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Selling creativity to America’s kids

Why did we become obsessed with fostering childhood play? Look to the Cold War, says Amy Ogata.

Ray Eames demonstrating The Toy, 1951.

Library of Congress

Ray Eames demonstrating The Toy, 1951.

When we think of the childhoods of baby boomers, we think about mass culture: a Hula Hoop and Davy Crockett cap on every porch; Lincoln Logs in the toybox; televisions tuned to the same entertainments.

What’s harder to remember is that people worried about all this conformity while it was happening. Popular books like David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd” and movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” spoke to the anxiety of Americans who wondered how individuals could distinguish themselves and live fulfilling lives amidst the masses.

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Out of that anxiety emerged a new preoccupation for middle-class parents, and one very much still with us today: fostering childhood creativity. In a new book “Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America,” Amy Ogata, associate professor of architectural and design history at Bard Graduate Center, argues that American worries about conformity—as well as the nation’s Cold War rivalry with the totalitarian Soviet Union—persuaded parents that their children’s creative impulses could, and should, be encouraged.

Though the idea that children had a special connection to the imagination had been around since the early 19th century, the political climate of the postwar years gave this notion a different kind of urgency. Fueled by new work in psychology and education theory, many experts had come to believe that creativity—individualism, ingenious inventions, technological progress—would be the thing that set America apart on the global stage. In relatively short order, the desire to foster the “natural resource” of children’s creative thought transformed how toys were sold, how schools and suburban homes were designed, and how parents thought about child-rearing.

The goal of promoting creativity in childhood is so familiar to us now that it seems completely natural. But Ogata argues that looking at its Cold War roots can help us see how closely this aim was bound up with consumerism, nationalism, and class distinctions—in ways that still hold true today.

Ogata spoke to Ideas by phone from her office and her home in New York City. This interview has been condensed and edited.

IDEAS: Why were people in the postwar US so interested in promoting creativity in kids?

OGATA: A whole bunch of different kinds of people, scientists, parents, school board members, magazine editors, were interested in the idea of an American child who existed in opposition to or in some way was different from the Soviet child....There is a sense that [creativity] is something that is desirable. Something that will distinguish American children from other children.

1958 Crayola ad with directions for "quiet fun with paper bags and crayons"

Binney & Smith

1958 Crayola ad with directions for "quiet fun with paper bags and crayons."

IDEAS: To some extent, were people also looking backwards and seeing creativity in opposition to Nazis and fascism, that obedient mindset?

OGATA: [The psychologist] Arnold Gesell writes a whole bunch of parenting books in the ’30s and ’40s....He talks about the idea of the totalitarian household, that there might have been a certain kind of household that might have given rise to the obedient child...[with] a strong disciplinary father who is a kind of stand-in for the major political dictators. But this is something that I don’t see after the late ’40s.

IDEAS: What kind of physical objects grew out of this idea of promoting creativity? Can you give a few examples of toys?

OGATA: Sure. Some of them were really expensive, some were strikingly cheap. There was this fantastic magnetic building toy that the Walker Art Center created in the mid ’40s....It gets shown in MOMA in the late ’40s, it’s sold in design stores....But they couldn’t make it go. It was too expensive, people wouldn’t buy it....[In 1950 Charles and Ray] Eames developed The Toy, which was made of paper and wire, came in a long octagonal box, and was sold through Sears. And some [sizes of The Toy] were actually not that expensive at all....Then, things like crayons that are also tied to the same values, but are absolutely ordinary nonexpensive objects that find their way into American homes.

IDEAS: And crayons are advertised using this same argument about creativity?

OGATA: They’re advertised in a bunch of different ways. They’re advertised as school supplies, but also saying “You need this at home too. This is your moment to encourage your child to make this magic, and if you don’t do it now, your child is lost!”

IDEAS: At school, meanwhile, you say the same ideas changed how buildings themselves were configured.

OGATA: If you look at prewar schools, even in places that are rural, they are three- or four-story edifices...the chairs are in rows and bolted to the floor. These are all things that people are looking at and saying, “We have a different type of child. We want a different kind of aim for our educational ideal.”...Having a kind of lighting that’s bilateral, rather than on one side. And much more attention to interior furnishings. Using color to activate attention....Architects got at this idea of individuality, of psychological comfort, that will, they think, enable children to grow as an individual.

IDEAS: You write that postwar suburban home design sought to encourage children’s creative play, too.

OGATA: Parents in the middle class, lower middle class in the postwar era are spending a lot more time with their kids. Their kids had areas in the house that are understood as theirs, or outside of their house, that are for them. So part of the consumer-oriented literature of Levittown is, “You are doing this for your children. You are moving out there so that they can have access to this grassy shared space.”

IDEAS: How much were the people advertising these new ways of living drawing from actual research?

OGATA: They are very much aware of the psychological literature....Some of the creativity studies that become really strong in the early 1960s very much find their way into the architectural literature....There are seminars for training teachers, there are pamphlets written by psychologists and teachers: “How to encourage creativity in your [students].” They’re being put out by the major teacher’s unions.

IDEAS: You mentioned that the toy company Creative Playthings even had a psychological research department. Was this common?

OGATA: I don’t think that Mattel was doing this, but Playskool did, Creative Playthings did....I found the catalog for Playskool...and at the back of the pamphlet, there was a list of studies.

IDEAS: Were the toy companies using this information to pressure parents into buying certain toys?

OGATA: It isn’t so much about parents, in a one-dimensional way, reading an ad that says: “If you want creative kids, you’ll get this toy.” That is there, but it’s also about citizenship, it’s also [that] being a good parent is an important thing to do for your country....[That’s] very strong in the postwar, ’50s and ’60s, and after that I think the idea of creativity loses some of those intense Cold War associations. By the ’70s...

IDEAS: It’s more about realizing individual potential.

OGATA: Yes, it’s about “what’s good for children.”

IDEAS: There’s a lot of pressure today to provide kids with the right environment to nurture their creativity. Did writing this history give you any insight that might be helpful for parents?

OGATA: I think that by identifying the rhetoric [around creativity], you can say, “This is a value, this is not a truth.”...And to recognize that there is a system at work is already a useful way to think: “What do I mean? Why do I have this expectation of my child, or of myself?”

Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.
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