I have a picture for you to take a look at. See if you can figure out what was wrong with it, so much so that it was ripped off the cover of an official governmental report.
The year was 1940. The report was entitled “Children in a Democracy: General Report”, and it was the report of a huge conference looking at the state of children in the nation, and what could be done about it.
The conference looked at the state of families, the state of education, child labor, health, and minority groups (and migrant groups). It ended up with 98 recommendations. The report was published by the Department of Labor.
That picture was the front cover.
And the head of the Children’s Bureau, just before 1,200 copies were distributed, had the covers ripped off.
Why? Because, in her words, she “thought it unfair to represent American children going to school without shoes.”
And thus it starts. Yes, there were poverty-stricken kids in the country who could not afford shoes (particularly in the migrant class), but those kids sure didn’t seem to be among them. The picture simply captured fairly standard rural kids who went to school that way because they liked to do so. They probably begged their Mom to keep doing it late into the fall, and to start doing it early in the spring.
And of course the schools accommodated that, not having any silly rules about bare feet in schools.
But we can see the stigma attached to bare feet rearing its ugly head, and we can see the origins of attitudes that are still in force today.
At the time of the report, newspapers uniformly denounced the decision to remove the covers. (Can you imagine that today?) Kids and bare feet simply went well together, and nearly everybody remembered having gone mostly barefoot when young. (Though, there was an acknowledgement that fewer and fewer kids went barefoot in urban environments.)
Here’s one of the editorials from the time that I rather like.
CHILDREN IN A DEMOCRACY
Kathryn Lenroot who presides over the children’s bureau in Madame Perkins’ department of labor at Washington has reached a new height of ineptitude by decreeing that the cover of an official report should be torn off because it carried a picture of a group of kids going barefooted.
It was the report of a White House conference on “Children in a Democracy,” and 1,200 copies were ready for distribution when Miss Katherine Lenroot’s spinsterly eyed fell upon the exterior decoration representing a little blonde school girl strolling down a country lane, escorted by a couple of boys and—horrors—they were all barefooted!
The covers were ripped off, but it was too late to substitute a Little Lord Fauntleroy and a couple of princesses rigged put in proper footwear, so the pamphlet had to go naked, if it is all right to use the term.
There was some surmise that Miss Lenroot recalled the painful experience of her superior, Madame Perkins, back in the NRA days of 1933, when she blandly observed that “the whole South is an untapped market for shoes.”
But Miss Lenroot insists that the Perkins incident had nothing to do with her censorship of the bare feet. She explained that it just seemed “a little unfair to represent American children going to school without shoes.”
Washington correspondents, in reporting the episode, immediately recalled Whittier’s immortal invocation of “blessings on thee, little man . . . barefoot boy with checks of tan,” which has stirred nostalgic feelings in the breasts of most men and women who can remember the joyous freedom of childhood.
They probably remembered that it was not an economic question at all. Even while lingering winter chilled the lap of May, the sap would begin to rise in the veins of those youngsters and they looked forward to the time when they could chuck their shoes under the bed and go to school in a state of nature from the knee down, paddling in intervening streams or squashing the soft mud through their toes.
They were not only happier but healthier than if they had been coddled as the head of the children’s bureau would have them coddled. Many of them lived to a ripe old age and rounded out a career of usefulness unaided by checks from Washington.
The incident would be of little importance except for the fact that Madame Perkins, Miss Lenroot and Mrs. Roosevelt are credited with the attempt to revive the proposed amendment to the Constitution. pending some 13 years, which would place the destiny of every child up to the age of 18 under the control of the children’s bureau.
This regimentation of youth, if its advocates ever succeed in placing it in effect, will of course be administered from the same point of view that shouts “curses on thee, little man . . . barefoot boy with cheeks of tan.”
Note: the writer went a bit overboard regarding the amendment to the Constitution. It was the Child Labor Amendment and simply stated:
Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.
Section 2. The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress.