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Elizabeth Nesbitt Collection @ Pitt: Nature and Masculinity

This guide identifies some of the 12,000+ resources available in the Nesbitt Collection. Comprised of children's literature and material related to the history of children and their books, collection items date from the 1600's through the present.

No Girls Allowed: Finally, Reading Material Just for Boys

In 19th-century Britain, technology developed at a rapid pace. As printing technology continued to advance, it became easier and less expensive than ever before to publish books and periodicals, resulting in a much broader range of published content. The Elizabeth Nesbitt collection contains many examples of this diverse group of periodicals, including several examples of publications directed towards the specific population of boys and young men. Between the pages of these periodicals are tales of courage and adventure, hope, grief, and God; but much of this content also shares a preoccupation with an idea of engaging, actively or passively, with nature. But why? What do these examples look like, and what can they tell us about the values 19th-century British society wanted to pass on to its male children?

Appreciating Nature

One of the ways that many of these periodicals for boys promote the idea of engaging with nature is passively, by observing and appreciating it. Poems and articles in these journals highlight the aesthetic beauty of nature, giving boys and young men a template to appreciate the visual and sensory appeal of everything from weather and geographical features to plants and animals. Other articles promote a less subjective variety of observation, encouraging boys to identify the utility of nature and natural features-- how can this plant or that rock formation be used by man?

Objectifying nature in this way is not inherently problematic; much of nature-- the rocks, tree stumps, even wind and rain-- can be classified as nature objects without raising any real concern. However, the implications of this kind of thinking become increasingly complex when it is extended to living things-- not just insects and game birds, but also people indigenous to "uncivilized" regions of the British empire, who during this period were also conceived of as completely separate species in British social thought. 

Nature in 19th-Century British Periodicals for Boys

 Imperial explorers confronted with "savages" in Africa. From The Boy's Own Paper.

Nature in the form of an ostrich is represented as exotic and dangerous. From The Boy's Own Paper.

A detailed illustration of several rabbits, encouraging boys and young men to study and categorize nature. From The Boy's Own Paper.

 A boy conquering a dangerous bear, promoting the idea that heroes conquer nature. From The Boy's Own Paper.

A diagram depicting a Looper Caterpiller, encouraging the study and objectification of nature. From The Boy's Own Paper.

Conquering Nature

These periodicals also encourage boys to engage with nature in a more active way, by fighting with or conquering elements of the natural world. This takes a few different forms. First, consider this selection from an article titled "Out with a Jack-Knife" by Rev. J.G. Woord, M.a., F.L.S. from Vol. 1 of The Boy's Own Paper:

"You do not want a buttefly-net, but it will be as well to have a few chip pill-boxes in your pockets. They cost very little, and as they are packed in 'nests', i.e., one inside the other, are very portable. These are for the purpose of preserving alive the curious creatures you should wish to examine."

This advice takes the idea of observing nature a step further, suggesting that a boy should capture nature for his own purposes. In these periodicals, we also find examples of men and boys conquering nature-- particularly animals presented as exotic or dangerous, such as gorillas and tigers. In these situations, the conquerer is hailed as a hero. Consider the below image from The Boy's Own Paper of a man rescuing a child from a tiger, for which he receives public praise as well as a monetary award from the tiger's owner for saving the day:

 

Primed for Imperialism

Throughout the 19th-century, there was a great deal of concern surrounding the education of middle and upper class boys. These were the boys who would grow up to be Britain's next generation of lawyers, politicians, and soldiers, and British society was concerned that they would be unprepared to fill these roles. For that reason, we begin to see subtle (and not so subtle) efforts to push boys towards these essential professions from a young age. By presenting nature as something to be objectified or conquered, boys are primed from a young age to fill roles as naturalists and imperialists for their country. Some of the ideas included in these periodicals that accomplish this goal include:

  • Domestic nature can be studied as practice so that boys can move on to more challenging, more exotic subjects of study when they are older
  • Good British boys have the curiosity and physical vigor to observe and conquer nature
  • Exotic nature is dangerous, and successfully conquering it is heroic
  • Conquerable nature includes animals, plants, places, and "savage" peoples
  • Nature should serve some purpose for the naturally superior British boy, whether that is as an object of beauty or as a tool
  • Boys and men who conquer nature will be rewarded

About the Researcher:  Melissa Pallotti graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English Writing and a minor in Computer Science. This research and other research she completed with the Nesbitt Collection at the University of Pittsburgh contributed to her undergraduate honors thesis in literature, Victorian Boys and Their Mothers: Caregiving and Gender Dynamics in Stories About Boys. You can view her related work via the following links: