When Kids Could Read Better

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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I’m not trying to be sarcastic, but these are difficult times for literacy. Despite the lower overall national literacy rate in 1916, a year before the U.S. entered the Great War, literate kids had a lot more to be literate about.

St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys premiered in November, 1873. Roswell Smith, co-founder of the publishing company Scribner & Company, hired Mary Mapes Dodge (author of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates) to edit the new children’s magazine. Children were a new and ever-expanding audience for mass media. Dodge believed a children’s periodical should not be, she wrote, “a milk-and-water variety of the periodicals for adults. In fact, it needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the other…. Most children…attend school. Their heads are strained and taxed with the day’s lessons. They do not want to be bothered nor amused nor petted. They just want to have their own way over their own magazine.”

Hovering around 100,000 readers, St. Nicholas never reached the same numbers of some circulation as 500,000 of The Youth’s Companion on its own. But it merge with other minor magazines. Our Young Folks and The Children’s Hour in 1874, The Schoolday Magazine and The Little Corporal in 1875, and Wide Awake in 1893. St. Nicholas treated children with respect. The illustrations were high quality: Will Bradley, designer, illustrator and typographer, was a regular (cover below), and more top notch practitioners were engaged.

In 1899, the St. Nicholas League was one of the magazine’s most important departments. Its motto “Live to learn and learn to live,” become common in the U.S. What kid today would read “On the Battle-Front of Engineering” in the same issue as “The Boy’s Life of Mark Twain”?

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Cover by Will Bradley

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Story and illustrations by Will Bradley

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An alphabet of childhood

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What? In a magazine for young readers?

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By the biographer of Thomas Nast

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Pretty complicated, if you ask me

Additional ResourceLearn even more about the history of design with Steven Heller’s Evolution of Design. Covering everything from advertisement to clip art to topics you didn’t even realize had a lengthy design history, this is the collection of your favorite columnists’ work.

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →