Q & A with PEG about "Wishing for a Snow Day"
Why did you research about children? They have been overlooked in history. And they have great stories to tell.
Besides, each of us was a child once. How many topics have such wide appeal?
Why do people—even young children—look so stern in old photos? Two reasons: early photography required long exposures of very still subjects. Holding a pose for several seconds proved especially difficult for fidgety children. Sometimes props were used to keep the subject’s head steady. Occasionally you can see a long metal rod behind a person’s back for stability.
Also, making a photograph was a rare and momentous event until the late 1800s. Subjects felt they should look distinguished and wealthy, certainly not grinning sillily. Just as with notables who had their portraits painted, it was the custom to look somber. Even children. Now it’s the opposite: photographers insist “Smile,” even at a non-smiley moment.
Did lots of children keep diaries and write letters? Yes. It was fashionable in some circles, especially among the better educated before World War I. Not many of the children’s documents survive. But neither will the text messages kids send today.
Were the “good old days” good for children? Not especially. Just as today, some kids had it made with loving family, generous parents, safe environments, and exciting adventures. But many had it rough. Violence, poverty, and neglect are nothing new. Read here about the orphan trains and young soldiers and children hanged for crime. Childhood—the age of innocence? Nope, not for many.
Where did you find all this stuff? I got to poke around in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, considered one of the nation’s finest state historical organizations. I also looked in various county societies, some private collections, and other libraries. So can you. It’s lots of fun. And free, almost. (You may have to pay a bit for copies.) Many historians and librarians love to share what they know and will help you find what you need. Or, if you wish, you can hire a professional to do the digging for you. Ask at your history center.
Why did you keep writers’ odd spelling and vocabulary and sentence structure? I find them charming, and it helps me realize that kids who slaughter the written language today may turn out reasonably well anyway.
Why do you have so much old stuff, and not much about more recent times? C’mon, this is history: it’s supposed to be old. But seriously, material from decades ago is more readily available. Odd, but true. For instance, Civil War information is voluminous, but little about the Iraq War, and even the Vietnam War, has made its way to history centers. As time has passed, letter and journal writing has become less and less common.
Please consider donating your letters, diaries, or photos to your regional or state historical society so that researchers can someday effectively document the current years. Print out some special e-mails too, including ones from soldiers overseas.
Why are some groups and regions represented better than others? Some Minnesota counties have terrific history centers, and others, well, their holdings are paltry.
Members of dominant ethnic groups, such as the Scandinavians and Germans, did an exceptional job of saving materials and putting them into safe places. Other groups are underrepresented. African Americans and American Indians, for example, kept their records in different forms and relied heavily on oral stories. They had lost so many of their traditions and stories that they were understandably reluctant to hand over their history to mainstream repositories. Now such historical societies recognize the importance of diverse materials and are eager to learn from the records of a wide variety of people.
And finally, a question I hadn’t expected but which people frequently ask me: Which Minnesota family had the most children? Sorry: I don’t know, and historians don’t know how to help me find out. If you have a candidate for the honor of Minnesota’s biggest family, please let me know.
But we need to remember that defining family isn’t so easy. Just one set of parents? Blended families? Adopted and foster children? Children informally taken into a home?
Just as today, families of old were complicated.
Wishing for a Snow Day:
Growing Up in Minnesota
Peg Meier’s candid interpretation of the joys and pains of childhood through the decades—at home, at school, at play—reminds us that we were all children once too. Beloved pets. Holiday rituals. Schoolyard antics. Teenage perspectives on a world at war. Childhood is a mixed bag of challenges and joys whenever one grows up. In Minnesota, youthful memories may be arranged by seasons: Making snow angels in January, swatting mosquitoes in July. They may be tinged with a nostalgic glow or imprinted by lessons hard won.
In this new collection, Peg Meier explores the themes of childhood -- the bitter and the sweet. Thanks to Minnesotans who took the time to write, whether as children in the moment or as adults looking back, Meier unearthed a wealth of material on the subject, ranging from diary entries to reminiscences to newspaper columns, along with 200 black-and-white photographs.
Coco Irvine, a child of St. Paul's prestigious Summit Avenue, writes of romance during her teen years. A YMCA coach recounts his efforts to help rowdy boys choose basketball over petty crime. Parents through the ages consider conflicting advice for raising their children. Humorous touches and reality checks are offered in equal doses, and the result is a fascinating spectrum of experiences, as Minnesotans do what every adult must: grow up.
264 pages, 8 x 10", 200 B&W photographs, index, bibliography, paperback, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-87351-640-2