Babysitter: An American History

Caretaker. Cultural icon. Paid by the hour. The enigma that is the American baby-sitter is explored in all it's endearing/smart/scary/sexy glory in Miriam Forman-Brunell's Babysitter: An American History.

The babysitting business boomed in the 1980s, buoyed by Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-sitters Club and movies like Adventures in Babysitting. Then the bubble popped in the ’90s, with the evil nanny in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and an explosion of sitter-centric pornography. That arc of pop-culture references from the end of the 20th century is likely all that Gen X-, Y-, and Z-ers know about babysitting in America. But Babysitter: An American History shows there’s a long tradition that predates it. Forman-Brunell, a history professor, mines the past century for intriguing snippets of babysitting lore, starting with a 14-year-old Sylvia Plath’s own misadventures in babysitting (leading to her conclusion that “little children are bothersome beings” and sitting itself was “slave labor”), followed by Princeton University’s 1940s all-male “Tiger Tots Tending Agency,” enduring urban legends involving teen sitters and serial killers (“the call is coming from inside the house”), and the rise of the nanny cam. What might have been just an amusing collection of related relics is instead a sophisticated and smooth history of girl culture and shifting family values in Forman-Brunell’s capable hands. She traces the phenomenon from the pay-for-care service’s origin in the 1920s touching upon the post-WWII boom (in 1949, three-quarters of high school girls in a study in D.C. regularly sat), sitting shortages in suburban neighborhoods of the 1950s, sitter unionization, and YWCA-sponsored training courses. It’s a thorough investigation of our cultural anxieties about childcare and an intriguing look at what happens when a teenage girl rules the roost.