Children’s Science Publications in the 19th Century: their purpose and impact

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 3980

Discuss examples of science published for children in the nineteenth century.

Why was it published and what effect did it have on its readers?

Everything that is published is the product of an agenda. This may be explicit or implicit, intentional or unintentional but due to the characteristic of print and publication, it is an innate feature of the written word. The ‘history of the book’ focuses on the different stages of the process followed in the creation of printed material. Adrian Johns argued that material should be viewed as the product of some form of consensus and, in examining its application, creators and the intended audience all need to be considered to reveal its purpose.[1] A ‘cycle of communication’ exists between the producers of texts and the receivers of them. This is a useful concept to fully understand the nature of science and why science publications for children were produced in the nineteenth century. The ‘history of the book’ will be applied throughout this essay in examining periodicals for children. In particular, this essay shall focus on the Youth’s Magazine (1805-67) but will also mention briefly science published for adults in the guise of children’s literature.

Shaping the youth

Different social and cultural expectations of readers were imbedded within scientific explanation for youths. For example, the publications of the Sunday schools were aimed at retaining the educational dominance of the middle classes and alleviating radicalism in the lower classes, for the continuity of a ‘hierarchic society.’[2] Maintaining the status quo was an essential feature of scientific literature published for children and was employed by a plethora of organisations. Middle-class children (boys) were identified as those who would grow to ‘manage’ the Empire, and the working classes as those who would know their place within it. The founder of the Boys Own Magazine (1855-74) said it was his express aim: ‘To help form…and influence the mind of the youth; whose glorious heritage it is to possess the Empire that their fathers have founded and persevered and whose duty it will be to hold that Empire, handing it down greater, more prosperous, to future generations.’[3]

The effect of this class division for readers was to instil in them from a young age the idea of where they fitted in on the social spectrum, and the role they were expected to pursue to maintain a harmonious society and a ‘glorious’ Empire.

Social control was a particular focus of Dickens’ Hard Times, in which working class children received an education designed to ‘equip them’ for their ‘economic and social’ roles in society.[4] This is further illustrated in an article from the Child’s Companion (1834) which stated that ‘perhaps you are poor, but this need be no hindrance to your being religious. You, my young friends, may be pious without being rich; and it is far better to be pious than rich, for man, when he dieth, can carry nothing away with him.’[5]

Fear of the working classes was a constant concern for many in the nineteenth century and the increase in literacy levels in the 1830s added to this. Whilst some members of the upper classes believed it would reinforce the status quo by instilling the importance of reading (the Bible) in the lower classes, the majority feared it would push the lower classes into radicalism.[6]

As well as social control, scientific literature was published to instil in its readers notions of sexism and ethnocentrism. Both are adequately demonstrated in an article published in the Lesson Book of Common Things and Ordinary Conduct (1854) on the importance of clothing with regards to body heat.[7] The article used scientific knowledge to explain social norms and then concluded with a compounding belief in the superiority of the white male. It started with:

When the naked body is placed in air below its own temperature it gives out its own heat to the colder air around it. It can endure this to a certain extent; but if the difference of temperature can be considerable, nothing but thick woollen clothing, or fur, can save it from great suffering, if not destruction.’

Logical, rational, quantifiable scientific knowledge was then followed by social instruction:

Persons of reflection and good taste usually endeavour so to clothe themselves, that they will be agreeable objects to look at. This is not merely allowable, but laudable, since it serves to give pleasure to their fellow creatures. But to indulge in very fine clothes, for the purpose of drawing attention and admiration, is always held as the mark of a vain and frivolous mind.’

And finally, sexism and ethnocentrism finished off the article:

Everywhere the woman dresses more showily than the man; the humble female than the lady; the semi-barbarian than the civilised man; the negro, than the white. We may therefore argue that to pass from showiness into simplicity of dress, is a sign of rise in some of the stronger features of human character.’[8]

Establishing for readers the importance of hierarchy for social cohesion was a major concern for many of the publishers of science for children in the nineteenth century.

The Youth’s Magazine

The Youth’s Magazine or Evangelical Miscellany, which ran from 1805 to 1867, is a very good example of publications of science for children in the nineteenth century. It is explicit in its agenda and whilst it was not a magazine dedicated to science, each addition had at least two articles from one of the scientific disciplines.[9] It was founded in 1805 by the committee of the Sunday School Union (SSU), using their own funds, and was intended for the ‘older children of middle-class evangelicals.’[10] To understand fully the intentions of the magazine, the role of the SSU should be mentioned. The SSU acted at both national and local levels as ‘pressure groups for evangelical causes.’[11] The Youth’s Magazine was only technically a private venture because as a company, the SSU could not afford to take on the financial risk of publication. It benefited greatly from its association with the SSU. The success of the Youth’s Magazine is evident in that it was the ‘first sustained effort of publishing periodicals for children’ and lasted for a run of sixty-two years before it merged with the Bible Class Magazine.[12] The Youth’s Magazine had a significant effect upon shaping the views of its readership.

It is also worthwhile mentioning that literacy issues were not a significant hindrance for periodicals at this time. [13] Investigations into this were conducted in the 1830s and results showed that ‘about three-quarters of working-class homes possessed books, chiefly of a religious nature.’ Sunday schools themselves were one reason for this. They were an incredibly important educational medium for children in the nineteenth century and had a significant impact on literacy levels, particularly among the working classes. [14] Anecdotal evidence supports this. Thomas Whittaker, the temperance reformer, wrote in his autobiography that ‘I had learned [to read] in the Sabbath school, and I say, God bless the Sabbath school!’[15] Widespread literacy aided the impact of the Youth’s Magazine.

Science in the Youth’s Magazine was undoubtedly steeped in religious devotion to evangelicalism. This is evident throughout the magazine’s long-running production and is illustrated by an article from the first series of the publication when a small girl told her guardian that she did not like snow. The guardian replied;

That is because you do not know its use; God is very good in sending this snow. You know your Papa is a farmer, and he would be sorry if there was no snow: the cold sharp frosts would kill the seed which he has put into the ground, if God did not send this snow to keep it warm.’[16]

The ignorance of the child was replaced with knowledge of the natural world and her love for God was strengthened. The Youth’s Magazine used science as proof of the power and greatness of God in providing for those who were pious and virtuous, to encourage children to live in such a way.

The Youth’s Magazine was rife with examples of ‘divine science’. On the phenomenon of sleep, the physiological process was explained by divine reasoning;

…if God had not directed and supported the pulsations of our heart, the circulation of our blood, and the motion of our muscles, the first sleep that had followed our birth would have delivered us into the hands of death…[17]

All common occurrences, natural changes and scientific processes were to the Youth’s Magazine ‘alone sufficient to convince us, in the most forcible manner, that the Being who has created the world, and who directs all events, is infinitely wise, powerful and good.’[18] The impact of this teaching on readers was to confirm for children what they had been taught in Sunday schools, and what their parents had instructed them about the role of God in the world, and of theirs in society.

Thomas W. Laquer argued that in the 1810s, the first issues of the Youth’s Magazine consisted largely of religious material, which was not evident in the 1830s.[19] There is certainly has some credence; as society shifted, the periodical moved away from total emphasis on scripture. However, whilst scientific explanations were alluded to in greater detail in later issues, the presence of God was unrelenting. Consider an article on the solar system in an 1828 edition, which gave a detailed scientific explanation of the earth’s rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun. Following a detailed description of this process and of the role of fixed stars, the contributor concluded with;

On the whole, though we may not know so much of these wonderful luminaries as we could wish, yet we know quite sufficient respecting them, to convince us of the omnipotence of their Maker. Much more forcibly must the mind of the enlightened observer of the heavens be impressed with the greatness of the Divine Being, than that of one who is ignorant of their nature.[20]

The Youth’s Magazine, throughout its entire publication used science to corroborate the evangelical understanding of the Creator and creationism. More than this however, Jonathan Topham argued that the magazine’s use of science was to improve the readers’ ‘daily practice of evangelical faith.’[21] Science was used to show children how they could live as better Christians.

The ‘professional’ contributors to the magazine reveal the attitudes the editors were attempting to convey. For example, in 1828 William Paley, the eminent natural theologian, was included with an article on the anatomy of the woodpecker.[22] Similarly, an extract from William Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise, was contained in an issue in 1838 on the size of the earth.[23] The work of natural theologians was deemed by the evangelical community as safe for consumption by the children of the nineteenth century. Tess Cosslett believed natural theology to be a ‘gentle and easy’ way to introduce children to God.[24] Interestingly, the article that immediately followed Whewell’s in that particular issue, was one entitled ‘The Way’ that started with: ‘Christ alone is the foundation of our hope. If we are not interested in Him, we may perish with the words of prayer on our lips.’[25] Science was deemed important in the Youth’s Magazine, provided that it fitted in with evangelical concepts, demonstrating to youths that science was only safe, or more accurately scientific, if it was based on evangelical principles.

