NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CHILDREN & WHAT THEY READ:
Some of Their Books

Books and reading are celebrated in a wallpaper for your desktop.

I’ve discussed one or two Things We Know that Ain’t Quite So about early 19th-century American children’s books.


Print your own 19th-century bookmark!

the bookmark

Finding stuff between the pages (other than pressed forests) is one of the pleasures of collecting old books. Georgianna Parker’s bookmark, found in a volume of The Student from 1854, was embroidered on perforated paper very much like that available today in many craft stores. (I’ve added a dark red border to finish off the image.) It may not be contemporary with the volume, but it’s close enough to offer here. So, print your own authentic bookmark, perfectly at home in your own 19th-century American children’s books! (Of course, it’s probably more of a thrill if your name actually is “Georgianna Parker” ….)


What adults thought about some of their books

Adults sometimes have their own logic when it comes to children’s books. This was as true in the nineteenth century as it is now, with some adults insisting that fiction was a bad influence, while others thought that some fiction was better than the rest.

Pieces on novels for adults noted that fiction could be as dangerous for adults as it could be for children.

On Novel Reading” (1820) was published in The Guardian, or Youth’s Religious Instructor, which took a stern view of fiction—for children or adults.

Novels and Romances” (1820) appeared in The Guardian, or Youth’s Religious Instructor. “Injurious reading is a source of corruption to young people,” it declares immediately; and this pretty much sums up the tone of the article itself.

Books for Children” (1828) is the view of the American Annals of Education of what makes appropriate reading.

Books” (1831), a chapter from Lydia Maria Child’s The Mother’s Book, expresses her belief that fiction can be good for children—but it should be the right kind of fiction.

Devouring Books” (American Annals of Education, 1835) decries the “mental gluttony” that leads to over-reading, which has dismal effects on the reader.

The Reading of Young Ladies” (American Magazine of Useful Knowledge, 1836) reminds those who have graduated from school that their education is not complete—and that it won’t be unless they avoid works which “serve only to gratify the imagination.”

Reading is Not Thinking” (May 26, 1837) gives the usual emphasis on reading for understanding instead of for entertainment.

Reading for Young Ladies” (July 7, 1837) adds a twist to the usual advice on reading.

What Books Shall I Read?” (1845), by Simon Brown, appeared in The Mother’s Asssistant and the Young Lady’s Friend, and argues that “impure” books should be avoided, so good principles won’t be “loosened”.

The Morality of Pictures” (1845), by William A. Alcott, printed in The Mother’s Assistant and the Young Lady’s Friend, worries that “immoral” illustrations in books for the young will loose “a flood of evil” upon the U. S.

Moral Poisons: The Antidote” (1845), by F. C. W., is a two-part piece published in The Mother’s Magazine which offers “antidotes” to “a great portion of the light literature of the day.” part one | part two

Vicious Novels: The Cause of Their Increase” (1845), by F. C. W., printed in The Mother’s Magazine, blames human desire for entertainment for “vicious” novels. The author targets the novels of Bulwer Lytton as especially “corrupting”. “F. C. W.” may be Francis Chandler Woodworth, editor of Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet.

Pleasant and Profitable” (1846), from Youth’s Companion, cautions that reading the wrong kind of books—or not reading at all—will keep you from going to heaven.

Family and Social Reading” (1848), from The Mother’s Magazine, argues that the family which gathers to read aloud benefits morally—and gives us a startling glimpse of a dissolute family that doesn’t.

The Arabian Nights” (1850) appeared in Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet. “There is no excuse now to read fairy tales,” the author cautions children—and he means it.

How to Make Boys Love Home” (1861), from Arthur’s Home Magazine, edited by T. S. Arthur, urges parents to urge books on their children, as one way to keep them out of mischief.

Beadle’s Dime Books” (1864), from the North American Review, discusses what was then a new form of popular literature; later that same century, dime novels would be blamed for any number of social ills.

Booth and Bad Literature” (1865) allows Youth’s Companion to blame sensational literature for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Children’s Books of the Year” (1866), from the North American Review, is a delightful reminiscence of a reviewer’s childhood reading, as well as a wry look at over 20 works published in 1865 and 1866, including works by Jacob Abbott, Oliver Optic, Horatio Alger, and Sophie May.

Novels and Novel-Reading,” by the Rev. J. T. Crane (1869), rings the usual chimes on the dangers of “improper reading” and its effects on impressionable young readers; and advocates “total abstinence from novel-reading,” in a chapter from Popular Amusements. Crane would come to the attention of later generations as the father of novelist Stephen Crane. The universe has a sense of humor.

What Does Johnny Read?” (1872) warns readers of The Little Corporal that a big reader isn’t necessarily a good reader.


Memoirs of reading

A Mid-Century Child and Her Books, by Carolyn M. Hewins (1926)

Carolyn M. Hewins (1846-1929) was an influential figure in the movement to create children’s libraries, whose memories of her mid-nineteenth-century childhood entertained and enlightened acquaintances in Hartford, Connecticut. Luckily for scholars of works for nineteenth-century American children, she left a record of the books she read as a child as part of her memoirs.


Some of the authors

Probably the two most popular antebellum authors for children were Jacob Abbott (1803-1879) and Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860). Young readers loved Abbott’s Rollo and Goodrich’s Peter Parley. Each man also wrote—or at least was responsible for—an astonishing number of books. See 19th Century Girls Series Books for a biography of Jacob Abbott.

List of books by Jacob Abbott

List of books by Samuel Goodrich


Some of the books

The American Spelling Book, by Noah Webster ([1783] 1800?; 306kb)

Noah Webster was the man of words in early 19th-century America. Compiler of a dictionary which has become the standard for American English, he also compiled The American Spelling Book, which was the basic textbook for young readers in early 19th-century America. Before publication of this book in 1783, many schools used Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue. Webster’s book, with its polysyllabic words broken into individual syllables and its precepts and fables, became the favorite. Revised several times by Webster, as the “blue-backed speller” it taught generations of Americans how to read and how to spell.

The copy available here probably was printed in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1800. Unfortunately, it’s missing its frontispiece (a possibly libelous portrait of Noah Webster) and the bottom part of its title page. It’s available both as a transcription and as page images. Framed allows the viewer to see both the transcription and the pages images at once. Unframed allows the viewer to read the transcription, which has links to the images.


Love Triumphant; or, Constancy Rewarded, by Abner Reed (1797; 75kb)

While the book was originally published in 1797, a teacher presented a copy to Anna Mills in 1805, which nudges it into the time period of this web site. The bulk of the book is a sentimental romance between star-crossed lovers Emma and Ferdino, separated by Emma’s parents, who come to rue their status-seeking and materialism. In style and tone, the exclamation-studded tale is the essence of 18th-century sentimentality. A “Poetical Appendix” emphasizes spiritual preparation for death; even a poem about a “Yellow bird” mourned by schoolgirls reminds readers to “be prepared for instant death.”

The presentation to Anna Mills is a masterwork of calligraphy.


With its primitive illustrations and their weird captions, this 24-page chapbook has an offbeat charm.


The Vagabond (1819; 13kb)

This 16-page chapbook probably was written by Samuel Goodrich, who published and sold books in Hartford, Connecticut, from around 1818 to around 1822. “About the same period I turned my attention to books for education and books for children,” he wrote later, “being strongly impressed with the idea that there was here a large field for improvement. I wrote, myself, ... half a dozen toy-books, and published them, though I have never before confessed their authorship.” (Recollections of a Lifetime, vol 2: 112)

Later in the century, Goodrich would be known for his geographies. Here, however, the emphasis is on morality and melodrama.


This title probably was written by Samuel Goodrich, who published and sold books in Hartford, Connecticut, from around 1818 to around 1822. “About the same period I turned my attention to books for education and books for children,” he wrote later, “being strongly impressed with the idea that there was here a large field for improvement. I wrote, myself, ... half a dozen toy-books, and published them, though I have never before confessed their authorship.” (Recollections of a Lifetime, vol 2: 112)

Originally published in 1819 at 16 pages, it was reformatted and republished in 1821, at 28 pages. Both editions are featured here.


The Riddle Book (1826; 1kb)

This tiny paper-covered chapbook apparently was printed to be sold by book sellers J. Babcock & Son, in New Haven, Connecticut, and S. Babcock, in Charleston, South Carolina. (The Riddle Book, also produced by Sidney’s Press, is a 30-page collection with much different content. Incomplete copies of this dating from 1818 [Shaw number 45545] and 1819 [Shaw number 49293] have been duplicated in microform as part of the Early American Imprints, 2nd series.)

Each riddle in the form of a poem is accompanied by a hand-colored illustration giving the answer. They’re sometimes surprisingly sophisticated and gritty; the last riddle has a theme that’s unexpectedly adult.

My copy may have been rebound by a young owner; its current covers are of floral-printed paper. The copy probably has its front cover; though it seems to be missing its back cover, it does have all the riddles and illustrations.


The Riddle Book (1828; 8kb)

This bright little chapbook was printed and sold by J. Metcalf, in Wendell, Massachusetts. It includes several classic riddles: “In Spring I look gay” and “There was a thing a full month old” are found in several recent collections of nursery rhymes. In many ways, this isn’t as sophisticated a production as Babcock’s riddle book two years earlier, but some of its woodcuts are charming. However, while Babcock simply hints at the answer to the riddles, Metcalf comes right out and reveals the answer in the title—not as much fun for riddle lovers!


Ditties for Children, by Nancy Sproat (1828-1843?; 17kb)

A collection of poems on subjects moral and charming, Ditties encompasses everything from having pudding and milk for supper, to the consequences of too much love of play; the 16 woodcuts (not including the three on the covers) show us both allegorical subjects and children going about their daily lives. The American Antiquarian Society has two other editions of this little chapbook; they’re longer and are dated 1813 and 1818 (they’re available as part of the Early American Imprints).


Peter Parley was the most popular adult in antebellum children’s books. An old man with a gouty foot who had been everywhere and knew everything, he loved to tell stories about his adventures to children. Readers loved him and believed he actually existed. In fact, Parley was so popular, he was plagiarized and imitated; finally, Goodrich killed him off in 1839, only to resurrect him a few years later to help “Robert Merry” edit Robert Merry’s Museum.

General (and, sometimes, bizarre) information about elephants, racoons, walking fish, frogs, condors, polar bears, and rescue dogs is sprinkled with wood engravings. (While the frontispiece of this copy was hand-colored by a professional, a young owner colored the others.)


Peter Parley’s Story of the Trapper features “Peter Parley’s” trademark combination of geography, morality, and action, as a trapper and his son have adventures on the shore of Lake Superior.


This little paperbound book includes descriptions and brief histories of the people and principal landmarks of the world, illustrated with maps and with tiny woodcuts. Each lesson concludes with questions to be asked by the child’s instructor; and footnotes explain the principles behind the lessons presented. The history of Asia begins with the creation of the world and of humans, as described in the Old Testament.

My copy of the 1831 edition is a bit fragile to present in its entirety; but I’ve selected excerpts which include what is perhaps Goodrich’s most famous piece: a poem summing up the principal features of the globe.


Winter Evening Tales is popular Peter Parley at his didactic best, talking about morality, raccoons, obedience to parents, and geography. The first edition was published at the same time as a handful of chapbooks; among them was Peter Parley’s Tales of the Elephant. Some changes in text and illustrations were made when Winter Evening Tales was revised later in the century. Both the first and the revised editions appear here.


This little paperbound book was one of eight stories published separately before being printed together in 1834 as Parley’s Short Stories for Long Nights. Its front cover shows a youngish Peter Parley, in his trademark “small clothes,” chatting with a group of children.


Peter Parley’s Short Stories for Long Nights, by Samuel Goodrich (1834; 86kb)

This book is a collection of eight stories published separately as little chapbooks in 1833; among them was Peter Parley’s Story of the Little Gardener, the frontispiece of which was used as the frontispiece for this work. The hand-colored illustrations are fairly sloppily done but have a rough charm. Probably they weren’t done for the stories, but were considered appropriate. If the Story of the Little Gardener is any indication, each probably served as the frontispiece for its respective chapbook.

The stories are typically didactic, with themes ranging from charity to the importance of obedience to parents. Native Americans appear in two stories, one of which deals also with the prejudice of whites. The last story, set in India, combines natural history with the story of a little girl cleverly saving herself and her sister from certain death.

The type in the original is fairly large, implying that the book may have been intended for fairly young readers.

This copy is of the 1836 edition.


Little Rollo Holiday was one of the most popular child characters in antebellum children’s books. The hero of dozens of volumes, he served as a model for readers and also taught them practical skills. He’s also one of the most realistic portraits of a child in nineteenth-century American literature. Readers followed his adventures as he grew up and learned about the world, and went with him on a 10-volume trip through Europe.

Rollo Learning to Read, the second in the series, gave parents a model for teaching their children to read and also served as a reader for the children. The book may not strike us as a good primer, but the goofy repetition in such stories as “Tick,—Tick,—Tick” and “Jack Hildigo” must have delighted young readers of the time; they still have their charms today.


Most of Goodrich’s extremely popular Peter Parley books appealed to readers age 10 and up; this work, with its large type font and brief stories, evidently was meant for younger readers. With its combination of morality and natural history, it’s vintage Parley. The text is of the “revised” edition; I’m not sure what was revised. At the end of the book, the font size shrinks about two thirds, possibly to fit the text into the number of pages.


Gift annuals were popular in early 19th-century America—for adults and for children. Volumes like The Juvenile Keepsake, the Christmas Roses and New Year’s Gift, and The Mother’s Present were published each year in time to be given to children as gifts for Christmas or for New Year’s (which in the 19th century was a gift-giving holiday). Filled with poetry and stories, they were lushly illustrated and richly bound: the pages were gilt-edged on all exposed sides, and the covers were blind-stamped not only on the spine, but on the front and back, so that the book would look elegant lying on a table. Children must have loved to receive them.

The Pearl was one of the longer-lasting, published from 1829 to 1849. It featured works by many popular writers for gift annuals: Lydia Sigourney, Eliza Leslie, Catherine Sedgwick, Caroline Gilman.

The volume for 1837 is a splendid little work, with a florid, floral cover showing a classical temple overgrown by a jungle complete with panthers, deer, and birds. Givers could personalize their gift by writing the recipient’s name in a presentation plate featuring clouds and sun rays, printed on a bright yellow page; my copy was a gift to Janet P. Banks. Six engravings by J. Sartain illustrate several of the pieces.

Readers got a blend of morality and sentimentality, with advice for boys and for girls. Several pieces have subtle (and not so subtle!) advertisements, as parents buy for grateful children books no doubt available in the publishers’ bookstore; even St. Nicholas simplifies his job by giving copies of The Pearl! “The Christmas Tree” offers later readers a look at early 19th-century American Christmas traditions, some of which have fallen out of Christmas lore.

A selection of stories and poems is offered here, with scans of its cover and spine, enlarged to show detail. Unfortunately, scanning the illustrations would have damaged the book. However, complete tables of contents for both text and illustrations are included.


A boy accumulates learning on his way to taking up a trade. This chapbook matches wood engravings signed by Alexander Anderson with a lively rhyming text, to make a little book with a lot of charm.


Plagued by British imitators of his Parley books, Goodrich seems to have reworked some of them for his American audience. Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea, and Sky takes much of its text and illustrations from the British work with the same title published by Darton and Clark in the 1830s. Wonders is one of the early American works for children to discuss fossils; it includes a detailed look at what was known at the time about the fossil record. It also appears to be the first American book for children to picture dinosaurs. Many of the illustrations appeared later in The Wonders of Geology. The extract here is the section on the earth.


William and Eliza Seaton have an educational visit to the country. A tiny charmer, this is an example of chapbooks available in early 19th-century America. It measures 3 3/8" x 2" (8 cm x 5 cm)—just the right size for a child’s pocket—and cost one cent—just the right price for a child’s budget. Four tiny illustrations decorate the eight pages of text, which were sewn together. According to the American Antiquarian Society, the publisher, R. L. Underhill, of Bath, New York, published several books in that town between 1841-1844. (You can find more chapbooks at Rutgers University’s “Nineteenth Century Children’s Chapbook Collection”; however, they mistakenly identify Underhill as an English publisher.)


Five years after reworking a British book into his own version of Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea, and Sky, Goodrich revised the material into The Wonders of Geology. Many of the illustrations appeared in the earlier Wonders. Geology is one of the early American works for children to discuss fossils. Illustrations include skeletons of mastodon, megatherium, pterodactyl, and plesiosaur, and recreations of the dinotherium and of three prehistoric landscapes. The extracts here include only the sections on fossils and the early formation of the earth.


Stories by Jack Mason, the Old Sailor, by Francis Woodworth (1851; 30kb)

This little paperbound book is one of a series of stories by “Theodore Thinker,” the pseudonym of Francis C. Woodworth, who founded Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, one of several magazines which merged with Robert Merry’s Museum. To some extent, the book mirrors the popular Peter Parley books, with an old man telling stories of what he’s seen and experienced. Jack Mason touches on whaling, Egypt, and morality; he also describes the Inuit in the ethnocentric terms prevalent in 19th-century American works.


Rollo’s Travels, by Jacob Abbott (1839; rev 1855; 190kb)

Rollo Holiday takes an edifying trip with his father, via stagecoach and steamboat. Along the way, he learns how to keep a quiet mind while traveling, the importance of considering other people’s motives, and quite a lot about steamships and their operation. Abbott’s extended description of everything Rollos sees probably appealed to his young readers, who got a working knowledge of many things; it’s certainly useful to later readers, who get (sometimes mind-numbing) details of everyday life in early 19th-century America. And this is vintage Rollo, as he tries to persuade his father to pack his kite, decides to sprout acorns in his pockets, and chooses exactly the wrong companion to take up with.

