In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Material Cultures of Western Childhoods

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Professional Organizations
  • Material Culture and Babies
  • Clothing and Costume
  • Toys, Games, and Dolls
  • Consumer Culture and the Contemporary Child

Childhood Studies Material Cultures of Western Childhoods
Sharon Brookshaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0169


The word “material” in material culture refers to a broad range of objects classified as “artifacts”—that is, those objects made or used by humans. The inclusion of the word “culture” is rather misleading, however, as material culture is not strictly culture itself but rather its product; as cultural constructs inform the production of artifacts, the study of material culture is a way of revealing beliefs, assumptions, and social fears within the society that produced and consumed any given artifact. Material culture therefore properly means the physical manifestations of culture, and covers those aspects of human behavior, learning, and knowledge that provide a person with the reasoning for producing and using artifacts. Until relatively recently, there was little serious interest in the study of the material cultures of children and childhood (children being biologically immature individuals, with the associated childhood referring to the social and cultural construction of the lives, development, and meaning of these children). Children’s experiences vary enormously over time, space, and culture, and the material environment of the child is an important part of their experience of the world. Conversely, the study of such material culture makes children visible, particularly in the archaeological record where such materials evidence children’s presence and activities. While the origins of material culture study can be traced back to the late 19th century, texts on childhood objects did not start appearing until much later on, and even then it was largely confined to collectors’ guides and histories (mostly concerning toys, dolls, and children’s costume; items that may be thought of as icons of childhood) rather than studies considering the relationship between children and their material world. Such material cultures may therefore be thought of (after Brookshaw 2009, cited under Material Culture of Children) as being either the material culture of children (items made, adapted, or repurposed by children themselves such as homemade—sometimes termed “makeshift”—toys) or the material culture of childhood (items made by or bought for children by adults).

General Overviews

Readers new to the subject may wish to start with Sheumaker and Wajda 2008, which is particularly suitable for undergraduates and those less familiar with material culture studies, as it provides both succinct introductions and bibliographies. Calvert 1992 is an absorbing book on the history of childhood material culture in the United States, focused on younger children (principally those under the age of seven years) and how ideas of parenting and appropriate childrearing practice have shaped the material world of children over the course of 300 years between 1600 and 1900. Sofaer Derevenski 2000 is recommended as a key collection of essays, the first interdisciplinary anthology about children and material culture to be published; it includes contributions from archaeologists, anthropologists, and psychologists from across Britain, Europe, and (to a lesser extent) North America and Asia, and remains a widely cited resource. The editor’s opening chapter on expectations in the material culture of children and childhood is especially useful in setting out many of the key issues and ideas in this area. Vegesak, et al. 1997 is another essay compilation, international in scope and with a large number of color images throughout. Many of the chapters address the contemporary child, and how adults design and make objects for children, but it also gives consideration to makeshift toys in La Cecla’s chapter (see Children’s Constructions), the social history of children’s sleeping arrangements in Marshall’s chapter (see Material Culture and Babies), and a more theoretical consideration of creativity and play in childhood in Scaife’s chapter. Brandow-Faller 2018 addresses toys and childhood objects from a combination of historical and design perspectives, addressing predominantly the long 19th century but also covering earlier and later examples.

  • Brandow-Faller, Megan, ed. Childhood by Design: Toys and the Material Culture of Childhood 1700–Present. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.

    A collection of essays that take sociohistorical perspectives of childhood and fuse them with design-based studies, showing childhood objects as serious material representations of cultural, social, and political values. Broad-ranging examples with interesting case studies.

  • Calvert, Karin. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood 1600–1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

    A highly readable investigation into the artifacts of childrearing and early childhood over 300 years in the United States, showing clearly how objects link to social and cultural beliefs about children. While based on American sources, many observations are of relevance to Britain as well.

  • Sheumaker, Helen, and Shirley Teresa Wajda, eds. Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

    An encyclopedia of American material culture, including introductory entries on childhood, children’s dress, children’s material culture, and children’s toys with useful bibliographies attached. A good starting point for readers new to the subject matter.

  • Sofaer Derevenski, Joanna, ed. Children and Material Culture. London: Routledge, 2000.

    The first book to focus on children and material culture in its entirety, this still stands as a key collection of essays. Sofaer Derevenski’s opening chapter provides an excellent, thoughtful introduction to the topic for readers.

  • Vegesak, Alexander von, Jutta Oldiges, and Lucy Bullivant, eds. Kid Size: The Material World of Childhood. Milan: Skira, 1997.

    A collection of essays that came out of a 1990s touring museum exhibition, this book considers a wide range of material culture across different countries, with particular emphasis on how adults design products for children. Bullivant’s opening chapter provides a useful introduction to how adult beliefs have directed the provision of objects made deliberately for child use.

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