You’re never too old to play. And the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s new exhibition, “1923: A Kid’s Life,” asks you to do just that. This fun and engaging show, which is part of its centennial celebration, looks back at Island children’s world in 1923, and is a thoroughly delightful “please touch” experience. While there is plenty for the little ones to do, and questions to ask them to start a conversation, associate curator of exhibitions Kate Logue has ensured that there are multiple layers of information to entertain and inform all ages.
The small gallery is divided into three sections. The opening panel tells us that a hundred years ago, children spent their time as they do today, at home, at school, and at play: “They helped with household chores and contributed to family life … Steam-powered ferries carried people back and forth across Vineyard Sound, but there was no airport on the Island. The Agricultural Fair happened every year, but the first Fishing Derby was still more than 20 years away. Cars had been invented, but not every family owned one.”
The central “Home” section is outfitted as a mock living room, filled with a rocking chair, rug, and table, and a wonderful array of posed and candid black-and-white photographs of children of all ages and backgrounds displayed on the wall. An old-fashioned telephone sits on the table, and you can lift the receiver to listen to an oral history by Sarah Jenkinson, who lived from 1911 to 2006, talking about her childhood on the Vineyard. There is also an array of fascinating reading material, including a newspaper and Camp Tashmoo brochure for parents, with information about activities and a clothing list that asks them to make sure to pack such items as knickers and stockings, bloomers, and middies, which I discovered is a woman’s or child’s loose blouse with a collar that is cut deep and square at the back and tapering to the front, resembling that worn by a sailor.
The area continues to the right with a basket of children’s vintage dress-up clothes, echoing those you can see in the photographs, as well as a fully equipped toy kitchen sink and oven with cooking accoutrements, and a shelf stocked with wood-painted replicas of boxes of Domino Sugar, Campbell’s Soup, and Baby Ruths. The wall label tells us that while the outside of a home might not look all that different, those 100 years ago would not have had TVs, let alone computers and video games, but rather a radio or record player. Children’s chores might have included weeding, or helping out in the family business. Mounted at eye level are some artifacts, including a glass Coca-Cola bottle from the bottling factory in Vineyard Haven that filled the green glass bottles with syrup and carbonated water. Sold locally, the bottles could be returned to the factory, trading them for new, full ones — a form of recycling we could only wish for today.
Two old-fashioned wooden desks, a usable chalkboard, and an Island map delineate the “School” area. Authentic reading primers and story books, including “The Puritan Twins” and “The Velveteen Rabbit,” are on the shelf. There are black-and-white photos of some of the student body, some showing classes with about 20 students and others with just five or so. Apparently, in the nine public schools — two more than there are now — some had just one multi-grade classroom, and most Island children only attended school until age 13. Older students, especially boys, missed a lot of school in the spring and fall, when they stayed home to help their families on the farm. Part of the curriculum, in addition to reading, writing, math, civics, and history, included Latin — something the kids might be pleased is not routine today.
Just some of the toys in the “Play” section are a wooden ferry with cars that can roll on and off, a cradle with elaborately dressed dolls, and an absolutely adorable stuffed teddy bear. Instructions accompany the set of pick-up sticks, and are particularly helpful for the gyroscope. In the display case, you see such amusing items as a table croquet set, horses with pumper wagon, and, a particular favorite, a mechanical toy bank with a monkey that tips its hat when a coin is inserted. Apparently, summer fun — along with the beach and camp — included going to the movie theater, the Flying Horses, and the now-gone roller rink.
“We tried to keep everything interactive and accessible for the young, but still have some interesting things if you don’t have young ones, so you can still learn something cool,” Logue says about the exhibition. “For adults, it’s also a chance to think back about your childhood and what might have continuity. No matter your age, it can help you reflect on what was your school experience and your play experience … and reminisce and share about it, and to tell your own stories.”
“1923: A Kid’s Life,” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through Nov. 12. For information, visit mvmuseum.org/exhibitions.