“ ‘Uncle’ Peter Parley” (1925) Ah, where to begin? This little piece of nostalgic condescension by William Oliver Stevens (1878-1955) has so many inaccuracies, that it’s presented here mainly as a little lesson in the dangers in defective memory. Stevens said he was discussing Robert Merry’s Museum, but the illustrations are from Parley’s Magazine. (In fact, if readers were especially sharp-eyed, they would have spotted the dates of 1833 and 1834 on the pages reproduced, which don’t correlate well with 1841 as date of “the first children’s magazine.”) Perhaps copies of the Museum weren’t available when it came time to illustrate the piece.

But, it’s the examples he cites that remind us to do our research before submitting the article (and, yes, I need to remember that, too). Stevens at least admits that he’s relying on his memory, when he discusses “Balloon Travels”—which explains why he gets a lot of it wrong. And he does explain that it appeared “in a copy of the magazine I once owned,” which implies that it wasn’t a steady feature.

Later scholars, however, misread him and also took him at his word—and gave wrong information about the magazine which has pretty much taken on a life of its own. Stevens’ piece appears to have been the basis for Frank Luther Mott’s article on the Museum in his five-volume History of American Magazines; the first volume was published five years after Stevens’ piece. In his brief examination, he uses as his characteristic example the “Balloon Travels”—the details of which tally with the details in Stevens’ article—and implies that this serial was the main feature of the periodical. (“Balloon Travels Around the World” ran from 1851-1855.) Unfortunately, because Mott’s work is standard in the history of American periodicals, the misinformation was given new importance. A handful of scholars using Mott in their histories of children’s periodicals also picked up the information and gave it more credence. The culmination is Humphrey Carpenter and Man Prichard’s entry in The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (1984). They write of the Museum that “[i]ts principal feature was the serialization of stories by ‘PETER PARLEY’ … many of which describe Uncle Robert Merry taking a group of children on some improbably educational journey, such as a tour of Europe by balloon …. (349)”—at least they got the character’s name right!

I’ve annotated this article and added links to some of what Stevens mentions. It’s difficult to figure out when Stevens read the magazine: he mentions a frontispiece that appeared in 1841; and the “Balloon Travels,” which was serialized from 1851-1855, as well as the frontispiece from the book that appeared in the Museum in March 1856. And he wasn’t born until six years after the magazine folded. Bound volumes of the magazine did tend to be kept, and perhaps Stevens’ family was one which began to take the Museum when it first began.

About the illustration of the cover: The article includes an image of the first cover for Parley’s Magazine; I’ve elected to use an image of the actual cover instead.

“ ‘Uncle’ Peter Parley,” by William Oliver Stevens (from St. Nicholas, November 1925; pp. 78-81)

Can you imagine a time when there was no magazine like St. Nicholas and no books written for young people? And yet that was true all over the world until about a hundred years ago. Of course, there were Isaac Watts’s “Hymns for Children” and the “New England Primer.” Perhaps you have seen one of the latter, with its Bible alphabet beginning, “In Adam’s fall we sinned all,” and ending with “Zaccheus he did climb a tree his Lord to see.” This was called on its title-page “an easy and pleasant guide to the art of reading, adorned with cuts.” But there was virtually nothing else written for children. If a boy wanted something to read, he would have to take something like Plutarch’s “Lives” from his father’s shelves or do without.

It was just a hundred years ago that a young man named Samuel Griswold Goodrich set up a small publishing business in Hartford, Connecticut. His first venture was a magazine called “The Token,” which did not last long, but is interesting to us now because it published Hawthorne’s “Twice Told Tales.” In 1827, Goodrich began issuing books for children, beginning with “Stories of America.” He signed them with a pen name, “Peter Parley,” because to write anything for children was then considered undignified. He had a cut made of an old gentleman with his gouty foot up on a chair warning the children around him “not to touch that foot or I ’ll not tell you another story.” To our great-grandparents this was Peter Parley, and although he was a young man when he began writing, to all American children he was a gouty old gentleman with long white hair, and he had difficulty in persuading anybody that Peter Parley was young Sam Goodrich of Hartford.

The first books went with a rush, and thereafter he gave himself up to grinding out more as fast as he could write. He scratched away at the rate of fourteen hours a day, until his eyes gave out. Then he dictated to his wife, and hired others to block out the material, which he later revised. Anyway, the books continued to come, and it seemed as if he could n’t write or print enough. Just imagine a nation of children that had nothing to read, and you can picture the joy with which Peter Parley was welcomed. And he wrote about everything. His “Stories of America” was followed by stories about every other country. There were geographies, histories, books of geology, astronomy, natural history, “Indians of America,” a life of Franklin, “Famous Men of Ancient Times”—there is no end to the titles. And there were also books of stories, there was “Make the Best of It, or Cheerful Cherry and Other Stories.” This Cheerful Cherry was the original Pollyanna, and never lost her sweet cheerfulness, so she was rewarded with a happy ending. Another was “For Every Day in the Year,” [The Every Day Book for Youth] a book with a story for each week-day, and fifty-two “Sabbath Selections.” Even the week-day stories were so weighed down with their

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moral that they could scarcely keep afloat as stories, but they had pictures, and, after all they were stories of a sort.

At any rate Peter Parley’s success was enormous. Some of his books were translated into foreign languages with happy results, because European children had nothing to read either. As the author seemed never to rest, he turned out a hundred and seventy books in all, and of these seven million copies were sold!


But the most interesting thing about Uncle Peter to readers of St. Nicholas is that he founded the first children’s magazine, the grandfather of the one you are reading now. In 1841 he began “Merry’s Museum,” representing himself as “Robert Merry,” and adding later the phrase, “and Parley’s magazine,” thus making two people of himself. This ran until his death, and was, even more than his books, the joy of children of his day. It had plenty of pictures,—such as they were,—poems, long stories, short stories, moral essays, puzzles, jokes, conundrums—everything you could ask for. Here is a sample conundrum:

Why are a lover’s sighs like long stockings?

Answer. Because they are heigh ho’s.

And here ’s one of the side-splitting jokes:

“Is your hat sleepy?” inquired an urchin of a man with a shocking bad one on.

“No, why?” inquired the gentleman.

“Why, because it looks as if it was a long time since it had a nap.”

(With the conundrums and jokes the point was always put in italics so that the reader could n’t miss it.)


You would have a lot of fun looking over one of these old magazines, and I think you would soon discover that the stories did not remind you of Ralph Henry Barbour. The good people of that time were very suspicious of fiction, and the only excuse for it in a godly family was that it conveyed useful information and a pious moral. For a boy or girl to read a story for its own sake would have been shocking. So when Uncle Peter started out on a story he stalked his young reader as Deadwood Dick used to hunt his Indians. “His trusty rifle flew to his shoulder. Crack, crack!! rang through the cantildeon”—one crack was a fact and the other a moral—and one more reader bit the dust. But of course, after you had read Peter Parley a few times you got gun-shy and learned to scent the facts and morals before they hit you. You learned to run and duck along the trail of the story, if there was any to speak of. Most of the time this was pretty hard, because there was so much moral and so little story. You can guess

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what the reading would be from such titles as “The Selfish Boy,” “John Steady and Peter Sly.” Or if the story began innocently enough with two brothers going to school, it would soon turn out that James ran off the road to chase a butterfly—the base wretch—while John kept right on. James turns up at the end of the day covered with mud, scratches, and poison-ivy, while John brings home a reward of merit. And in the end John becomes a properous banker, while James, alas, ends his life in jail.

One of Peter Parley’s most ingenious ways of getting information under the skin of his unsuspecting reader was a series called “Balloon Travels,” in a copy of the magazine I once owned, but which has been lost so long I must retell it as best I can from memory. The opening picture showed “Uncle Peter and his young friends,” Silas, aged five; Emily, six; Hiram, seven; and Lucy—I forget whether she was four or eight. Anyway, they were climbing into the basket of a balloon for a voyage across the Atlantic. There was no sign of food or extra wraps for the journey, but, as you will see, they were unusual children and probably did not worry about such trifles. Well, off they blew across the ocean, and when they got to Europe they would just peek over the side of the basket and see all the interesting places. For example, when they came near Greece, Silas (aged five, remember) looked down and exclaimed, “Oh, Uncle Peter, I see Ithaca!” just as if he read a sign-board on the island.

“Well, Silas,” answers Uncle Peter, “can you tell us something about Ithaca?”

Could he? Listen:

“Ithaca, an island lying off the northwestern coast of Greece, is chiefly renowned as the home of the great Ulysses, the wandering hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Here the summoning came for him to join the forces gathering to wage war on Troy ….”

And so on until you know all about Ulysses and his island.

“Good,” says Uncle Peter. “Now, Hiram, can you tell us more about the Trojan War?” Hiram is quite willing to oblige, beginning:

“The Trojan War is enshrouded in legend, but there seems to be no doubt that the origin of the Homeric narratives was an expedition against Troy that took place about the year 1000 B. C. ….”

When he finishes his lecture, Lucy looks over the side and cries, “Why, there ’s Macedonia!” just as if Macedonia had been her old Fido who had wagged his tail and barked when she looked his way.

“Now what do you know about Macedonia?” asks Uncle Peter. What does n’t she know? She is off like a shot:

“Macedonia is a country lying just to the north of classical Greece. It first came into prominence when its king, Phillip, assumed power in 300 B. C. Perceiving the disunion of the Greek cities, he conceived the plan of conquering them and bringing them under his scepter. It was against him that the orator Demosthenes made his burning speeches urging his countrymen to unite against this usurper, as their ancestors had done against the tyrants of Persia ….”

And so it goes. Never was there such a remarkable bunch of kids. You can’t stump them with anything. The lest Uncle Peter could have done was to bring them safely back to their anxious parents. But no! The year was 1855, and as the balloon drifts along it comes over Sebastopol, where the great siege of the Crimean War is dragging on. The Russians see them and shoot. One bullet goes through the bag of the balloon and they begin to sink.

“We are falling,” remarks Uncle Peter, casually. “Keep cool, everybody.” Would

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you expect such children to cry just because they happened to be dropping out of the sky into a Russian army? Perish the thought!


“Yes,” agrees Emily, calmly, “we are certainly falling.” And bing!—there goes a period and the end of the story. You never know whether they all broke their necks or were sent to Siberia.

Now all that sort of thing for a children’s magazine strikes us to-day as very funny, but you must n’t think that Peter Parley is to be laughed at on that account. To the children of his time he was a benefactor, and all the later host of children’s books and St. Nicholas itself must take off their hats to him as the founder of children’s literature. It was not only that he began writing for children, but he understood them well enough to know that they loved pictures and stories, and he gave them both. Of course, the pictures were the crude woodcuts of that time, but they were the best he could get. They were expensive, too, so that often he wrote his stuff to accompany the cut rather than use a cut to illustrate his story, but he always managed to have plenty of pictures. Sometimes he even used color. I remember one frontispiece of a hyena. He had a smear of lavender all over himself and the sky behind, and the grass he stood on boasted three poisonous shades of green. It looks horrible now, but in those days it was wonderful.


Nor were all his stories as heavily packed with morals and dry facts as you might imagine from the samples I have given. For instance, he used Herman Melville’s adventures in the South Seas,—I suppose because they contained geographical information,—and these are interesting even now. At any rate, in writing for children he said he tried to imagine himself lying on the floor with them, telling stories, and they loved him for what he did.

He was so successful that several people had the nerve to claim that they were the originals of Peter Parley, and publishers here and in Europe brought out their own books over his name. Solemn educators became alarmed over the eagerness with which children took to his school-books, and they wrote heavy articles condemning him because he was making education too easy and attractive! But he won the world of children, and their parents too.

And as you turn the pages of this number of “St. Nicholas,” enjoying all the richness of illustration and story, give a grateful thought to “Uncle” Peter Parley.


[My notes:]

no books written for young people: There were indeed “books written for young people" before 1825: readers’ choices just in English included charming collections by John Newbery, including The History of Goody Two-Shoes; Pilgrim’s Progress; Thomas Day’s History of Sanford and Merton (a dull book, but available); The Fairchild Family (perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead); Maria Edgeworth’s story collections; Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, Little Female Academy (available at Project Gutenberg); The Story of the Robins; The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse (available at Project Gutenberg) ….

just a hundred years ago: Goodrich partnered with George Sheldon in 1815; their first publishing venture appeared in 1816. a magazine called “The Token,”: The Token (which was an annual gift book) actually lasted pretty long, at least by the standards of a lot of people: fifteen volumes, from 1828 to 1842.

a cut made: This is the most famous image of Peter Parley—or maybe just the most memorable. Almost every piece about him written by some who read the books as a child mentions this illustration. It appeared as the frontispiece of Peter Parley’s Method of Telling About Geography to Children.

he founded the first children’s magazine: The “first children’s magazine" was the appropriately named Children’s Magazine, founded in 1789—long before Robert Merry’s Museum or Parley’s Magazine; see the timeline for a list of those available to American children.

the one you are reading now: Actually, the “most interesting thing about Uncle Peter to readers of St. Nicholas was likely to be that the founder, Mary Mapes Dodge, wrote for Robert Merry’s Museum before founding her own periodical.

ran until his death: The Museum actually outlived Samuel Goodrich by twelve years, though it was indeed “the joy of children of his day.”

a series called “Balloon Travels,”: “Balloon Travels” is, alas, an example of how easily our memory leads us down strange paths. “The opening picture” actually appeared in the last part, which announced publication of the book version, in March 1856; it was the frontispiece of the book, Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends in Various Parts of Europe. “Uncle Peter and his young friends” are actually Robert Merry and his young friends. And Robert Merry doesn’t call on the children to spout geographical information in a heartbeat; they ask, and he tells them. And, let’s see … the balloon travels were imaginary in the context of the story; and, while the series ran for five years, it really wasn’t that important in the 32 years of the magazine, and was, in fact, eclipsed by the adventures of Gilbert Go-ahead—both page-wise, and in the minds of many of the Museum’s readers. The series did end, however, with everybody being captured at Sebastopol. In their imaginations, that is. What’s fun about Stevens’ version is that “Hiram” was the name used by one of the editors of the magazine during two of the years that the “Balloon Travels” appeared; perhaps his memory was better than it seems!

It looks horrible now: The colored frontispiece to which Stevens refers appeared in the Museum in 1841. Because those frontispieces were hand colored, each is slightly different, and the quality does vary.

Herman Melville’s adventures in the South Seas: Three selections from Typee appeared in the Museum in 1847.

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