The entertainment and moral education of children through books has not always been intertwined. American Puritanism frowned upon the fantastical imaginations that children often have and appreciate. Many children’s books from the eighteenth century instead emphasize the importance of virtuous behavior and the devastating consequences of vice through cautionary tales. Not until the nineteenth century did American audiences embrace the entertaining nature of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and other fiction made for children. This appreciation was accompanied by the advancement of printing techniques that made brilliantly colorful illustrations possible; an obvious compliment to children’s books. Whether published recently or in centuries past, children’s books reflect the foundational beliefs of a nation forged through hardship, while also inspiring readers with artistry and technical innovation.
Alexander Anderson: Children’s Book Illustrator
America’s first wood engraver, Alexander Anderson, was a prolific illustrator of children’s books. As a young man, Anderson opened the country’s first children’s bookstore in New York. Although it closed its doors after a month of operation in 1797, Anderson’s persevering interest would lead to the publication of America’s first picture book, The Cries of New-York, and countless other books for children of all ages.
Unusual for its time, Anderson’s The Cries of New-York features illustrations of African American children selling goods alongside white children.
Wood engravings were a popular, growing addition to books in the late eighteenth century. Consequently, they were added to children’s books to the delight of their audience. A wood engraving was hand-carved with pointed chisels called gravers, seen here, and inked. Its mirror image was then transferred to paper using a printing press.
A daughter, who bargains with the devil to poison her parents, swoons to death when her plot is revealed. She awakens in her coffin, traumatized by the promise of a hellish afterlife, and repents. This cautionary tale was published over two dozen times in sixty years: a testament to its popular moral instruction.
The tragic story of Clarissa, a strong-willed, virtuous heroine who resists the seduction of a villainous manipulator, was so celebrated that its author abridged the tale for young readers. Because Samuel Richardson was one of founders of the English novel, many of his other novels were also edited and published for children.
Amusement and instruction often went hand-in-hand in the nineteenth century, as in this story of intrigue attributed to Noah Webster, the author of the first American English language spelling book. Webster warns of the consequences of bad behavior; the pirate, mischievous and cruel as a boy, is hanged in the end.
Little Women is a classic of children’s literature; both praised and criticized for its realistic and “unladylike” characters, particularly in conjunction with their use of “rough and uncouth” American colloquialisms. Louisa May Alcott alludes to writing a novel in a letter to her long-time publisher, James Redpath: “Some one said one paper wished I’d write a novel, that is all I know, & I think I’ll gratify them.”
The advent of more light-hearted and heavily illustrated children’s books changed the landscape of children’s publishing in the nineteenth century. Robert H. Elton experimented with color illustration, including this popular nursery rhyme. The color was later added by hand, possibly by Elton. His publishing company became the renowned children’s book publishers McLoughlin Bros., Inc.
Heinrich Hoffman, a German psychiatrist, wrote and illustrated Struwwelpeter, or Slovenly Peter, as a Christmas present for his four-year-old son. Later published in 1845, Slovenly Peter is a collection of cautionary tales about the disastrously exaggerated consequences of misbehavior. Because of its visual narrative, it is considered a precursor to comic books.
Toy books, such as this three-dimensional illustration of a theater, were popularized in the nineteenth century. McLoughlin Bros., Inc. was known for its toy books and for its plentiful colorful illustrations. This book was printed using chromolithography, a process that uses a chemical reaction to transfer engraved images.
This exhibition, curated by reference librarian Crystal Toscano, is on view through February 2020 in the library’s display cases, which were generously provided by funding from the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.