Hannah Stamler, *24

Department of History

Patrimony in Miniature: French Childhood, Culture, and Media in the Shadow of Depopulation, 1900-1940



The closing decades of the French Third Republic were a high point of demographic anxiety and pronatalist activism. They were also a period of great advancement in the arenas of children’s commercial culture and domestic visual media. This dissertation considers these historical shifts together, joining the history of twentieth-century French population politics to the history of childhood, material culture, and home photography and cinema. It asks how the culture of childhood and representations of children took on new meaning in France during a moment of perceived demographic crisis, and in turn, examines how French biopolitics were shaped by changing ideals of childhood culture and aesthetics. Who were “the children” to whom French society committed itself in the early 1900s?

Past scholarship has shown that the acceptance of pronatalist thought relied upon the analytic frames of gender and race, which tied the abstract problems of demography to the everyday experiences and beliefs of French citizens. This dissertation adds new insights to this body of scholarship by arguing that the category of childhood operated in a similar manner. Revising prior assessments of pronatalism, Patrimony in Miniature demonstrates that natalists did far more than advocate for value of babies to the future economy or military. Raised in the romantic cult of childhood and inspired by twentieth-century developmental psychology and pedagogy, natalists argued that the material and visual culture of the early years—from toys to children’s portraits—were integral components of national heritage that enriched French civilization and the lives of French citizens.

This activism at once naturalized French identity around the possessions and practices of the white, urban, bourgeois nuclear family while also opening the door for other young people to assert their “childlikeness.” Ethnographic collections of indigenous children’s toys suggested that colonial youth were as playful and creative as their metropolitan counterparts. National baby photography contests, meanwhile, regularly crowned immigrant children as their winners. As the dissertation shows, claims to French identity and its attendant benefits were thus arbitrated not only through law and politics but also through childhood culture and domestic media.



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