Sam Heavner ’20

“‘One of the Laborers’: Girlhood, Work, and Media in the United States, 1840-1860”

Tell us about your thesis!

My thesis, “‘One of the Laborers’: Girlhood, Work, and Media in the United States 1840-1860,” considers the intersection of idealized girlhood and popular print media in the mid-nineteenth. It draws upon existing scholarship on the history of American childhood by Steven Mintz and Renee Sentilles to consider the common conceptions of idealized childhood that existed within the American imagination during this time. In my first chapter, I explore how idealized notions of girlhood were communicated to children through popular youth periodicals. Then, in my second chapter, I examine idealized working-class girlhood as it operates in The Lamplighter (1854), a best-selling sentimental novel by Maria Cummins. Taken together, the chapters demonstrate a collective investment in normative girlhood as it related to labor and industry in the rapidly changing nineteenth-century American economy. 

How did you choose your topic?

Over the course of my junior year, I became increasingly interested in childhood studies while I was exploring various sources in HL98: Junior Tutorial. I researched the history of American family structures in my junior fall as part of a project about twentieth-century recreation trends and the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971. Then, in my junior spring, I wrote my junior paper on the intersection of law and order rhetoric and media disseminated by the Boy Scouts of America in the 1970s. I knew I wanted to continue to research the role of childhood and children in American culture in my thesis, and decided to pivot my research to focus on the nineteenth century. From there, I started to narrow my project, restricting my topic to focus on girlhood and print media in particular.

What were the biggest challenges?

I found it difficult to establish a consistent work schedule for my thesis, especially when I was first starting out. It was surprising to realize how fast time can slip by when I was focusing on other classwork during the semester. Once I took the time to establish a solid routine for thesis work, the process felt much more manageable. 

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

My favorite thing about my thesis process is probably the amount of time it allowed me to spend with my primary sources. Never before in my academic career have I sat with a single novel for several months, parsing through the themes and characters in detail before finalizing my thoughts on them. By the end of the process, I felt mastery over The Lamplighter and my other primary materials that was never possible in other courses at Harvard. It was really rewarding to see my arguments, and my articulation of them, develop and pivot over time.

What advice would you give to juniors?

Remember: this is your first thesis! You’ve never done this before! There’s absolutely no reason to expect that you’ll already be good at writing a thesis while you’re charting entirely new territory. Try to be kind yourself and keep in mind how exciting and impressive it is that you’re doing a senior thesis at all. Also, ask for help when you need it and be as honest as possible with your advisor about how the process is going, even if it isn’t going as well as you had hoped.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University