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Early 19th-Century Children’s Literature: Scarce Works in American Antiquarian Society Collection

Posted on 02/20/2017

EAI II Supp 2 Jan 17 3_Page_7 intro.jpgThe January 2017 release of Early American Imprints, Series II: Supplement 2 from the American Antiquarian Society includes more scarce editions of children’s literature similar to those which we highlighted last month. Most of these seem to be somewhat threatening and to treat death and injury as a natural result of childish impetuosity and naughtiness. As a respite from spiteful children, we also offer a rare imprint of beautifully illustrated birds meant to instruct juveniles.


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Short Conversations; or, An Easy Road to the Temple of Fame: Which All May Reach Who Endeavour To Be Good (1815)

For social Converse, you will find,

Can please and edify the Mind;

And those who heedful to attend,

May gain much Knowledge from a Friend.

Each conversation recorded in this book takes place between a child and an adult who has some authority over the young person. The first dialogue involves Mary Ann and her mother who has heard her crying upstairs and asks her why. Mary Ann confesses that she disobeyed the maid and when playing with a basin of water had overturned it. The mother tells her daughter that

I could not have thought my Mary Ann could be so silly….only very naughty children tell fibs, and speak what is not true; that is the worst thing they can do.

Mary Ann. What! is telling a fib worse than crying and screaming for the bason [sic] and water?

Mamma. Yes, a great deal worse indeed. That was not like a good girl, and I hope you will not cry again; if you do, you must have a handkerchief tied over your eyes to catch your tears; but if you tell fibs you must be whipped very hard indeed, and shook, and have your mouth tied up, that you may not speak at all. And you must go without your dinner; for when your mouth is tied up you cannot eat, you know….Shall I tell you a story of a naughty girl who told fibs?

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The naughty child is called Peggy, and she has been warned not to go near the window when she plays alone upstairs. But Peggy had told a fib when she promised not to go near the window. As a result, she tumbles out “into the street, and bruised and hurt herself sadly, and knocked out three of her teeth.”

Only think what a sad thing that was; but it was her own fault, and she deserved it, you know, for telling a fib, and not keeping her word, going to the window when she told her Mamma she would not.

Another conversation takes place between a father and his son.

Papa. What is the matter with you, Charles? Why do you look so grave?

Charles. Because a boy who was going by the door, kicked poor Pompey, and made him howl sadly. I am sure he hurt him, and I do not like that he should be hurt! Do you, Papa?

Papa. No indeed I do not. I think he must have been a very naughty boy: which way did he go? I have a great mind to go after him and punish him, for I am sure he deserves to be beat and hurt himself.

Papa then relates a story about Jack Jones who “was a very naughty boy, who used to be pleased with tormenting every thing [sic] he could catch…” which included tying a cat to a cart much heavier than it and beating her “because she did not draw it after her.” He was interrupted by his father who was “very angry indeed.”

So he tied Jack to the rolling-stone, and then took the horse whip and beat him as he had beat the cat, and asked him how he liked to be whipped as he had whipped the cat?

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Subsequently, the father caught Jack pulling the feathers off of a chicken. Since Jack had no feathers, his father contented himself by taking “hold of Jack’s head and pull[ing] off a great many hairs, which hurt him a great deal indeed; and then he tied his hands behind him for a considerable time, so that he could not play nor feed himself at all.”

In a dialogue between Polly and her mother, the mother instructs Polly in saying thank you and being of assistance to her elders. She further admonishes her daughter to

Hold up your head; put back your shoulders; turn out your toes. Do not scratch your head, Polly, that does not look pretty; and if it should itch a little, never mind that, it will soon be over, and Polly must not mind trifles.

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Another mother tells her daughter about two girls, one of whom was always good, the other always naughty. Ann attended to her aging parents with tender concern just as they had tended to her when she was young and helpless. “But Miss Clara was not half so good, and therefore nobody loved her.”

When she was little she never minded what was said to her; but troubled her Papa and Mamma to speak about the same thing a great many times, which was very naughty. She had a silly trick of putting her fingers in her mouth, and when her friends were so kind as to trouble themselves to tell her not to do so, she would not mind them, but still kept them in her mouth, and looked very cross and foolish; as all children do, who suck their fingers or thumbs….And so when she grew up she was only a naughty woman; and when her Papa and Mamma grew old and lame, she would take no care of them; but ran away and left them to creep after her as well as they could….And so when she had little children of her own, she did not know how to teach them to be good, because she was naughty herself, therefore they were naughty too; and when they grew to be men and women, were as cross to her, as she was to her poor old Papa and Mamma.

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The History of a Great Many Little Boys and Girls: For the Amusement of All Good Children of Four and Five Years of Age: To Which Is Added, the Instructive History of Industry & Sloth. &c. &c.&c. (1807)

We can easily see that Tommy Piper was a boy in need of correction, but contemporary sensibilities may pause to consider the efficacy of having a passing adult assault a child. Mr. Makegood’s intervention seems disproportionate to his relationship to the admittedly annoying child.

Tommy Piper was five years old, very tall, and a fine boy; but he was so fretful and naughty; that nobody liked to see him. If he wanted a piece of bread, instead of asking prettily, and saying, Pray be so good as to give me a bit of bread? He would say, Give me a bit! for I want it! and will have it! And if it was not given to him directly, he would cry and scream like a pig. One day as Mr. Makegood was going by Mr. Piper’s house, he heard Tommy crying, and roaring and making a sad noise; so he stopped at the door, to ask what was the matter? And when he was told that it was master Tommy crying, because he would not be dressed; he said, Let me see him, and I will make him good. So Tommy was fetched to him, and came screaming down stairs, and saying, I will not be washed! I will not be washed! That I will not! But I will be dirty! I will be naked! Will you? said Mr. Makegood, Do you talk in that way, Mr. Tommy? I shall try whether I can make you be good. Then he took him up in his arms, carried him to a great tub of water to wash him. Now, said he, will you ever say you will not be washed again? If you do, you shall always be thrown into the tub. And then he began to beat him whilst he was naked, and said, I shall beat you all the time you are without your clothes; for I do not like to see naked children. He had a great rod in his hand, which hurt him sadly, so that he was very glad to stand quietly to be dressed and took care never to say another time, I will not be dressed, and I will be naked.

The History of Miss Mary Ann Selfish describes a child “who would have been a very good and agreeable little girl if she had not been so sadly greedy of everything, either to eat or to lay with.”

She had two little sisters, who were very good girls, and she loved them dearly. But if you had seen her when she was eating a bun or an apple, you would have though she did not love them all: for she did not like to give them a bit; but chose to eat all herself; and filled her mouth so frightfully full, you cannot think how ugly she looked.

Because she behaves “just like a little hog” her mother determines to consign her to the pig sty.

Come, I will carry you to the pigs now, and then you may eat together as fast and as much as you please. Mary Ann began to cry! her Mamma did not mind that, but carried her out and put her in the pigsty with the hogs. What a sad thing that was for a little girl to live among the hogs! But so all greedy children must be treated; and so must you too if you behave like her; therefore pray remember never to eat all yourself, or want to have your sister’s victuals.

So, it seems that allowing passing strangers to beat your children senseless or consigning an admittedly unpleasant child to a pigsty fell well within instructive actions to be taken by adults to train their children properly.


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Juvenile History of Birds. Part I (1818)

As a respite from naughty children and severe correction of their waywardness, we can delight in this beautifully illustrated imprint which may be unique to the American Antiquarian Society holdings.

Peacocks a kind of poultry are:

But this the picture shows is rare.

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Each brief description of a specific species of birds as accompanied by a colored illustration. As an example:

The Redstart

This bird appears only in Spring and Summer. It builds its nest in some hollow tree, the hole of a wall, or other building, lining it with moss, hair, and feathers. Its note is soft and melodious.

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Or the Ground Parrot.

The parrot is the best known in this country of all foreign birds, and is deservedly admired, because it possesses the greatest beauty with the greatest docility. The parrot this picture represents is more frequently seen on the ground than perching on trees.

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Or the Bee Eater.

This bird, which resembles the King-fisher in shape, is about the size of a Blackbird. It is very common in Italy. It feeds on bees and other insects, and sometimes on seeds.

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Or, perhaps, the Red-headed Kingfisher.

This beautiful little bird is generally seen on the banks of rivers, waiting to catch small fishes, which it eats in great quantities.

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The descriptions are all as brief. The illustrations are a pleasure to behold.

For more information about Early American Imprints, Series I and II: Supplements from the American Antiquarian Society, 1652-1819, please contact

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