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Aunt Martha’s Corner Cupboard is a kind of production story textbook once popular during the nineteenth century, featuring an exemplary adult teacher, who has lively conversations with a young family. The story follows the day-to-day activities of the children, while they eat breakfast, explore the outdoors with walks, and visit artisan shops or factories. Accompanying the children on their exclusions, the beloved parent or family friend (or aunt, in this case) answers the children’s questions and encourages their curiosity and powers of observation. The goal of such books was to model for children how to learn while they play, in the regular course of their lives. The child characters model how to consult adult science books to learn more about what interests them, and they report their findings to the family with oral reports, science demonstrations, essays, letters, and other creative activities. As a result, the books contain long passages of material excerpted from adult nonfiction and adapted for child readers, in the voice of the characters.
At the time these were written, many wealthy families educated their children at home, through parents, tutors, and governesses. Children and parents who read Aunt Martha’s Corner Cupboard are expected to form their own educational experiences after the actions of these characters. The mode of education modeled by the book emphasizes active learning, experimentation, and conversation, over traditional book learning. Over the course of the nineteenth-century, books like this one began targeting girls or boys, indicated by the genders of the sibling characters. Aunt Martha’s Cupboard shows the typical formula for a girls’ textbook. Aunt Martha teaches the girls about manufacturing by exploring items in her corner cupboard, which connects their domestic environment to global trade. Like other middle-class families, they drink tea with sugar, which prompts the lesson on sugar production, including the images shown here.
Brick by Brick tells the story of the people who built the White House (1792-1800), showing cooperation between enslaved and free persons, and between black and white artisans. Production stories about historically significant structures—such as estate houses, castles, bridges, engineering wonders, government buildings, and churches—have their roots in early travel literature for children. By the mid-eighteenth century, educational travel literature included sketches about the major historical landmarks that children might tour with their families, alongside other sites like factories, shipyards, and natural wonders. By the twentieth century, improvements in book illustration and affordable printing supported a resurgence of production stories about buildings, marked by David Macaulay’s Caldecott honor book, Cathedral (1973).
The construction industry is not responsible for the expansion of chattel slavery in the same way as cotton or sugar. Yet production stories about buildings remain political because they are symbolically significant embodiments of the narratives people tell about their nation. Emotional investment in old buildings leads to debates over what stories they should reveal for visitors. For instance, plantation houses attract visitors who want to learn accurate information about the lives of enslaved persons, but also visitors who expect a nostalgic reenactment of Antebellum America. Federal monuments celebrate the achievements of early Americans, which include slave owners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Production stories about major buildings thus have to contend with questions of national identity. And like other production stories, they have always been deeply political, requiring the author to decide whether to reveal to children the possibly violent history of how a building was made and for what purpose. Even the earliest sketches about famous buildings in children’s books touched upon whether the pyramids were built by slaves, or celebrated a famous female general who once defended her castle, or explained religious wars that destroyed a family—historical events that resonated with present-day controversies.
Brick by Brick centers more on the people who built the White House than on the building itself. In the first spread shown here, the text suggests names for the unnamed workers. Photorealistic illustrations provide strongly individualized facial expressions that frankly acknowledge the exhaustive work, the participation of enslaved children, and the violence used to coerce enslaved persons. In picture after picture, enslaved black workers meet the reader’s gaze. Some of them look angry, others disheartened, and some hopeful. The mixed expressions heighten reader identification and humanize the many people involved in the work, only some of whom were allowed to keep a portion of their wages, which they used to buy their freedom. When the White House is finished, the illustration focuses on the builders themselves, with the White House itself outside of the frame. For their part, the builders look in several directions, some looking at one another. Centering the people, not the building, is an important authorial choice because so many production stories minimize the faces and identities of people at work, focusing instead on a famous architect or engineering feat.
The closest readers get to the White House is in the final spread. A contemporary African American family atop the White House roof tends a flag ambiguously posted at half mast, as if in mourning for those who died without their freedom. The view is difficult to identify, since we are level with the family. One intriguing way to interpret the image is that viewers are looking at this scene from across the National Mall, while standing inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was under construction when Brick by Brick was published. From this perspective, the book mourns and celebrates the construction of two quite different buildings, placed opposite to one another.
A Fine Dessert is a picturebook about four families who make blackberry fool, a fruit and whipped cream dessert. Each family cooks in a different time and place, showing four centuries of cultural change, from Lyme, England (1710), to Charleston, South Carolina (1810), to Boston, Massachusetts (1910), to San Diego, California (2010). A Fine Dessert received positive reviews at its publication, but readers pushed back online by questioning how black children may feel when reading about an enslaved black girl and her mother in Charleston, South Carolina (1810). The two occasionally smile while they work, and they make the desert for a white family, then lick the bowl while hiding in a linen closet (Thomas, Reese, and Horning, 2016, pp. 6-11).
Despite the association of sweet treats with innocent children, the history of making and eating desserts is an especially fraught topic. Cheap sugar production drove the rapid spread of black chattel slavery, which served the eating pleasure of white families. As a result, many sugar production stories from the last two centuries have misrepresented sugar slavery to children, to avoid showing the human cost of their favorite treats. This context for sugar stories is important for how readers may feel about a contemporary picturebook on a similar topic.
By considering A Fine Dessert as a production story, we can understand how its approach unwittingly relies upon a storytelling tradition originally designed to celebrate technology and hide oppression. First, production stories favor strict repetitive formulas across the full story or series. The production story series by John Wallis (ca. 1805-1840), William Newman (1861-1863), or Maud and Miska Petersham (1930s) treat various commodities, such as bread, coal, steel, diamonds, or sugar, using the same formulaic approach for each one. They often use the same visual layout and descriptive tone, creating an enchantment with mechanical repetition that supports the genre’s underlying narrative of technological progress. The stricter the formula, the more likely that the series creates an inappropriate equivalency between free and enslaved workers. Illustrator Sophie Blackall uses this repetitive approach to enable readers to compare family cuisine between the four time periods—with similar limitations.
Second, production stories typically end with children joyously consuming the product in question. This invitation to “join the feast” can distance readers who have social justice concerns about how the product was made. The final spread of A Fine Desert shows a multi-racial, multi-ethnic gathering of friends, eating dessert in San Diego, California (2010)—the present-day parallel of the 1810 image. Although the families are diverse, their emotional responses are not. The final representation of happy children from the present-day US may alienate readers who do not see their feelings acknowledged in these happy faces. The problem of reader identification in the “final feast” also occurs in Clara Hollos’s The Story of Your Bread (1946) and Henry Newman’s The Story of Sugar (1861), both of which feature white children as the final consumers.
Dave the Potter is one of many contemporary picturebook production stories for children that explain how something was made in the past. Another example is Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt, about a girl who makes an illuminated manuscript; A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Backall, about making a blackberry and whipped cream treat; and Blacksmith’s Song by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Anna Rich, about the son of an enslaved blacksmith, who assists his father in the forge and helps freedom seekers. Picturebooks about making things in the past are either told from the perspective of a child who learns how to make something, or they are exemplary biographies of famous artists, musicians, and artisans.
Dave the Potter tells the biography of David Drake, an enslaved master potter responsible for managing the operations of a pottery manufactory in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Based on the latest designs, his industrial sized kiln made massive pots used to store grain and salted meats to feed the growing regional population of enslaved persons. The picturebook thus engages with both ceramics and basic food supplies, both commodities often treated in production books. David Drake signed many of his pots “Dave,” adding short poems of rhymed couplets, even though it was against the law for an enslaved person to read or write. Today, his creations are collected in museums for public viewing (Chaney, 2018).
The picturebook shows how Dave makes his pots and his poems but avoids erasing his personality and skills by balancing close-ups on Dave’s hands with meditative images of Dave’s face and creative productions. The quadriptych close-ups on Dave’s hands, for instance, which appears mid-book, showcases his craft expertise. Like Dave, readers pull out the book’s page to view the full spread, just as Dave “pulls” his pot from the pottery wheel. Another spread from two pages later shows Dave’s face, with eyes closed, hands thrown wide like Christ to embrace readers, while behind him the faces of Dave’s people stretch out from his mind like an ancestral tree. In both cases, Dave’s creativity is connected to a long history of African Diaspora cultures, that embraces his ancestors but also readers.
By involving readers in Dave’s creative enterprise, the picturebook time slips between present-day readers, Dave’s work in the kiln, and Dave’s own past. This Afrofuturist approach brings recipients of David Drake’s art, including readers, to his South Carolina shores, where they can positively identify with his creative spirit but cannot forget the tragedy of his captivity. The picturebook’s multi-temporal setting is doubly fitting because of what Dave writes on this particular pot, which readers only learn on the final spread: “I wonder where / is all my relation / friendship to all— / and, every nation.” Having read Dave’s poetry, readers can turn back time themselves, by turning back the pages of the book, to find the same sentiments foreshadowed on the opening spread: a large pot transposed on a dark Atlantic Ocean, where a single ship recalls the middle passage. Instead of the sky above, viewers look down into the pot’s stored contents, the brown rim of the pot arching like a rainbow’s promise. Remembrance and hope, sealed away, opened later. Perhaps these are the images in Dave’s mind as he made this pot, wondering about “all my relation.”
Key to Knowledge is a kind of production story textbook once popular during the nineteenth century, featuring an exemplary adult teacher, who has lively conversations with a young family. The story follows the day-to-day activities of the children, while they eat breakfast, explore the outdoors with walks, and visit artisan shops or factories. Accompanying the children on their exclusions, the beloved parent or family friend (a mother, in this case) answers the children’s questions and encourages their curiosity and powers of observation. The goal of such books was to model for children how to learn in the regular course of their lives. The child characters model how to consult adult science books to learn more about what interests them, and they report their findings to the family with oral reports, science demonstrations, essays, letters, and other creative activities. As a result, a book like this one contains long passages of material excerpted from adult nonfiction and adapted for child readers, in the voice of the characters.
At the time these were written, many wealthy families educated their children at home, through parents, tutors, and governesses. Children and parents who read A Key to Knowledge are expected to form their own educational experiences after the actions of these characters. The mode of education modeled by the book emphasizes active learning, experimentation, and conversation, over traditional book learning. Over the course of the nineteenth-century, books like this one began targeting girls or boys, indicated by the genders of the sibling characters. Aunt Martha’s Cupboard shows the typical formula for a girls’ textbook. Aunt Martha teaches the sisters about manufacturing by exploring items in the home, which connects their domestic environment to global trade. Like other middle-class families, they drink tea with sugar, which prompts the lesson on sugar production, including the images shown here.
During the initial rise of the sugar boycotts in Britain, Cooper’s two poems were first printed and widely distributed in 1788 by the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They are not production stories. Nevertheless, this reprint edition by children’s publishers Harvey and Darton uses popular generic conventions for teaching children about commodities. “The Negro’s Complaint” uses the same visual layout as contemporaneous production stories by Opie and Wallis, with a titled illustration and poetry stanzas underneath. One spread shows enslaved Africans planting sugar cane in square holes (p. 6), an illustration nearly identical to those of other sugar production stories (e.g. William Newman, A history of a Pound of Sugar, p. 3). Drawing further parallels, Harvey and Darton used the same illustrator as Amelia Alderson Opie’s The Black Man’s Lament; or, How to Make Sugar, a sugar production story they published the same year.
Because of these editorial choices, Cooper’s poem takes on a new meaning for readers familiar with the production story form. Harvey and Darton draw comparisons between production stories and slave autobiographies, two forms that share narrative similarities. The titles of production stories (e.g. The Progress of Cotton; The Story of Sugar) make a commodity into a protagonist (e.g. sugar, cotton, coal), as if children are reading the commodity’s autobiography, and in fact, some fantastical production stories have commodities that come to life and speak their own life histories to human audiences. Autobiographies of former slaves, on the other hand, feature protagonists who were dehumanized as commodities for trade. When Cooper’s narrator, a fictional enslaved African, tells his own story, he follows in this tradition of abolitionist autobiographies. With their editorial choices, Harvey and Darton question why some production stories give agency to personified commodities while dehumanizing the enslaved persons forced to make them.
Readers familiar with production story conventions would recognize other places where this book plays with the form. The illustration titled “The Master’s Carousal” positions a standard illustration for the cane harvest in the background, in order to focus, instead, on the “jovial” masters drinking and smoking in the foreground. Readers must confront the “iron-hearted” white men, who drink rum and smoke tobacco, and feel shame that they, too, have enjoyed commodities made by enslaved persons.
The second poem in the collection, “Pity for Poor Africans,” has no illustrations, but its effect relies on familiarity with another popular children’s literature genre: the moral tale. The narrator is an Englishman who justifies eating sugar because a boycott would be ineffective, since others eat sugar anyway. He compares his choice to a boy who steals apples from an orchard, after he fails to convince his friends to abstain. Readers familiar with moral tales that warn boys not to steal apples would immediate recognize the speaker’s sophistry, then reevaluate their own choices on sugar consumption. The selection of both poems together suggests that Harvey and Darton considered how to frame abolitionist messages to speak to children, using literary conventions familiar to them.
During the interwar period, author-illustrator team Maud and Miska Petersham created some of the most memorable fiction stories and textbooks for children. With publishers’ renewed interest in children’s books about everyday life, the production story genre was revived in the US with a series by Janet Smalley, closely followed by the Petersham’s comprehensive series comprised of five textbooks: The Story Book of The Things We Use (1933), about houses, food, and transportation; The Story Book of Earth’s Treasures (1935), about gold, coal, oil, iron, and steel; The Story Book of Wheels, Ships, Trains, Aircraft (1935); The Story Book of Foods from the Field (1936), about wheat, corn, rice, sugar; and The Story Book of Things We Wear (1939), about wool, cotton, silk, and rayon. Each of these five contain sections on different commodities that could be purchased as separate volumes. Most of the contents from The Storybook of Sugar (1936) also appear in the volume Foods from the Field (Bader, 93-97). This way of organizing a series by related commodities follows the same marketing strategy used by John Wallis, over a hundred years earlier.
The title page for The Story Book of Sugar features a black child chewing cane. Another child chewing cane appears on the dust jacket for The Story Book of Foods from the Field. And a similar boy appears in the corner of an image depicting the cane harvest, titled “In the Sugar-Cane Field.” This cane harvester, chewing cut cane, has a long history. The figure appears in sugar production stories over the past two hundred years, changing to represent the labor force primarily responsible for sugar production, from enslaved Africans to free workers of different races and ethnicities. What is this figure’s perennial appeal? One possibility is that the harvester chewing cane encourages readers’ empathy without challenging their privilege: The image reassures privileged consumers who purchase and eat sugar far away from where cane is grown that children involved in the sugar labor force have plenty of food—indeed, they enjoy treats, just like children everywhere. While encouraging readers to sympathize with producers, such images also spread a cheerful veneer over questionable labor practices.
In earlier production stories, the cane chewing figure originated with proslavery literature, which depicted slaves eating cane during harvest to contradict accounts of starvation in cane fields. However, the Petershams partially transform the image by making the cane chewer a child who meets the reader’s gaze. They also feature children eating grains in each segment of The Foods of the Field, where they eat bread, rice, and corn. This suggests that the Petershams are combining two visual tropes: the cane chewing harvester with the child consumer (who generally appears on the final spread of production stories, see for e.g. Hollos’s books).
