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Sugar Production Stories for Children and the History of Slavery

Production Stories

Welcome to Production Stories, created by children's literature scholar Elizabeth Massa Hoiem, assistant professor at the School of Information Sciences. This site take a critical look at one of the most popular genres that everyone uses, but no one thinks about twice: books and media that explain how everyday things are made.

The production story is a nonfiction, multi-media genre that explains how everyday things are designed, engineered, manufactured, packaged, transported, sold, and consumed in an industrial global economy. Stories focus on life necessities, such as food, power, housing, clothing, and transportation, allowing the story of one, seemingly insignificant and ubiquitous product to reveal a surprising, sweeping story about the way we live. Production stories for children began in the 18th C and have steadily gained popularity as they are remediated into different visual media forms, from picturebooks and illustrated encyclopedias, to TV episodes and web video series.

Do you remember the "Mr. Picture" segments on Mr. Rogers, when he visits the crayon factory or the marble factory? Or have you read popular illustrated books with titles like How Things Are Made; Transformed: How Everyday Things Are Made; or How Things Work? What about TV episodes of Inside Things; Made; How Does It Work; How Did They Make That; Modern Marvels; or Masters of Engineering? Maybe you have read picturebook biographies about artisans and musicians, or read picturebooks about building skyscrapers or houses, or making chairs, bread, books, or cars? These are all examples of "production stories."

This Omeka site is a work-in-progess. Below, you can see the completed section on sugar production stories, which serves as a supplementary resource for a print publication. Additional materials, currently in development, will provide a historical overview of the production story and explain common visual tropes.


  • Article images for "The Progress of Sugar"
    The items below are analyzed in "The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790-2015," by Elizabeth Massa Hoiem, now available through advanced digital publication in the academic journal Children's Literature in Education (2020). The item descriptions can be read independently and provide visual analysis not covered in the article. For those without journal access, a manuscript of "The Progress of Sugar" is available through IDEALS, the open-source repository for the University of Illinois. “The Progress of Sugar” examines the historical origins of production stories for children, written in English and published in the United States and Great Britain. During the 18th and 19th C, privileged children and their parents greatly increased their consumption of sugar, coffee, cotton, and rum—all commodities eaten or worn on the body and produced by enslaved persons. To prepare children for this new industrial global economy, parents educated their children about how and where things were made, using a new kind of information book. When writing the story of these commodities, authors of these early economics and manufacturing textbooks had to make ethical choices about whether to disclose to children the human costs behind their clothing and treats. While abolitionists used the production story to expose the horrors of slavery and encourage children to join boycotts or sign petitions, proslavery authors celebrated the pleasures of affordable goods and circulated lies and misrepresentations. Still other authors avoided the subject of slavery altogether by focusing on the science, technology, statistics, and machines used to make these products, to the near exclusion of the people who did the work. The production story is a result of this troubled history. To this day, the production story tends to cover how things are made separately from who makes things and under what conditions. One aim of this exhibit is to encourage librarians, educators, and readers to look for production stories that faithfully tell the human story behind making things and to recognize when production stories resist the legacies of slavery, resource extraction, and child labor that the genre was once designed to hide.
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