A Visit to Merry's Museum; or, Social Values in a Nineteenth-Century American Periodical for Children, by Pat Pflieger (1987-2006)

About this text: Essentially, this is the text of my doctoral dissertation (University of Minnesota, 1987), the only study available of social values presented in Robert Merry's Museum. It's presented here revised and without page numbers, with some links to works mentioned in the text that are transcribed at this site.

Please remember that this is copyrighted material. If you wish to cite the actual dissertation, it is, of course, available from University Microfilm (or whatever they're calling themselves now) and from the University of Minnesota, which I'm sure don't get nearly enough requests for it.


This study of the social values promulgated by Robert Merry's Museum is unique for several reasons. Though periodicals for children have abounded in the United States (at least 360 began publication before 1873), few scholars have chosen to study them. There are lots of reasons for this The periodicals were fearfully ephemeral, for they were read to tatters and then discarded. Few individual issues are available for study; researchers must be content with bound collections, most of which lack their covers -- which, of course, contain valuable editorial information not available elsewhere. Several children's periodicals are available on microfilm, which has its own limitations, among them incompleteness; the scholar may find herself scrambling for photocopies of issues missing when the periodical was microfilmed, or bartering with antiquarian booksellers for rare, sometimes overpriced, bound volumes. Issues often are missing; pages more often are missing from the issues one has. The print is small and the pages often so badly foxed that words can be difficult to decipher. The paucity of indexes and other reference materials on children's periodicals also may limit the number of scholars willing to tackle the field.

The handful of studies which have been done either have contented themselves with tracing the history of children's periodicals, or have concentrated on the major periodicals which flourished after the Civil War, usually the Youth's Companion, Our Young Folks, or St. Nicholas Magazine. Betty Lyon's "A History of Children's Secular Magazines Published in the United States from 1789-1899" [Ed.D. diss., Johns Hopkins, 1942] is an exhaustive history of nineteenth-century children's periodicals; it was superseded only recently, by Children's Periodicals of the United States [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984], edited by R. Gordon Kelly, which consists of historical and evaluative articles by several authors, on a few hundred individual periodicals.

There have been only a few attempts to analyze children's periodicals. Chief among these is R. Gordon Kelly's Mother Was a Lady [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974] -- based on his dissertation -- which analyzes St. Nicholas, the Youth's Companion, Wide Awake, and Our Young Folks in terms of the way the authors and editors promoted a "genteel" world view which they wanted their young readers to share as adults. One dissertation attempts to analyze such antebellum periodicals as Parley's Magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, Youth's Companion, and Merry's Museum; "Conceptions of Children in American Juvenile Periodicals, 1830-1870" [Ed.D. diss., Rutgers, 1977] discusses the changed perception of the child as reflected in 40 years of children's periodicals.

Discussions of individual periodicals have tended more often to be anecdotal than analytical. Most studies consist of anthologies, with brief, interpretational interludes, such as John Morton Blum's Yesterday's Children (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press, 1959) -- selections from Our Young Folks -- and Burton C. Frye's A St. Nicholas Anthology (1969), and Lovell Thompson's Youth's Companion [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954]. There are fewer analytical studies. Fred Erisman, in "'There Was a Child Went Forth': A Study of St. Nicholas Magazine and Selected Children's Authors, 1890-1915" [PhD diss. University of Minnesota, June, 1966], analyzes St. Nicholas Magazine as one of several literary influences on the children growing up in the late nineteenth century. Only one scholar has delved into the morass of Merry's Museum; Dorothy Dechert, in "The Merry Family: A Study of Merry's Museum, 1841-1872, and of the Various Periodicals that Merged with It" [M. S., Columbia University, 1942], presents an exhaustive bibliographic history of the magazine, and of the 13 children's periodicals which eventually merged with it; because Dechert was able to study individual issues which contained important editorial information, her entertaining study still stands as the most complete bibliographic history of this periodical. (I have found a few errors and a couple pieces that weren't available to Dechert, but her exhaustive study stands as a model of bibliographic description, by a researcher not immune to her subject's charms.)

This does not mean that the Museum has been wholly ignored. Many of the references to the periodical provide a study in the dissemination of error. In "'Uncle' Peter Parley" (online), a nostalgic, condescending article appearing in St. Nicholas in 1925, William Oliver Stevens discusses some of the works of Samuel Goodrich, emphasizing Robert Merry's Museum, which he had read as a boy. (Unaccountably, the illustrations for Stevens' piece are from Parley's Magazine.) One of his examples is the "Balloon Travels," which Stevens uses to show the reader how geography lessons were sometimes slipped into the stories; he explains that Parley and four little friends go on a balloon ride, during which the children spout paragraphs about the countries they are flying over, as if they were walking geographies. The serial in question must have been Robert Merry's balloon travels, serialized in the Museum, but Stevens -- admitting that he was working from memory -- did not remember that the journey was an imaginary one, and that Merry was the lecturer; the children, for the most part, were simply along to be lectured to. Frank Luther Mott's article on the Museum in his five-volume History of American Magazines [New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1930-1938] further promulgated this bit of misinformation and, in the process, gave it importance; in Mott's brief examination, he uses as his characteristic example the "Balloon Travels" -- the details of which tally exactly with the details in Stevens' article. Mott implies that this serial was the main feature of the periodical: the illustration he uses for the article is from the book which resulted from the serial. A handful of scholars using Mott in their histories of children's periodicals also picked up this information and gave it more credence. The culmination is the entry in The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984]; here, Humphrey Carpenter and Man Prichard 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)"; they go on to quote Mott. Stevens' faulty memory has taken on a life of its own.

