Pink and purple balloons, a “funfetti” cake with pink and white frosting, a roomful of indulgent adults … The birthday girl clutched her new doll to her chest and looked overwhelmed; she turned two today.
In the living room were the chaotic remains of the party — abandoned toys and new clothes strewn amidst discarded boxes, extravagant ribbons and bows, glossy wrapping paper and bags. “Mine, mine, mine,” she repeated over and over, as her Mom helped her open her presents: “Look at this . . . . Isn’t that a cute dress? Show Grandpa your new baby! Look this way! See the kitchen toys! Oh look, sweetie, a pink cell phone!” “Gender reinforcement,” her uncle said in an undertone.
Grandma came back into the room and reported, “She just sat right down in her new princess chair and started talking on the cell phone!”
“Must be genetics,” Grandpa remarked wryly.
That, and a healthy dose of consumerism.
Before 1890, American children were subsumed within the family unit — they were miniature adults, more or less invisible to merchants and advertisers. And then they were discovered. Between 1905 and 1920, the American toy industry increased by 1,300 percent, helped along by better manufacturing processes, protective tariffs, and the precipitous decline of German toy production during WWI. At the same time, a new cultural and social shift was taking place that began to recognize children as children: not only did they need all sorts of protective legislation, they also needed to be nurtured with a myriad of goods and services. Marshall Field advertisers declared in 1912:
Not every person realizes that there is a children’s demand for merchandise and service. Yet there is naturally. Little people’s interests, their desires, their preferences, and rights to merchandise are as strong and as definite as those of any adult portion of the community.
A hundred years later, it’s just more so . . . . I wish Birthday Girl’s childhood could have lasted a little longer . . . .