Session 6: Critical Histories, Short Papers , ,

Mapping Critical Historical Geographies of Childhood

Meghan Cope
University of Vermont

This paper takes on both an empirical query and a more philosophical question. First, I use the findings of my Mapping American Childhoods project to explore ways that poor and parentless children from all over Vermont were subject to involuntary migration into and out of Burlington’s Home for Destitute Children, as well as the cultural construction of their self-replicating positionality as anything but the “ideal” child of the early 20th C. With a particularly active eugenics movement unfolding in Burlington in the 1920s and 30s, children in the Home were variously judged to be ‘feebleminded’, ‘of bad stock’, or otherwise unworthy of personal redemption, despite what we now see as significant structural disadvantages of poverty, poor nutrition, abuse, and emotional trauma. Mapping over 1000 children’s arrivals and departures to/from the Home between 1900-1940, with contextual data from the Matrons’ comments and individual census, we are able to trace the movement of children as well as the cultural shifts that signal changing views of childhood. Secondly, at a more ‘meta’ level, I consider how archival data on children’s lives of this era can be usefully engaged to produce critical historical geographies of childhood. Specifically, I consider some ‘digital dilemmas’ that have arisen in my own work and raise some questions about lies, privacy, and ethical quandaries.