American History with American Girl

Our family has a long history with American Girl’s historical dolls (now called BeForever), beginning with me. I have both the oldest and (almost) newest dolls in our house. I received the now-retired Kirsten over 25 years ago, and Melody was a birthday gift from my children this summer.

Bunny is the proud owner of the most dolls in our home…six of them, including two pairs of friends, (which is currently half of our total collection!), at least half of which she’s purchased with her own money over the last seven years:

And Ladybug has a nice collection of four dolls, including one pair of friends and the two dolls in our cumulative collection that represent the earliest parts of American history:

The dolls we own embody American history from the Revolutionary War era (Felicity) through the Civil Rights era (Melody). The total American Girl/BeForever line covers America’s past from the time before the Revolutionary War (Kaya) through the 1970s (Julie).

Our dolls personify the times of three different wars (Revolutionary, Civil, and WWII), the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, pioneer days, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Era, plus everything in between.

The girls (and I) love playing with the dolls, but American Girl is so much more than that. If you’re familiar with the company, you know that each historical character has always come with a series of books that allow the reader a glimpse into daily life in that time period. That books have changed format since the years I had the first editions (which I read so many times they felt apart long before I had children!), but the stories have remained the same. So while we don’t have all the dolls, we do have all the book series, for our dolls, and dolls we had hoped to buy but weren’t able to before they retired, and dolls we still hope to add to the collection someday.

We have used those books in our homeschool studies since the very beginning. When the children were smaller, I read the books out loud for fun, and they loved the interesting stories they were hearing without even realizing they were getting a glimpse into American history. I have used them to supplement special summer school units (especially in 2010, when we learned about colonial America, and this year, when we studied the pioneers and Westward Expansion), and as the basis for a “Christmas through American history” study, which included craft and food ideas that came to us while reading. I’ve also read them alongside  our regular history lessons, and of course, the older two girls have read through them all on their own. And now I’m starting again, from the very beginning with Kaya, and will read through the full scope of American Girl American history through Julie’s time to Chickadee, who isn’t quite old enough to read them herself.

We have been able to cover so many topics with the help of these books. We’ve learned fun things, like what holiday and birthday celebrations were like in the past, and we’ve learned hard things about wars, racism, injustice, and parents and friends dying. We’ve learned what it was like to be a child through all these different events, and while the books are clearly marketed towards girls, the boys have listened to the stories and learned some things, too.

The historical information isn’t limited to only the books, either. The dolls and their accessories have allowed us to get a good look at the fashions of different eras.  Bunny has even been inspired to make clothes for her dolls herself! We have had hands-on experience with what school supplies and lunches looked like throughout history. We’ve seen how children might have spent their free time. We’ve even had glimpses of what furniture looked like at different points in history!

And, for those more STEM inclined, American Girl has even had a place in our math lessons, and the more dolls we collect, the more fun we have! Chickadee can practice her counting by identifying how many dolls have blond, brown, black, or red hair, or she can sort them by eye color or other identifying features. We can use the information she gives us to make graphs and do statistics…what percentage of our dolls have freckles? Pierced ears? Curly hair? It’s very basic math, but it’s a start, and very fun and hands-on when you’re five!

We’re not done collecting…Chickadee hasn’t even received her first BeForever doll yet, but she has an idea of which one she wants to be her first (one that none of us have yet). We wait with anticipation every time we hear a new doll is coming, because we can’t wait to learn her story.  And we’re always keeping an eye out for new fashions for the dolls we have, and we all will save our money when there’s something new for one of our dolls. I love the way American Girl has helped history come alive for my children, through play and imagination and books that show us what the past was like!

Some Observations on Christmas Throughout American History

While studying Christmas throughout American history in “Christmas School” this year, I learned quite a few things myself.

The lavish Christmas festivities that are the norm today, (lots of decorations, big meals, and an abundance of gifts), have not existed through most of our country’s history. The only time we really seem a similar, (and often more lavish), celebration is around the turn of the century, when a Victorian Christmas was popular in America. During the rest of our country’s history, the celebrations were much smaller, (if they existed at all), either due to choice, or, more often, necessity. The Christmases of our country’s past were also much more religious for Americans as a whole, although the extent that some groups, such as the Puritans, went to to try to keep joy and celebrations out of this holy day were not necessarily any better than today’s secular atmosphere for many Christmas celebrations.

