A Voice of Reason: Sane Views for a Crazy World

June 9, 2007

The Formation of Cultural Icons: A Critical Analysis Pt. II

Filed under: blogging,children,Culture,Education,History,PoliticalScience,Politics — avoiceofreason @ 2:17 am

Second in a series.  This is from a paper I presented.  This segment deals with an analysis of a study of the formation of a cultural identity in the text book covers found in the US in the 18th and 19th century.

The second article analyzed wished to examine the use of visual metaphor in the front covers in popular textbooks published in the United States in the late 18th and early to mid 19th century.  In this study (Provenzo, 1984) the argument posed is that by use of traditional and symbolic metaphors a distinct patriotic iconography emerged in the United States.  In declaring independence from England, it was important for the United States had also declared a rejection of England’s social traditions and the need was to find a replacement for the new republic.

Typically found on the textbooks from this era are symbols from the ancient world, typically found in the ancient Roman Republic.  Ultimately, these symbols would become identifiable with the new republic being formed. The author’s asserts, a patriotic iconography or symbolism emerged, drawing upon the collective history of the nation. 

In early editions of textbooks used in the United States images of the Founding Fathers are seen.  However, by the end of the 18th century the figure of Minerva or Athena is seen acting as a guide for young children.  It was a common practice in England to put the ruling monarch on the cover of children’s texts, yet after only a short period publishers had rejected this practice in America.

The use of these characters from antiquity is not unusual, and emerged consistently.  As time progressed, the image of Minerva went through slight changes.  Light is seen as coming from her head, she holds a staff, and other symbols from antiquity appear.  Interestingly, Minerva is the Roman equivalent of Athena, the safeguard of Athens, so long as her image remained within the walls of the city.  The symbolic parallel is clear, and was over a period of time was brought to the focus of the new nation’s children daily. 

In later editions of texts the Roman Goddess of Liberty is represented.  She also goes through minor transformations through the year, each having symbolic value.  By the year 1841 she is seen wearing a Phrygian cap – which in ancient Rome would be given to slaves who had been emancipated.  In another widely used series of texts, Minerva and Liberty appear together, with Minerva ascending into the heavens, while Liberty remains on the earth – which the author insinuates as the coming to maturity of the ideals of the new nation.  By the middle of the century the figure of Liberty is seen atop the national capitol and by 1886 The Statue of Liberty arguably becomes the most recognizable icon for the values and principals of the American Republic. 

The suggestion of the study is that educational materials reflect an emergence and are part of the evolution of a culture.  It is clear that development of a cultural identification with ancient Rome was paramount in the formation of a national identity for the United States, and the educational system was at the front and center of this formation of a collective sense of historical identity.



  1. A very good analysis. I can attest to this as I have spent a good degree of my research looking over these kind antique books. I also have a passion for collecting them. I am an unrepentant bibliophile.

    Comment by totaltransformation — June 9, 2007 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  2. I am happy I found your website on bing. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my boyfriend were just preparing to do some research about this. I am very glad to see such reliable information being shared freely out there.
    Donnie from Dallas city

    Comment by Ambler — February 24, 2010 @ 7:08 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: