone “coasting,” and he never subsequently used the wrong word in either place. Fanny went sledding too, but the only time Ned mentioned a location for her outings found her sledding “behind the house” in Boston. It seems that only boys had coasting access to public hills beneath statehouses where they might one day serve. Even an activity like sledding-at first glance too effortless to partake of history-shows cultural markings.
Ned pursued sports eagerly, playing ball of all kinds, hiking and skating as well as sledding. Yet his parents regularly withdrew the energetic boy from school as though he were ill. Ned reported with dismay five long school absences from 1851 to 1855, totaling 12 months of missed school. At Boston Latin, the enforced vacations kept him from winning his usual academic prizes. When Ned’s parents took him out of school, they did not home-school him or even keep him indoors. Upon the first hiatus, they handed him a gun and a fishing pole. They sent him sledding throughout a winter school leave. During later absences, they enrolled him in a gymnasium and a Charles River bath house, then bought a horse for him to ride, boarding it in a city livery stable. Ned’s parents were actually favoring exercise over education for their already active boy. This outstanding student, a rising merchant’s only son, was obviously on track for Harvard. Why would they sabotage his future by ignoring the school calendar?
Ned revealed his secret during a visit to Montpelier in 1855. Just before turning 16, he recorded in his journal, “Weigh 85 1/2 pounds, having gained 2 pounds since leaving Boston [two weeks ago], if the scales agree.” Ned, it turns out, was quite small. He would rank 10 pounds below today’s chart for American 15-year-olds and 20 pounds below for boys aged 16. In his day and demographic, Ned would have been petite among Amherst College’s students, measured systematically from 1865 to 1885. Fewer than one percent of the 5,733 students weighed 95 pounds, the bottom of Amherst’s chart, though some were as young as 15. A year later, Ned still fretted about his frail appearance. Apparently both slender and short, Ned must have looked sickly despite his vigor.
Moreover, Ned’s studious tendencies made his small size into a big problem. Tuberculosis, then called consumption, was the nation’s leading cause of death from 1800 to 1870 and was especially common in New England. Consumption was not known to be contagious. Instead, lack of exercise, stagnant air and cold damp climates all seemed to bring on the disease. Above all, consumption appeared to target promising, scholarly young adults of sedentary habits. By keeping students confined indoors and impeding exercise, school invited consumption. And the most striking visible effect of the disease, which many feared was also a cause, was that consumptives had narrow chests and were underweight.
Now the prioritizing of sport over schooling makes historical sense. Ned’s parents were shielding their scrawny, brainy boy from consumption. For antebellum New Englanders of the educated, aspiring class, only exercise could serve as the antidote to school. In 1843, a letter writer to the Newburyport (Mass.) Daily Herald advised would-be teachers, “At recess time, look out for those disposed to stay in-those pale-faced, narrow-chested, feeble-framed boys inclined to continue bending over their books … look out, I say, for those and drive them forth, for they are the very fellows that need exercise most, and most frequently.” Ned’s parents apparently managed his health by the same principle.
Ned never specifically mentioned his risk of consumption in his journal. But in his last year at Boston Latin, he wrote frequently about how he used exercise to counteract the dangers of schooling. He kept dumbbells in his room and noted when he “coasted a little for exercise,” now a strategy as well as a pleasure. Although he graduated at the head of his class, he condemned the ranking system for “making the naturally ambitious”-meaning elf-“study beyond their strength.”
Ned’s parents’ fears came true, but not in the way they expected. Ironically, his always-healthy sister Fanny died of consumption in 1865, at just 21. Ned remained an avid outdoorsman until his death at 75. From 1869 to 1914, he served as the Unitarian minister in Montpelier, where local memory records him as “tiny.”
Facile as it is to suppose that boys are forces of nature, Ned’s participation in play, sport and exercise was no simple affair. Ned and his parents feared for his future, and those fears, functions of history and culture, rode with him when he dove into the nexus of snow and gravity.
Rebecca R. Noel is assistant professor of history in the social science department at PSU. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University in 1999; her graduate work was in American and New England Studies. She is at work on a book about school health in America, 1780-1870. This article is drawn from a longer one published in The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife annual proceedings for 2002, The Worlds of Children, 1620-1920 (ed. Peter Benes, ©2004 by the Trustees of Boston University). Used with permission. Permission to quote from the James Edward Wright diary granted by Henry duPont Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.
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