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BRUNSWICK — “Objects look simple on the outset. (But) they tell so much about the people who used them.”
Such is Catherine Cyr’s premise for “Let’s Play: Childhood in Brunswick 1900-1950,” a new exhibit at the Pejepscot Museum and Research Center that examines the lives of Brunswick children coming of age in the early 20th century.
Cyr, the Bowdoin senior who curated the exhibit as part of her self-designed major, used the belongings of bygone local children – toys, photographs, clothing – to investigate the social attitudes that shaped both adolescence and the greater historical period.
Along with one other classmate, she will be the first in a decade to graduate from Bowdoin with a self-designed major, a feat she said required numerous logistical hurdles, but allowed her to specialize in a topical area of study.
The exhibit opened April 21 and is on display through Oct. 7.
Through objects she compiled from the Pejepsoct Historical Society, the Maine Maritime Museum, and the Penobscot Marine Museum, Cyr illustrates how societal attitudes around childhood changed at the turn of the twentieth century.
While 19th-century parents thought of children as “tiny adults,” Cyr noted how that thinking shifted toward the modern notion that children move through stages of development.
Consequently, toys were often used as a subtle means of social conditioning.
“We can let kids be kids,” Cry described, “but at the same time, let’s teach them certain skills.”
How those skills were decided and divvied – notably, between genders – often reinforced the period’s roles and expectations for young men and women, Cyr said.
Girls, for instance, played with dolls in preparation for motherhood, suggestive of what Cyr called the general “push to prepare (children) for adulthood” through toys.
Boys, on the other hand, were inundated with military-themed toys that reflected the patriotism of the era, and nurtured a sense of duty that was called upon during the first and second World Wars.
For both genders, Cyr calls attention to how objects suggested a significance beyond their obvious meaning: she asks why, for instance, an item was well-worn in places, or why dolls were repeatedly advertised as “hygienic?”
Overwhelmingly, though, the era’s military conflicts – and the resulting domestic industrial complex – played an alarmingly out-sized role in the lives of children.
She singled out a photograph in the exhibit featuring of group of six teenage boys marching in the town’s 1939 bicentennial parade – just months before Hitler invaded Poland, Cyr noted.
Dressed in navy blues, the boys held a sign that read “We are next.”
Another photograph in the exhibit has already raised eyebrows among visitors for its racial implications.
It displays a group children dressed as cowboys and Indians – costumes that are still popular today, but are now criticized for cultural appropriation and perpetuating racial stereotypes of Native Americans.
“That (photo) was a product of its time,” Cyr acknowledged, adding by including the photo, she didn’t intend to “call out” visitors of the exhibit who were children during the period, as some have thought.
“But let’s look back at the issues with it,” she continued, some of which persist to the present day. “History is supposed to push boundaries sometimes. How are you supposed to move forward as a society if you can’t look back and grow from it?”
Although the latent messaging in toys didn’t always determine a child’s fate, Cyr pointed out.
“Especially (for) the Whittier girls,” she said, the daughters of the notable Brunswick pathologist Dr. Frank Whittier.
Though they were raised to play with corseted dolls – which Cyr said modeled a traditional kind of femininity – neither of the two surviving girls married or had children – and one went on to become the state’s first female pediatrician.
Edited 5/15: To correct spelling of Pejepscot, and a reference in the second paragraph where century of focus was misstated.
Bowdoin senior Catherine Cyr curated a new museum at the Pejepscot Historical Society examining childhood in Brunswick from 1900-1950.
The Pejepscot Historical Society in downtown Brunswick opened a new exhibit last month about the lives of area children during the early 20th century.
A visitor to the new exhibit Let’s Play!: Childhood in Brunswick 1900-1950, at the Pejepscot Museum and Research Center, glazes at an photograph depicting mid-century children dressed as cowboys and Indians. The exhibit is open through Oct. 7.