In the first five decades of the twentieth century, millions of American boys took up the hobby of building and flying model airplanes. For these, mostly middle-class, white youth, aeromodeling became a means to channel their fascination with the recent revolutionary developments in aviation and to participate in modernity. Adults who praised their interests, by contrast, viewed aeromodeling as more than just a timely popular pastime for boys, but as a way to encourage early technological engagement in the young and to inspire a future generation of professional inventors, engineers, and scientists. Beneath these glowing predictions about the benefits of boys' technologically inspired play, however, lay a subtext that expressed a host of anxieties about the place of boys in modern America.
As a case study in the history of childhood, of technology, and of popular culture, this dissertation situates the development of the consumer craft hobby of aeromodeling against the backdrop of the long history of American enthusiasm for technology and the highly contested landscape of childhood in the early twentieth century. In the process, I find aeromodeling's many meanings bound to widespread anxieties about the pace of technological change, the rise of consumer-oriented society, and the status of boys. Technical craft hobbies like building model airplanes reinforced gendered norms of technological engagement for boys and served as a cultural counterweight to the perception that boys risked becoming feminized by the allures of consumer culture. Ironically, these measures taken under the guise of cultivating masculine production also helped pave the way for the development of a vibrant consumer culture for children during the Great Depression. Aeromodeling, in short, provides an entry point into the history of the development of a specific consumer culture for children in the United States. In charting the social and cultural developments of this popular American pastime, this dissertation points to how middle-class Americans, old and young, negotiated the contested terrain of boyhood, as both a cultural ideal and a lived experience. In the process, this dissertation positions boys themselves, as consumers, as producers, and as users of model aircraft, as the co-creators of commercialized boy culture in the early twentieth century.