(This is the third installement in the Women's Art is Women's Work series: a collection of essays by my wife, Eberle Umbach & our dear friend Audrey Bilger. Links to the first two installments can be found on the left of the page. In this essay, Eberle explores the connection between women writers & the growth of children's literature in the 18th & 19th century; I've included a number of links in case folks want to find out more about these authors; & there's a recipe for molasses candy at the end!)
The girls’ magazine Merry’s Museum probably doesn’t leap to mind as a milestone in literary history, but it was in fact the base from which Louisa May Alcott’s career was launched. In addition to editing Merry's Museum, Louisa was contributing poems, satires, and advice columns to the publication when she agreed to the request of her publishers to write a novel for girls: the immediately successful Little Women (1868.) The new and terrifically popular phenomenon of children’s magazines provides a fascinating glimpse of girl writers and readers of the era as well as their elder sisters of literature:
Letter to the Merry’s Museum Editor, 1856:
You must know, dear Mr. Editor, that the hackneyed and much abused subject of “Woman's Rights,” is a darling hobby of mine, (being “a chip of the old block,”) by which I rise to splendid ærial castles, where, before my bedazzled vision, float spectres of future fame and glorious renown; though in what particular line, I am still in unblissful ignorance—still, that I shall have a “call” for something, I no more doubt than I do my own identity.
Alice Corner, 1856
The market for children’s literature boomed in the nineteenth century, creating new opportunities for women as writers as well as in managing capacities among the children’s periodicals that sprang up under their hands with the speed of an enchanted forest. The rise of literacy and the popularity of Sunday School contributed to the boom, and much of this literature was aimed at the middle classes. Like domestic fiction, the genre of children’s literature at this time did not receive whole-hearted respect. Edith Wharton (1862-1937), raised in a wealthy and literate family, commented for example: “I was never allowed to read the popular American children's books of my day because, as my mother said, the children spoke bad English without the author's knowing it.” But many women writers otherwise known as literary heavyweights wrote works for children, including Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Shelley, George Sand, Christina Rosetti, Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Fielding, and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Although the amount of available children’s literature increased dramatically in the nineteenth century, it had been around for centuries. In the 1500s books were already telling children what not to do, and this continued to be the primary slant of the genre for quite some time to come. In the eighteenth century, moral tales of instruction for children were in abundant supply and on occasion dire indeed, with naughty children being struck dead from on high for misbehavior or devoured by wild beasts as a result of their misdeeds.
However, a new development appeared in published literature in the eighteenth century that children took to right away: fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Fairy tales had a more whimsical if still at times rather grim appeal to children and their parents, and women authors were very involved with this genre. The tradition of fairy tales had flourished orally for generations but the stories were first collected and put into print at the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) by writers including the Countess d'Aulnoy, Madame de Villeneuve, and Madame Le Prince de Beaumont. Madame d’Aulnoy wrote her own original fairy tales as well and published them in 1697. Soon translated into English, her tales and adventurous heroines achieved lasting popularity. Andrew Lang included her original work in his collections of “traditional” tales that were first published in the 1890s and are still widely read today.
At the turn of the nineteenth century Ann and Jane Taylor started publishing works specifically for children that became immediately popular. Original Poems for Infant Minds, published in 1804, was translated into several languages and included the poem "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," which was written by Jane. Later in the century, Kate Greenaway illustrated works by the Taylor sisters; she was one of many illustrators connected to the children’s literature boom. Illustrations as well as games and maps played leading roles the new direction of children’s literature. Priscilla Wakefield’s very popular book, The Juvenile Anecdotes, Founded On Fact (1795), came with a large folding hand-colored map of the world.
Children’s poetry of the period also included the earliest known collection of nursery rhymes, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in London by Mary Cooper in 1744. Christina Rosetti’s famous Goblin Market, the first popularly successful book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry was published in 1862 and enjoyed by children as well as adults. Mesmerizing language and dramatic story have made this poem a world classic. Sing Song (1872), a book of verse for children by Christina Rosetti, echoed the nonsense elements of the traditional nursery rhyme:
If a pig wore a wig,
What could we say?
Treat him as a gentleman,
And say "Good day."
If his tail chanced to fail,
What could we do? -
Send him to the tailoress
To get one new.
* * * * *
When fishes set umbrellas up
If the rain-drops run,
Lizards will want their parasols
To shade them from the sun.
The earliest magazines for children appeared in England in the 1820s. In both England and the United States, the initial moralizing trend of these magazines eased up over time to include entertainment as well as moral instruction. The first American children’s magazine was The Juvenile Miscellany, published in 1826. “Mary had a Little Lamb” by Sarah Josepha Hale, first appeared in The Juvenile Miscellany in 1830. However, the magazine did not last long after the unpopular views of its abolitionist editor, Lydia Maria Child, became publicized. In addition to the abolition of slavery, Lydia advocated social integration of blacks and whites, including intermarriage—incendiary ideas at that time.
Several other children’s magazines appeared alongside Merry’s Museum and many children’s book authors well-known today in addition to Louisa May Alcott found their first publication in these periodicals. Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and Katherine Lee Bates’ poem “America the Beautiful” made their debuts in the pages of Youth's Companion. With a readership of 500,000 at its peak, Youth's Companion comes up in literature as well as history. In the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, set in the nineteenth century, the Ingalls sisters receive copies of Youth's Companion in a missionary box and save them up as a treat for long winter evenings. Francis Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) wrote the story of Little Lord Fauntleroy as a serial for St. Nicholas magazine, another widely read children’s periodical that was to foster young writers into the twentieth century. Naturalist and writer Rachel Carson (later to write Silent Spring and change the nation’s view of pesticides and DDT) started contributing stories to St. Nicholas in 1918 at the age of eleven; at the age of fourteen she received her first payment for a story from that magazine.
When Mary Mapes Dodge, aged 41, was chosen in 1872 as editor for St. Nicholas magazine, she had already acted as assistant editor for her family’s farming magazine and written her best-known children’s novel, Hans Brinker; or The Silver Skates. She had definite ideas about creating a non-didactic slant for the magazine, and named it for the children’s saint, St. Nicholas, beloved for his generosity to children. She saw the periodical as a “child’s playground,” and encouraged writing and participation by young readers. Her editorial policy:
To give clean, genuine fun to children of all ages. To give them examples of the finest types of boyhood and girlhood. To inspire them with an appreciation of fine pictorial art. To cultivate the imagination in profitable directions. To foster a love of country, home, nature, truth, beauty, and sincerity. To prepare boys and girls for life as it is. To stimulate their ambitions--but along normally progressive lines. To keep pace with a fast-moving world in all its activities. To give reading matter which every parent may pass to his children unhesitatingly.
In spite of a lingering flavor of moral instruction and political conservatism, a great deal of practical home-grown feminism found its way into children’s literature written by women. For example, Emma Brewer in 1886 writing for the Girl’s Own Paper created the following introduction for her piece, The Romance Of The Bank Of England; Or, The Old Lady Of Threadneedle Street:
A gentleman asked me the other day upon what subject I intended next to write, and on telling him that the Editor had kindly permitted me to deal with the Bank of England and the National Debt, he said, “Nonsense! what do girls want to know about the Bank of England and the National Debt? Let them be content to leave all such knowledge to men, and rest satisfied if they get their dividends all right and know how to spend them properly and keep out of debt.”
He seemed to forget that to do even the little he permitted us would require knowledge and education of a liberal character, and that without these our desires might outrun our income, and getting into debt might prove our normal condition.
A thorough knowledge of our circumstances is better than partial blindness, and to see things all round and weigh them justly is better than sitting with hands folded while men see and judge for us.
Magazines and books for children covered a wide variety of topics including history, geography, and science. Arabella B. Buckley, in The Fairy-Land of Science (1879) came up with an innovative way to introduce children to the science of the natural world. In describing the formation of coal, for example, she writes:
The next thing you will call to mind is that this coal burns and gives flame and heat, and that this means that in some way sunbeams are imprisoned in it; lastly, this will lead you to think of plants, and how they work up the strength of the sunbeams into their leaves, and hide black carbon in even the purest and whitest substance they contain.
She describes her overall project as follows:
I have promised to introduce you to-day to the fairy-land of science—a somewhat bold promise, seeing that most of you probably look upon science as a bundle of dry facts, while fairy-land is all that is beautiful, and full of poetry and imagination. But I thoroughly believe myself, and hope to prove to you, that science is full of beautiful pictures, of real poetry, and of wonder-working fairies; and what is more, I promise you they shall be true fairies, whom you will love just as much when you are old and grayheaded as when you are young; for you will be able to call them up whenever you wander by land or by sea, through meadow or through wood, through water or through air; and though they themselves will always remain invisible, yet you will see their wonderful poet at work everywhere around you.
Books and magazines for girls also included recipes, games, and other pastimes. For an excursion into girlhood’s history, organize a taffy-pull at home with this recipe from The American Girls Handy Book: How to amuse yourself and others by Lina Beard and Adelia B. Beard (1887) [NOTE: This book is in print & widely available].
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup of New Orleans molasses
2/3 cup of vinegar & water mixed
A piece of butter half the size of an egg.
When the candy hardens in cold water, pour into shallow buttered tins, and as soon as it is cool enough to handle, pull it until it is of a straw-color. Splendid!
The events of childhood do not pass, but repeat themselves like seasons of the year.
Eleanor Farjeon, 1881-1965
Eberle Umbach, © 2007-2008
Thanks Eberle for sharing this delightful & informative essay. The pictures are as follows:
Merry Museum, October 1848
Louisa May Alcott
Juvenille Miscellany, 1832
Illustration for Louisa May Alcott's serialized novel, Under the Liacs from St. Nicholas, September 1879
The Girl's Own Paper, April 1881
The Fairyland of Science: Arabella Buckley
A Taffy Pull
To the best of my knowledge, all these images are in the public domain.