Methods

Students’ Guide to “Reading” Primary Sources on the History of Children & Youth

Miriam Forman-Brunell
Puppeteers Painting image thumbnail
thumbnail of the song lyrics

Overview

How do you study the history of young people? What can primary source documents reveal? What limitations do they pose? What light can the history of young people shed on the past? This essay aims to serve as a guide to finding, interpreting or “reading” primary sources on young people from ancient civilizations to the present.

Essay

Children spring into view in this 18th-century Japanese ink painting by Hanabusa Itchô. In the painting’s details are seemingly happy children energetically running to see a traveling entertainer’s puppet show. One might assume from this painting, as did Harvard Zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse, that Japan was a children’s "paradise" where babies benefited from riding on the backs of older children instead of crying in their cribs. Yet probing beneath the surface of this source complicates this rosy picture of the past.

A consideration of the age, gender, and class of the children reveal that the half-hidden figures in the window were upper-class girls prevented from playing on the streets. Although the painting portrays the children below as joyful, these komori (babysitters) who provided childcare in exchange for room and board often felt deep despair. While Confucian treatises on education, health, and wet-nursing are sources that reveal nothing about those from the lowest rung of society, other evidence—such as the songs sung by the komori—document more distress than delight.

Knowing how to reexamine established assumptions, consider multiple perspectives, and make connections between inquiry and interpretation is essential to researching the history of children and youth. Critical to that endeavor is the skillful utilization of primary sources (original records created during a period under study or produced by a participant later on) that have survived from the past).

How do you study the history of young people? What can primary source documents reveal? What limitations do they pose? What light can the history of young people shed on the past? This essay aims to serve as a guide to finding, interpreting or “reading” primary sources on young people from ancient civilizations to the present.

Primary Sources

Puppeteers Painting image thumbnail
Annotation:

This is an ink painting on a scroll by Hanabusa Itchô (born Taga Shinkô), a Japanese artist of the early Tokugawa period (1600–1868). Tokugawa artists typically used pen names and Itchô used several names at different times as an artist and poet. This black and white image, showing two puppeteers entertaining children, is a detail from one of 36 paintings in Itchô's zatsu-gachô or "miscellany sketchbook," many of which have been lost. Itchô is best known for his genre paintings, scenes of ordinary life on the streets of Edo. Children sometimes appear in these scenes, along with dogs, street vendors, traveling entertainers and other characters, often portrayed with a light, almost humorous touch.

How to Cite This Source
Miriam Forman-Brunell Students’ Guide to “Reading” Primary Sources on the History of Children & Youth in World History Commons,