Website Review

New York Public Library Digital Collections

The New York Public Library Digital Collections is a vast database of material primarily, but not exclusively, documents 19th- and 20th-century life in the U.S. The collections are principally visual sources, and include digitized versions of such material as rare prints and photographs, scanned images from books, sound files, and moving images.

Several collections are especially useful to historians of children and childhood, including the Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection Online. This collection contains 30,000 digitized images from books, magazines, and newspapers as well as original photographs, prints, and postcards, mostly created before 1923. A keyword search for children in this collection, for instance, connects users to 85 images, while girl links to 48 different images.

Also useful to historians is the NYPL Digital Gallery, which provides access to over 550,000 images digitized from primary sources and printed rarities, including illuminated manuscripts, vintage posters, illustrated books, and printed ephemera. The subject index lists nearly 300 subject headings related to children that demonstrate enormous spatial, temporal, and subject breadth. Entries vary from Children — Africa and Children — Soviet Union to Child labor and Children — Clothing & dress — England — 1860-1869.

One interesting collection includes two groups of 50 cigarette cards. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tobacco manufacturers issued these trade cards to stiffen cigarette packaging and advertise brands. This collection includes several subsets depicting children, such as Children with rosy cheeks and Children of all nations. In the latter, we see national stereotypes crystallized. England is a blonde youth in a school-boy uniform, while Mexico is a peasant. Canada is not present at all!

The cigarette card images illustrate one of the fascinating ways in which instructors and students could use material from the New York Public Library Digital site. In his 1962 publication, Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Ariès presented the provocative claim that childhood was an invention of the post-medieval world. Historians studying children and childhood continue to debate this idea and larger notions of how parents and broader social institutions treated children and conceived of childhood across time. Our own era recoils at the association of children and childhood with the tobacco industry, yet tobacco manufactures in the past century promoted an association of their product with children and childhood with no hesitation.

In other cases, we see advertisers depicting children as small adults, rather than emphasizing a particularly distinctive era of childhood. See, for example, this Easter trade card from L. Prang & Co.

Instructors and students could study the use of children in advertising across time and by various industries. In addition to the cigarette cards, a subject search within the Digital Gallery of children and advertising yields a further 333 illustrations. These and other images available in the Digital Gallery can be used to examine the changing associations that Western (and world) societies have created with childhood in different periods, and to what different purposes they have used these associations.1

Instructors might wish to consider the limitations of the sources pertaining to childhood available at this website. Common to most sources treating this topic, is the fact that children are perhaps the most voiceless of all possible historical subjects. (The sources children generated to depict their realities are all but non-existent.) We are always dealing with outsiders' views, looking in at (or more often, literally down upon) them. In all of these sources, what we almost always witness is a viewer's construction of children and childhood. In the images contained in this site, however, the degree to which this construction occurs ranges from the blatant, as in this 1874 Children’s Aid Society advertisement to the more subtle Some typical Cuban faces - Santiago, Cuba 1899.

This latter photograph illustrates another shortcoming of many of these sources: the absence of expansive information about the context in which they were created or which they depict. Often, we know no more than the date on which an image was generated. Therefore, history teachers would likely wish to preview the sources they select for students to use and to present relevant background information about production and purpose of the source whenever possible.

1Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500.

How to Cite This Source

"New York Public Library Digital Collections," in Children and Youth in History, Item #19, (accessed August 10, 2021).

The New York Public Library Digital Collections is a vast database of material primarily, but not exclusively, documents 19th- and 20th-century life in the U.S.