University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Children's Books of Long Ago

Volume III · Spring 1948 · Number 3         
Children's Books of Long Ago

THE University Library is participating in a series of radio broadcasts sponsored by the Inter-Museum Council of Rochester and given over Station WHEC on Saturday afternoons from 2:45 to 3:00 o'clock. The broadcast on December 20 was prepared by the Library and included a description of the exhibition of early children's books from the collection of Mrs. C. Schuyler Davis. Mrs. C. Luther Fry, Trustee of the University of Rochester, Vera Tweddell, Head of the Circulation Department of Rush Rhees Library, and John R. Russell, University Librarian, were the speakers. The part of the broadcast which described the exhibit is given here.

Mr. Russell: Good afternoon! It is a great pleasure to extend holiday greetings from all the members of the Inter-Museum Council and to invite you to enjoy the exhibits and events of the coming week in the museums, art galleries, libraries, and parks of Rochester. Let's begin by describing what Rush Rhees Library, at the University of Rochester, is showing. The exhibit cases in the lobby are filled with colorfully illustrated books and pamphlets lent by Mrs. C. Schuyler Davis, whose hobby is the collecting of early children's books. What impressed you most when you saw this exhibit, Mrs. Fry?

Mrs. Fry: The thing that struck me, Mr. Russell, perhaps because I am a mother, was the beautiful condition of these fragile little books. I don't see how Mrs. Davis found so many examples of children's books, many of them printed before 1800, that still look so clean and fresh. I know how children read their books to pieces, and I'm amazed that any children's books have lasted 150 to 200 years. We are certainly indebted to Mrs. Davis for collecting them, so we can see the kind of books children were reading long ago.

Mr. Russell: That, to me, is the chief value of this exhibit. Seeing it makes us realize how much children's literature has changed in the past two hundred years. I suspect that many of these earlier books would not appeal to our children if Santa Claus should happen to leave some when he makes his rounds next week.

Mrs. Fry: I agree, although I would want to except the hornbooks that are shown. Those quaint little wooden paddles, with the letters of the alphabet on them, would be popular today, I'm sure, since they might be used as toys, whether the owner could read or not. The ease with which they could be carried around, or be worn as an ornament by putting a string through the handle, must have made it fun to learn one's letters.

Mr. Russell: Miss Tweddell, you arranged this exhibit and I believe you are especially fond of the toy books. Do you think they would appeal to children today?

Miss Tweddell: They certainly would. In fact, we see many examples of the same kind of books for children on sale now. The books with cutouts and movable parts, and those with paper dolls and animal figures attached, are not as new as some might think, for there are just such books in Mrs. Davis' collection, and they are over a hundred years old.

Mr. Russell: I like the toy books too, but I find it hard to believe that children really enjoyed the highly moralistic and very sombre stories that predominated in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For instance, there are several editions of the New England Primer in the exhibit, the earliest printed in Boston in 1772. I know that it was a very popular book, but it was pretty heavy fare for youngsters. In it is the story of John Rogers, who was burned at the stake while his wife and nine children looked on. It is illustrated with a woodcut which might well have given the children nightmares.

Mrs. Fry: Even the books with intriguing titles were filled with lessons for the children. The Adventures of a Pincushion sounds entertaining, but it is filled with sober advice; for example these verses, supposed to have been written for a little girl by her aunt:

Recollect, my sweet girl, ere you mix with the world,
There is need of some caution to guide;
Then wisely remember to govern your tongue,
As silence much folly may hide.

Most useful, I think you this maxim will find,
And never its precepts neglect;
That who giddy and thoughtless will chatter away,
Shall ne'er gain applause or respect.

Like the parrot, awhile they may please and amuse
But no real esteem will acquire;
And I trust that your wish when in converse you join,
Is a nobler regard to inspire.

Mr. Russell: Goody Two Shoes is another moralistic story that was very popular. It was first published by John Newbery, a London bookseller and the first to specialize in books for children. He did a great deal to improve the quality of children's literature, and had the help of Oliver Goldsmith, author of The Vicar of Wakefield. Some people think that Goldsmith wrote Goody Two Shoes, but Newbery humorously claimed that it came from an original manuscript found in the Vatican at Rome, with drawings by Michelangelo. The first edition of Goody Two Shoes appeared in 1765, but no copy of that edition is known to exist today. Mrs. Davis' collection includes a copy published by the Newbery firm in 1780, and one published at Worcester by the famous American printer, Isaiah Thomas, in 1787. These are two of the greatest rarities in the exhibit.

Miss Tweddell: Another prime rarity in the exhibit is the three volume set of Thomas Day's The History of Sandford and Merton, which was published from 1783 to 1789. Mrs. Davis has been able to get the first edition of volume three, and early editions of the other two, all in perfect condition, which is quite an achievement. This long account of the adventures of Harry Sandford and Tommy Merton was a great favorite, partly because the children had so little in the way of stories written especially for them.

Mrs. Fry: In the case next to Sandford and Merton I noticed several little books published in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century by John Harris. They have delightful titles, such as The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's FeastThe Peacock "At Home," and The Elephant's Ball. They seem quite different from the children's books that preceded them. They are all fantasies in which insects and animals play parts, and must have been just as entertaining to the children in those days as Mickey Mouse is for our children today. The colored pictures in the books Harris published are so bright and clear, too. Miss Tweddell, how did they make such beautiful colored plates in those days?

Miss Tweddell: They were colored by hand, Mrs. Fry, and by children. The children sat around a big table, each child with a brush, one color, and a guide in front of him. The sheets were passed around the table and each child painted the part that was marked for his color on the guide. These hand-colored illustrations do have unusual freshness and beauty even when compared with the best printed color plates.

Mrs. Fry: I also was interested to see the little pamphlets called chapbooks. How did they get that name, Mr. Russell?

Mr. Russell: They were called chapbooks because they were sold on the streets by chapmen, another name for peddlers. They were very cheap and were as popular then as comic books are today.

Mrs. Fry: The chapbooks certainly included a great variety of literature, from The Life and Death of Jenny Wren to Robinson Crusoe. My favorite is called Cries of London. It gives the rhymes that were called out by the peddlers on the London streets to advertise their wares. There is one on the cover, with a delightful woodcut of a fish peddler and her basket of fish.

Three a shilling, Mackarel!
Come to me, I'll use you well— 
They were all alive to-day,
And a swimming in the sea!
If you don't buy 'em, I can't sell,
Three a shilling, Mackarel!

Mr. Russell: We haven't mentioned the books published toward the end of the nineteenth century. What about them, Miss Tweddell?

Miss Tweddell: They are the most attractive of all. I'm sure children would welcome them today, for they have entertaining stories and beautiful illustrations. Those illustrated by Kate Greenaway have been collectors' items for many years. They were so popular in the 1880's that children were dressed in the styles shown in the pictures in her books. She illustrated several well-known titles, such as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Mother Goose, and also published her own verses for children.

Mrs. Fry: Kate Greenaway's books are favorites of everyone, and I also like those illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. His Three Jovial HuntsmenThe Queen of Hearts, and The House That Jack Built are all wonderful examples of the art of book illustration. I think that the work of these two English artists has not been surpassed, even though we do have very beautiful children's books today.

Mr. Russell: This exhibit of children's books of long ago which Mrs. Davis has very kindly provided for us will help us to appreciate both the old and the new. I'm sure that many children will be reading brand new books on Christmas day, and some of them will be modern editions of stories that we have mentioned.