Monday, June 7, 2021

Molly Rosner's "Playing With History"

Molly Rosner received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark. She has spent her career working as an educator at cultural institutions and universities in New York City, where she was born and raised.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Playing with History: American Identities and Children’s Consumer Culture, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Playing With History is primarily a 1961 photograph from the amusement park Freedomland U.S.A. Freedomland was a short-lived theme park, with rides and exhibits ostensibly based on American history, located in the Bronx. The photo, from the New York Daily News Sunday Color Magazine, shows park guests (mostly children and couple adults, all of whom appear to be white) holding their hands up in the air in mock terror as an “Indian,” (or, at least, an employee dressed in a Native American costume), stands on top of their covered wagon threatening the passengers with a shotgun. It’s a familiar scene to those who grew up watching Westerns that were particularly popular in the 1950s. This image is a good example of the casual and over-the-top way racism was employed for entertainment purposes at the park (as well as in other children’s amusements). The 1960s clothing of the guests contrasting with the costumes of the employees also highlights a disjuncture and the unreality of the scene’s historical “authenticity.”

This is an apt image to encapsulate the themes of the book because it speaks to how “history” was employed for entertainment purposes touches on a number of the book’s larger arguments that historically-based amusements (whether dolls, books, games, or a park) were used to promote certain racist, sexist, and classist ideologies and sell ideas about American identity. The single paragraph on the page, below the image, explores how Freedomland U.S.A. differed from other Amusement parks in the vicinity of New York City because of its use of history (though that history was treated less than academically).

This page accurately conveys the themes of the book – mixing the playfulness of childhood with the seriousness of the lessons often sneakily taught to young people (though this example is far from subtle). This photo speaks to the important interactions of consumerism, racism, and history in shaping children’s ideas about themselves and others.

The other chapters in the book explore toys, dolls and books from the advent of the American toy industry through today. Beginning with racist toy banks in the late 19th century and ending with global appeal of American Girl dolls in the 21st century, these case studies highlight how the ideas about America have been manufactured, packaged, and sold so ubiquitously that we often take them for granted.
Visit Molly Rosner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue