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The Archaeology of American Childhood and Adolescence

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The Archaeology of American Childhood and Adolescence

By: Jane Eva Baxter

Podcast Interview

This week, Jane Eva Baxter discusses her monograph, The Archaeology of American Childhood and Adolescence, with interviewer John Burton. You can listen here. John is Chair of the Department of History at DePaul University. is You can listen to other episodes of the SHCY podcast by visiting the podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Play and iTunes.

This review appeared in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 13, no. 2 (Spring 2020): 319-321.

The Archaeology of American Childhood and Adolescence. 
By Jane Eva Baxter.
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019. xvii + 202 pp. Cloth $80.

Jane Eva Baxter is one of the most prominent historical archaeologists studying children and childhood. Her 2005 book, The Archaeology of Childhood, was among the first to synthesize the disparate strands of the then-nascent field of the archaeology of childhood. This 2019 follow-up, The Archaeology of American Childhood and Adolescence, is a survey of the major research themes in the historical archaeology of childhood in the United States as the field has grown over the past decade.

Baxter notes that “the American Experience” and “being American” are enduring research topics within historical archaeology. These ideas are composed of multiple, competing discourses and identities that defy a monolithic American experience; as such, there cannot be a single understanding of an American childhood. There is little explicit engagement with either social or child development theory; Baxter instead introduces five key themes in chapter 1 that underlay the field’s literature: economic and social risks/opportunities; ethnic and class diversity; consumerism; space, both geographic and social spaces exclusively for children or made by them; and disruption of family structures. These themes do not explicitly frame the book, but are emphasized to varying degrees in the subsequent chapters.

The book’s strengths lie in its balanced presentation of children on their own terms as social beings whose selective choice of ideas and behaviors for themselves in their relationships with adults circumscribe and shape childhood through time and space. For example, while toys are considered the defining evidence for children on archaeological sites, there is often little further analysis of their activities beyond play. Baxter includes discussions of various toys, but also devotes considerable attention to other artifacts such as writing slates, clothing, and ceramics to contextualize children’s experiences both as independent social actors and dependents on larger social and cultural forces.

Chapter 2 presents a chronological overview of the social histories of childhood from the colonial to modern periods, while the following chapters focus on sites dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chapter 3 discusses children’s living and play spaces, home and family life, divided into broadly rural and urban domestic experiences. The breadth of this chapter is excellent, covering children’s lives at farms, plantations, urban areas, factory towns, and even military sites. Chapter 4’s focus on institutions is a thought-provoking inversion of the previous chapter’s focus on domestic life by considering children’s agency in compliance with or resistance to moral and physical reform, illustrated with rich discussions of artifacts recovered from sites such as Japanese internment camps, Indian boarding schools, and public schools. Chapter 5 bridges these discussions of children’s lives to their mortality with studies of skeletal remains and commemoration through gravestone design, while an interesting passage on toys and “playing at death” underscores the close relationship between children and death in the past and prefigures the following chapter’s discussions of safety and risk. The book closes with archaeological perspectives on contemporary childhood using material culture such as the ubiquitous Barbie, and emergent research on video games to highlight how adult perceptions of safety and childhood innocence influence children's experiences and contexts of play in contemporary life.

Baxter notes that by design the book focuses on the childhoods of Euro-Americans and enslaved and free African Americans, and it mostly omits Native American children because the multiplicity of native cultures makes them difficult to cover thoughtfully. The book is also concerned with sites dating after the mid-nineteenth century, largely because this period has the most archaeological and historical data available. As Baxter accurately points out, many potential data sources on children’s presence at archaeological sites are underexamined due to the nature of archaeological practice in the United States. Still, even a cursory presentation of Native American children—particularly on sites in the northeast and southwest, where ceramic pots, stone tools, and other items made by children have been found—would have further emphasized the multiplicity of American childhood experiences. A consideration of children’s perspectives on their own lives as revealed in journals/memoirs would have emphasized the range of children’s activities at different site types and contextualized their interactions with peers and adults in the absence of artifact data.

These are ultimately minor criticisms, however. The range of discussions is excellent and thoroughly illustrated by various artifact types beyond toys, covering the major research topics in the field in a clear, jargon-free, and thoughtful manner. Most of all, Baxter brings coherence to the diverse field of the historical archaeology of childhood to effectively demonstrate that, just as there is no monolithic “American Experience,” there was (and is, and will be) no single “American Childhood and Adolescence.” The book would be an excellent addition to a syllabus as well as one’s personal library.

Kyle Somerville
Powers Archaeology LLC, Rochester, New York

Jane Eva BaxterAbout Jane Eva Baxter

Jane Eva Baxter began her career at DePaul in 2000, and is an Associate Professor in the Department. She received her BA from Boston University with a dual major in Archaeological Studies and Anthropology and holds a MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. While archaeology has taken her around the globe, her own research interests are centered on historical archaeology in the United States and The Bahamas, where she studies issues of childhood, gender, labor, and identity in the recent past. Since arriving at DePaul, Dr. Baxter has written three books, edited three peer-reviewed volumes, authored over 30 peer-reviewed articles, and presented over 70 conference papers as well as writing many technical reports, book reviews, and articles for newsletters and magazines. She is the recipient of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award.

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.