This text comes from an 1855 edition. I added page breaks from an 1841 edition, which is the closest I have to a first edition.


Stories for Children, by “Cousin Sarah” (1850-1853?; 33kb)

This little piece of paperbound ephemera apparently was written around its charmingly mis-proportioned illustrations, for Rhode Island bookseller Daniel Perrin. As an abecedary, it offered a lot: a hand-colored illustration, a poem, and a one-page story, for each letter of the alphabet. An intricate border, different on each page, encloses the illustration and the poem. “Little Star,” “Lucy’s Lamb,” and a poem about George Washington fill out the pages. I’ve been unable to find copyright information, but the American Antiquarian Society lists Perrin as publishing at the address on the front cover from 1850-1853; my copy was presented to a boy in July 1855.

All the illustrations are available as an attractive wallpaper for your desktop.

The front and back may be viewed separately. (If you’d like to view illustrations for any of the letters, use the URL "http://www.merrycoz.org/books/abc/[letter of alphabet, in CAPS].JPG". Ex: "http://www.merrycoz.org/books/abc/M.JPG")

The Holiday Book, by Francis C. Woodworth (1853; 38kb)

Francis Woodworth, editor of Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, wrote several books as “Theodore Thinker.” He doesn’t reveal the connection, however, when he praises the magazine in this collection of stories, puzzles, and generic woodcuts. “Synergy” isn’t a new idea: 19th-century American entrepeneurs knew how to advertise their wares in every possible medium. (P. T. Barnum was an expert.)

The riddles and puzzles appearing in this book may have appeared originally in the Cabinet; certainly the “Mrs. S. N.” listed as an author was Susanna Newbould, who edited the magazine with him, as “Aunt Sue.”

While the author informs readers that the book was to read “during your holidays,” that doesn’t mean that readers could relax completely. The riddles and puzzles were intended for play; but the stories carry the usual morals found in Woodworth’s works for children: obedience and temperance, charity and rational thought.


On completion of the new building housing Harper Brothers, Jacob Abbott turned his talent for thorough description to explaining the mechanics whereby books were produced. This heavily illustrated work explores everything from how type is made to the mechanics behind the building’s historically significant wrought iron structure.


Fourteen-year-old Rainbow was one of the few African-American characters created by Jacob Abbott; intelligent and hard-working, he nevertheless suffers the casual racism of antebellum Northerners. The five books about Rainbow (Handie, Rainbow’s Journey, The Three Pines, Selling Lucky, and Up the River) tell a complete story, as Rainbow is hired by a white teenaged carpenter named Handie Level, to help him on a farm Handie has inherited, then becomes a letter carrier.

Rainbow is an appealing character: steady and thoughtful, yet recognizably young. His kind treatment of friends and of animals allows Abbott to explore a number of types of relationships; Handie’s father is a man who cannot manage to manage money, while The Three Pines features a surprising portrait of a deceitful mother. Three of the books deal with racism—a topic not often explored in children’s books at this time.

Handie, by Jacob Abbott (1859; 199kb) introduces Handie and Rainbow.

Rainbow’s Journey, by Jacob Abbott (1859; 209kb) describes the trip Rainbow and Handie take to Three Pines farm, with Rainbow instrumental in catching a thief.

The Three Pines, by Jacob Abbott (1860; 198kb) explores relations between neighbors as Rainbow and Handie work on Three Pines farm and Rainbow deals with a neighbor who refers to him by a racial slur.

Selling Lucky, by Jacob Abbott (1860; 189kb) takes Rainbow to Boston, experiencing deceit and racism and kindness on a trip that draws on his most admirable qualities.

Up the River, by Jacob Abbott (1860; 207kb) concludes Rainbow’s adventures as he takes a job carrying mail to distant post offices, overcomes the racism of a stranger, and almost loses Lucky to thieves.


The Good Scholar (1863; 40kb)

Intended to be used as a teacher’s gift to students, this tiny hardcover book also reminds (or informs!) students of their duties as scholars, focusing on what they owe their parents, their teacher, and the other students. Many pieces are written around generic illustrations, which are scattered unevenly throughout the book.


Copyright 1999-2014, Pat Pflieger
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