Here’s a summary of Christmas during some of the major time periods in our nation’s history:

  • Colonial (From European Settlement to 1776)–Christmas was not a big deal yet, (even though the “season” lasted for about three weeks), partly due to Puritan influence, and partly because big celebrations had just not caught on. It was really more of a holiday for adults than for children, and there were often dances and parties for adults held during the Christmas season. If gifts were given, they were usually distributed not on Christmas Day, but in the days following, particularly New Year’s. Church was the main focus of Christmas Day, followed by a nice dinner. Also, the holiday was often greeted by…gunfire.
  • The Era of Good Feelings (1817-1825)–This was when America first saw a glimpse of what Christmas would become in the future.  Washington Irving, and his writings, first introduced Americans to Christmas festivities in England, particularly large meals with special Christmas dishes. Clement C. Moore first gave vision to the American idea of St. Nick and his flying reindeer. These kinds of stories and images encouraged people to start having grander celebrations. Different cultural celebrations also began to be seen at this time, as America began to see immigrants from places other than England, and these new Americans brought their old customs and traditions with them.
  • Pioneer/Frontier (Anywhere from about the 1830s to the late 1800s)–While people enjoyed celebrating the holiday more by this point, because so many settlers lived far away from towns with stores, their celebrations were still simple. Stockings were hung and gifts were given, but the gifts were often either practical, (such as a tin cup), or small, (a stick of candy or a penny). Work still had to be done on farms, even on Christmas Day, and many families lived so far from town that they couldn’t attend a church service, but rather had a quiet time of worship and Bible reading at home. The frontier Santa was even a humbly dressed, skinny fellow, often accompanied by a horse or donkey instead of flying reindeer. For people living in more civilized areas in the mid-1800s, however, Christmas was growing in lavishness.
  • Civil War (1860s)–There is a great deal of overlap between this time period and the frontier period. The celebrations reflecting the Civil War period, however, were often in more settled areas of the country. They were still often small celebrations, because families supporting the war effort didn’t have much, and since most families were missing loved ones due to the fighting, they didn’t feel like having big celebrations. Northern families would have seen bigger celebrations than Southern families, because times were not as hard in the North, but the season was still somber. Thomas Nast is famous for his patriotic portrayal of a “Civil War Santa” during this time.
  • Turn of the Century (Early 1900s)–This was the grandest time period for Christmas in our history, aside from the present day. Wealthy families, in particular, spared no expense in decorating their homes, giving gifts, and hosting elaborate dinner parties. The wealthiest of people traveled to Europe on the now-popular steamships to celebrate Christmas, and brought back more European Christmas traditions, such as the sending of Christmas cards. They did share their wealth with the less fortunate, however, by taking food and gifts to places like orphanages during the Christmas season. It was during this time that the fat, jolly, fur-trimmed, modern version of Santa really came into being, in part due to Norman Rockwell, and his artwork which was showcased in the Saturday Evening Post.
  • Great Depression (1930s)–This was a particularly desperate time in American history. People could barely afford to survive, much less celebrate Christmas. If a family was lucky enough to have a tree, (artificial trees were already popular at this time, so they might have had one from a previous Christmas), they probably couldn’t afford the electricity to light it. Families were again facing separation, due to the fact that many men were forced to leave their homes to look for temporary work in other parts of the country. Gifts were usually handmade, and like the celebrations of the turn of the century, charities depended on the donations of wealthy people to help provide for those less fortunate.
  • World War II (1940s)–Because of rationing during the War, American families had to be very creative with their celebrations. Again, this was a time when most families were missing a family member, making the season a bit more somber. There was no rubber available to make toys, so children again had to be satisfied with practical gifts. Sugar was also in short supply, and so families had to be creative with their Christmas baking. Even travel was limited at Christmastime, because of gas rationing, (only three gallons per week!), and “victory speed limits” which were instituted around the country, which made any kind of travel too lengthy to be practical. Despite all of this, it was still a festive time, with families enjoying the warmth of their homes and children dreaming of things they had seen in the Sears Roebuck catalog, often while spending time together around the radio, listening to what became Christmas radio classics.
  • Post World War II–For the most part, in the time following World War II to the present day, Christmas has remained the same. The prosperity following the War allowed people to return to lavish celebrations. Movies and TV replaced radio as a conduit for yearly Christmas entertainment, especially in the way of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials that most people are familiar with. During this time, Christmas has become more of a secular holiday than a religious one for many people, with members of faiths other than Christianity, and even atheists, celebrating in some way, whether by having a tree in their home, playing Santa Claus, or hosting/attending Christmas parties. Still, Christmas church services remain important, as does the gathering of family and friends to celebrate the season.

Third Grade: Week Ten Wrap-Up

(Due to World Series excitement, I completely forgot about this until today!)

Not a lot to report from this week. We’re continuing our overview of American History, this week focusing on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, as well as the early American flag. I overheard Bunny reading the Declaration out loud later in the week, so I guess she really enjoyed learning about it!

We’re continuing to plug away at Latin, adding the second declension to our repertoire. Again, the children are learning it much faster than I am–I continue to be astounded at how quickly their brains soak up and adapt to another language. Hopefully, when we start learning French in a year or two, they will continue to take to it so well!

We abandoned our regular science lessons this week for a series of nature walks, complete with magnifying glass. We examined bugs and leaves, berries and grasses, and especially dandelions. It’s amazing how many more things the children notice when they have a magnifying glass through which to look at them! It was fun to take a break from our routine and do something a little different, and it really gave us a chance to enjoy all the beautiful fall colors as well!