The Storybook of Sugar covers different sweeteners: honey, cane sugar, beet sugar, and maple syrup. Despite this global perspective on sweets, The Story Book of Sugar credits European ingenuity for sugar’s development by focalizing the story through white characters. For instance, the text acknowledges that mass cultivation of sugarcane began in India, yet readers learn about this fact from the perspective of Alexander’s soldier. The tall, armored man dominates the page, as a strong but relatively friendly figure, who “discovers” sugar during an invasion of regions that are now parts of Pakistan and India. Likewise, the section on Spanish sugar cane credits a “negro boy” sent to “the Brothers of the Jesuit Monastery in New Orleans” with figuring out how to cultivate cane, but the text glosses over the child’s enslavement by grouping him with the plants: “Again plants were sent to the Brothers in New Orleans. This time a Negro boy, who knew how to care for them, was sent with them.” The accompanying illustration positions the Spanish overseer in the foreground, his back to readers, which invites viewers to survey the sugar cane plantation from his perspective. The image includes enslaved persons, their bodies bent in labor, but signs of violence and coercion are downplayed.
The modern refinery in the final spread captures another visual convention of production stories: the love of modern technology. Factory scenes usually make machinery the star, using repetition to create aesthetic appeal. Wondrous machines draw the viewer’s eye. We admire their size and strength, while human operators seem small and unimportant. In production stories, workers may appear as disembodied hands, or as nearly unrecognizable figures on a massive factory floor. (For a contrasting approach, see the recognizable faces in The Story of Your Coat.)
In historical surveys of sugar production, machines capture the imagination after the abolition of slavery in the United States, and texts may even praise machines as “slaves,” as if modern factories ended slavery. However, technological progress does not necessarily coincide with social progress. Sugar production during the time of American slavery also relied on advanced manufacturing technologies and chemical processes. The enslaved persons who worked in mills, refineries, or other manufacturies had to learn specialized engineering knowledge, even though they were not paid or recognized for their skills. Additionally, modern workers may continue to face discrimination or poor working conditions, regardless of whether they use modern machinery.
During the interwar period, author-illustrator team Maud and Miska Petersham created some of the most memorable fiction stories and textbooks for children. With publishers’ renewed interest in children’s books about everyday life, the production story genre was revived in the United States with a series by Janet Smalley, closely followed by the Petersham’s comprehensive series comprised of five schoolbooks: The Story Book of The Things We Use (1933), about houses, food, and transportation; The Story Book of Earth’s Treasures (1935), about gold, coal, oil, iron, and steel; The Story Book of Wheels, Ships, Trains, Aircraft (1935); The Story Book of Foods from the Field (1936), about wheat, corn, rice, sugar; and The Story Book of Things We Wear (1939), about wool, cotton, silk, and rayon. Each of these five covered several commodities that could be purchased as separate volumes (Bader, 93-97). For instance, Foods from the Field includes material on sugar that also appears, with expanded content, in The Storybook of Sugar (1936).
The Petersham volume on food thematizes the universal enjoyment of the fruits of the field, captured by the four figures of different cultural and racial appearances on the cover. Production stories favor repetitive formulas, both in text and image, that allow young readers to make interesting comparisons across different time periods, global locations, and human cultures. This cover’s multicultural message helps readers to reflect on our shared humanity, as all people must nourish their bodies with basic food. However, the cane figure placed next to the others also creates equivalency between families whose food access and fair wages may greatly differ. In practice, not all families are allowed to enjoy the products they work to produce, or conversely, families may have limited diets as a result of growing cash crops. A similar tension between the insensitivity of such comparisons and a desire for diverse representation or multicultural perspectives occurs in other production stories.
The dust jacket for The Story Book of Foods from the Field shows a child with brown skin chewing cane. The same figure of a cane harvester chewing the cane appears in sugar production stories over the past two hundred years, changing to represent the labor force primarily responsible for sugar production, from enslaved Africans to free workers of different races and ethnicities. One possible cultural function of this perennial figure is to offer a cheerful veneer over questionable labor practices. Such an image reassures privileged consumers who purchase and eat sugar far away from where cane is grown that children involved in the sugar labor force have plenty of food—indeed, they enjoy treats, just like children everywhere. For more information on this figure, see The Story Book of Sugar.