Presents were used to promote morals

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Presents were used to promote morals

February 8, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Children's mugs displaying affection were excavated by Richard J. Muzzerole and the Smithsonian Institution behind the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop during urban renewal. They pre-date the moralistic mugs of the mid-19th century.
Photo courtesy: Alexandria Archaeology Collection.
America of the mid-19th century was a place of great change. Transportation shifted from animal power to engines; work moved from artisans in the home to laborers in industrialized factories. Communication increased in speed and quantity, as did production of commodities. Old ways were not necessarily successful methods in a more fluid economic and social America. (Does this sound familiar at the end of the 20th century?)

For the expanding middle class, aspiring lower classes and new elite, attention focused on raising children. Darcie MacMahon's research has found that child rearing manuals "flooded the market" and the cult of domesticity developed. The home, as Daniel Walker Howe has stated, became a "place where children were indoctrinated with the proper values before being sent forth to make their way in a rapidly changing world." Mothers became the primary suppliers of this domesticity, which included affection and both moral and academic education. These services had not been required of Euro-American parents prior to the Victorian period (1837-1901).

Nineteenth century potteries in England capitalized on their quicker production methods to fill this new consumer niche. They produced child sized cups and plates with educational themes, including Benjamin Franklin's Maxims popularized for adults 100 years earlier. Toys for both education and recreation increased as John Locke's educational views influenced Americans: "Learning anything, they [children] should be taught, might be made as much a Recreation as their Play, as their Play is to their learning." Interestingly, Locke invented the first alphabet blocks which combined play with learning letters, spelling, reading, building, and physical principles.

While the intensity of mothers' domesticity was new, the morals which the Victorians taught were not. The maintenance of strong values within the society was one way of coping with rapid changes. The expanding communications and literacy of the population associated with industrialization produced a "mass society."

As people became more self-conscious about culture, those who could afford additional expenses purchased more printed items as well as material objects for the home. The books and magazines served to inform and reiterate the Victorian morals. Daniel Walker Howe wrote in 1976 that these values "taught people to work hard, to postpone gratification, ...and to "improve themselves, to be sober, conscientious, even compulsive."

Achieving children were rewarded with various awards of merit. Teachers handed out certificates with ornate lettering for reading success to reinforce industry. Parents gave children special merit mugs printed with sayings like "A Present for Writing Well," or "Knitting Well." Victorians in Alexandria used children's cups and plates to teach and reward morals more than a century old in preparing their children for industrialized capitalism.

Pamela Cressey is the City Archaeologist.