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"Canned Childhood," by Sarah Cleghorn. 1917

“Canned Childhood”: Encouraging Student Understanding of Progressive Era Issues and Reform Strategies Through a Poem Related to Child Labor

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Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress contributed to this post.

In the May/June 2024 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features a poem published in the March 14, 1914, special child labor edition of the Maryland Suffrage News, “Canned Childhood.” The article situates the poem and newspaper in the Progressive era and describes ideas for exploring the poem with students. It then offers teaching ideas to extend thinking and research about child labor reform into various social studies disciplines, drawing from the whole newspaper issue.

Progressive reformers addressed many causes, including rights for women and working conditions in factories, especially for children. They took the perspective that the causes were related and improving one would improve society overall. The article discusses Cleghorn’s work as a poet and a reformer. It suggests engaging students by first asking them to list the attributes of a good childhood and then introducing the poem. To better understand Cleghorn’s point, students might consider the poem’s title and the use of “canned.” Then ask: What is lost and what is gained, according to the first stanza? The poem concludes:

“Come buy, my fellow-countrymen!

…Come buy sweet childhood by the can.”

Challenge students to read the last stanza and explain what they think Cleghorn meant about the role of society in the losses of “canned childhood.”

cartoon of factory owner
“I Need the Little Ones” cartoon, March 14, 1914

To extend learning, students might explore other parts of the newspaper, such as the article “Legislation for Children and Legislation for Vegetables” that follows the poem on the same page. The paper also includes additional poems, a political cartoon, and many additional articles, offering students a unique opportunity to compare the effectiveness of the various newspaper features in persuading readers to take action. The class might share their discoveries in a jigsaw activity.

Suggested discipline-specific approaches include:

  • Geography – analyze items from the National Child Labor Committee collection the incorporate maps to make a point, such as this map or this exhibit panel. Or explore the collection for its geographic reach by selecting the “Collection Items” tab and then choosing the “More Locations” option from the left column.
  • Economics – research to learn the monetary costs of the “Canned childhood [that’s] selling cheap” and how that fit into typical family budgets for different social classes of the time. They might develop questions to guide further research, such as “How much economic decision-making and influence did women have in this era, before they could vote?”
  • History – read the section in Chronicling AmericaAbout” the Maryland Suffrage News to put child labor reform in the context of other events and movements of the time. Students might also analyze items selected from the Child Labor Primary Source Set for teachers.
  • Civics – search recent legislation in or explore the Bound Congressional Record for past legislation.

Please share your students’ discoveries and questions in the chat!

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Comments (2)

    Thank you for sharing this poem.

  2. My pleasure, Michelle.

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