The association with the SSU was incredibly important in the spread of the Youth’s Magazine. Topham highlights how the SSU as an organisation had ‘pious credentials’ that enabled middle-class parents of the target children to desire their spread of influence.[26] Moreover, the SSU was ‘primarily a publishing house and a bookseller’ that survived financially almost entirely from its ‘sale of books, magazines and materials.’[27] The SSU already had the infrastructure in place to reach the required audiences. It had an existing ‘distribution network’ to spread its publications, which by 1835 had influenced ‘around 8000 Sunday schools and a million students.’[28] Despite being a private venture for the members of the committee of the SSU, all of the available resources were utilised.

Editors of the Youth’s Magazine boasted that it was ‘the first periodical for the young that combined evangelical instruction with useful information.’[29] Evangelicals placed a significant emphasis on the necessity of reading, in understanding the Bible and acquiring a detailed knowledge of the faith.[30] However, as contemporary evangelicals reasoned, the Youth’s Magazine was careful not to promote the wrong sort of reading material for its audience. For example, in an article entitled ‘The injurious effects of novels on the young’ the author wrote ‘these captivating productions not only dazzle and agitate the fancy, inflame and mislead the passions, but they also pervert and stupefy the conscience.’[31] Coupled with fear of the novel, evangelicals saw an ever-present danger in the secular literature of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Topham argued that the Youth’s Magazine attempted to combat this by teaching its audience to ‘infuse all secular reading with scriptural piety.’[32] The policy of the Youth’s Magazine with regard to reading is wonderfully illustrated in a poem entitled ‘On the Bible’ contained in an issue in 1806;

Of ev’ry book the Bible is the best,

Because it tends to make us wise and blest;

Here all we need to know most plain appears,

Instructing youth, and guiding riper years.[33]

A paradox is evident with the emphasis on education (specifically with regard to reading) by the magazine and the given constraints. On the one hand, the child reader of the Youth’s Magazine was told to ‘read and be astonished at the almost incredible advances that have been made in science.’[34] However, this was always done within an evangelical context and, emphatically, the importance of God in all aspects of science and the necessity of living a pious life for salvation. The article continued, ‘The present age, by the blessing of God on the ingenuity and diligence of men, has brought to light such truths in natural philosophy, and such discoveries in the heavens and the earth, as seemed to be beyond the reach of man.’[35] Children were shaped to see scientific knowledge as necessary for eliminating ignorance and bringing them closer to God.

The Youth’s Magazine is just one example of science published for children and demonstrates how ideologies were imbedded within educational literature. A plethora of denominations attempted to influence readers with their own views and some were more successful than others. This is not to forget, however, those secular magazines that were perceived to be dangerous and radical by the religious ones. The SDUK, for example, produced literature for a different audience from that of the Youth’s Magazine. In order to ‘diffuse safe knowledge’ to the working classes, SDUK produced the Penny Magazine and the Penny Cyclopaedia to swamp the proletarian with literature that contained ‘nothing to excite the passions.’[36] The notion of ‘useful knowledge’ was satirised in Dickens’ Hard Times when the teacher stated: ‘What I want is, facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.’[37] Science in the Penny Magazine was entirely secular and in no way alluded to the influence of a Creator.[38] For evangelicals, secular knowledge of science was perceived as a threat to the nation.[39]

Mature readers

It is worthwhile to mention briefly, merely as a point of interest, how the medium of children’s literature was used to convey attitudes of science and nature to a more mature audience. Cosslett demonstrated how the authors of two children’s books, Margaret Gatty in Parable from Nature and Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies, used the format to react to theories of evolution.[40] Child readers would not have been able to grasp the true meaning of the authors, for their arguments were too conceptual. Cosslett argued that both authors perceived childhood as a time of ‘uncontaminated vision nearer to our divine origins.’[41] An argument that is illustrated with numerous examples, in particular in The Water Babies, the ‘disbelieving scientist’ after catching one was thrown into complete denial, with Kingsley writing; ‘I believe that the naturalists get dozens of them when they are out dredging; but say nothing about them, and throw them overboard again, for fear of spoiling their theories.’[42] This illustrates how, at the same time, literature could impregnate juvenile minds with ideology, and allow mature audiences to extrapolate the true intentions behind the social comment.


It must be concluded that science was published for children in the nineteenth century for a variety of reasons, especially to influence attitudes towards God, and in doing so, to reaffirm the importance of the hierarchical structure for social cohesion. Whilst future research needs to examine in greater depth the role of other periodicals and other groups, a focus on the Youth’s Magazine, shows in relation to the wider issue of nineteenth century progress, a rejection of secular ideas in the development of science and an evangelical foundation for natural theology. It is difficult to ascertain, for certain, the impact of such publications on children, but by examining the number of publications and readership figures, we can see how widely read they were and their impact may be estimated relatively accurately. The success of the Youth’s Magazine is evident by its legacy of imitators in the publishing world that spread well beyond the denomination of the evangelicals.[43] The Youth’s Magazine was aimed predominantly at middle-class children and it undoubtedly reached a large audience, significantly impacting on shaping the opinion of its readership. Whilst this of course is no certainty, the magazine’s longevity along with the number of imitators it inspired, strongly suggests that the consumers of the Youth’s Magazine were indoctrinated with the beliefs of the creators (contributors, authors and publishers) in the importance of science in illustrating God’s work.

[1] Adrian Johns; The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, (London, University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 3.

[2] Thomas W. Laquer; Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780-1850, (Yale, University Press, 1976), p. 190.

[3] Kirsten Drotner; English Children and Their Magazines, 1751-1945, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988), p. 66.

[4] R. Gilmour; ‘The Gradgrind School: Political Economy in the Classroom’, in Victorian Studies, vol. 11, (Dec, 1967), p. 213.

[5] Child’s Companion, new ser, 3, no.28 (April, 1834) in Drotner; English Children and their Magazines, p. 50.

[6] Alan Richardson; Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice 1780-1832, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 46.

[7] Lesson Book of Common Things and Ordinary Conduct, in Chambers Educational Course, (Chambers, 1854), p. 10.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jonathan Topham; ‘Periodicals and the Making of Reading Audiences for Science in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Youth’s Magazine, 1828-37’ in Henson, Louise et al. (eds.); Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media, (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2004), p. 60.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Laquer; Religion and Respectability, p. 209.

[12] Ibid, p. 116.

[13] Drotner; English Children and Their Magazines, p. 31.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Laquer; Religion and Respectability, p. 117.

[16] The Youth’s Magazine or Evangelical Miscellany, vol. 1, (October, 1805) p. 64.

[17] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (September, 1805), p. 32.

[18] Ibid, p. 28.

[19] Laquer; Religion and Respectability, p. 208.

[20] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (September, 1828), p. 15.

[21] Topham; ‘Periodicals and the Making of Reading Audiences’, p. 60.

[22] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (November, 1828), p. 352.

[23] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (December, 1838), p. 164

[24] Tess Cosslett,; Talking Animals in British Children’s Fiction, 1786-1914, (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006), p. 17.

[25] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (March, 1838), p. 164

[26] Jonathan Topham; ‘Science in the Nineteenth Century Periodical’ on <last accessed 8-11-08>.

[27] Laquer; Religion and Respectability, pp. 39-40.

[28] Topham; ‘Periodicals and the Making of Reading Audiences’, p. 61.

[29] Ibid, p. 60.

[30] Aileen Fyfe; Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain, (London, University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 23.

[31] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (1828), p. 275.

[32] Topham; ‘Periodicals and the Making of Reading Audiences’, p. 62.

[33] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (July, 1806), p. 395.

[34] The Youth’s Magazine, vol. 1, (January, 1805), p. 157

[35] Ibid.

[36] Johns; The Nature of the Book , p. 375 and p. 630.

[37]Charles Dickens; Hard Times, (Longman, 1970), p. 1.

[38] For example one article described mercury; its chemical properties and advocated its application and celestial explanation of its purpose was ignored. Penny Magazine, no. 215, (August, 8, 1835) on <last accessed 8-11-08>

[39] J. S Bratton; The Impact of Victorian Children’s Fiction, (London, Croom Helm, 1981), p. 39.

[40] Cosslett,; Talking Animals in British Children’s Fiction, p. 93.

[41] Ibid, p. 94.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Drotner; English Children and Their Magazines, p. 25.

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