Every researcher beginning a project quickly finds the limitations of her subject, her material, and herself. This researcher is no different. Bound copies of Merry's Museum are part of the Children's Literature Research Collection (University of Minnesota--Twin Cities), but they are missing their covers, and the collection ends in 1861, with 11 years missing; because the periodicals are in a rare book collection, they must be used in the reading room itself, which limits research to certain hours and to certain days. The Museum was microfilmed in 1972; while I obtained a hard copy of this microfilm, unfortunately, the illustrations did not reproduce well, which limited my material to only the articles and stories. Issues from the years 1862-1865 and 1872 were unavailable at the time the periodical was microfilmed; Interlibrary Loan and various Yankee antiquarian booksellers have proved so helpful in locating the missing volumes that, at the time this dissertation was first written, I'd located copies of all issues. (I've since added to my holdings.)

The impossibility of examining 372 issues totaling over 13,000 pages is obvious, and a method of examining random years, random issues, and random features was developed. Because so many editorial decisions were explained -- or revealed -- in the monthly letters column and because that column provides so much material about the periodical's readers, each was examined. Rather than choosing random months to read, I decided to choose random years. Everything printed in the magazine during those years was read. If a serial was begun, carried on, or ended during one of these years, I read the entire serial through; if an article in an issue during one of the other years caught my eye or seemed to point up some particular idea, the article was examined. Twelve out of 32 years were read in their entirety, and these were chosen so that the first and last years, the years of changeover in editors, and the Civil War years were more or less covered: included in this survey were all the issues from 1841-1842; 1844; 1846; 1850; 1857; 1861-1863; 1865; 1868; and 1872. The result is that over 7,000 pages were read and had notes taken on them; it is unknown how many pages actually were read. This represents over half the total pages of the periodical. While reading, I paid close attention to themes and to social commentary which emerged. Access to a computer allowed me to compile a list of the subscribers who wrote letters to the periodical, along with their frequency and the places from which they wrote; analysis of this compilation has proven inconclusive.

As far as I was able, I also read some of the other works by the authors published in the Museum, in order to compare some of the themes and social values which appeared elsewhere with what appeared in the magazine. Other outside material included other children's periodicals and books which were published at the same time as the Museum. Because children's literature of any age hinges on adult views of the child and what she should learn, I did research on adult attitudes toward children and childhood. Some attempt also was made to correlate the attitudes and ideas promoted by the Museum with attitudes and ideas prevalent in the culture at the time; this has not been as thorough as I would have liked, simply because of the enormous amount of material involved.

What emerges is the picture of a periodical which changed drastically during the 32 years of its existence. Three distinct "eras" emerge in the Museu's history: 1841-1856 -- when Samuel Griswold Goodrich created the periodical and either edited it himself or hired people to do it for him; 1857-1867 -- when John N. Stearns controlled and edited the periodical; and 1868-1872 -- when Horace B. Fuller owned the magazine, and it was edited by Louisa May Alcott and unknown others. Goodrich's intent was to educate the child in intellectual matters as well as social; many of the works published in the Museum during his editorship concerned themselves with the meanings of civilization and democracy, though he also emphasized personal traits such as obedience to parents, hard work, education, and self-control. When Stearns edited the magazine, the emphasis was more on educating the soul, though articles also informed the reader on natural history and human history. Children became important as protagonists in the Museum. Stearns was a minister, and now appeared the child-redeemer and the child redeemed; though in Goodrich's day, the heroes of his serialized works were adult males seeking their fortunes in an uncertain world, in Stearn's time, the heroes of all of the pieces were children, learning and making mistakes. Stearns also used stories and poems by the subscribers themselves and these also emphasized children. Entertainment also became important during this time; though Goodrich's stories rarely failed to entertain, he published few solely to entertain the readers. Not only did subscribers now contribute to the bulk of the magazine, they took over the monthly letters column; the Museum can be said to have belonged almost wholly to its readers. This changed under Fuller, and a sense of professionalism soon was apparent. The "Chat" belonged wholly to Robert Merry, and so did the contents of the magazine; no subscribers' offerings were used. The tone of the periodical became crisper and more distant, and more emphasis was placed on entertaining rather than educating. Though a handful of educational articles on human endeavors and natural history were published, most of the periodical was dedicated to stories and poems. Moral education did not cease, however, and the traditional virtues were still important. However, the Museum betrayed a loss of faith in religion and the other traditional panaceas, and emphasized material success in this life as much as preparation for the next. Of new importance was the idea that children were to be cherished for themselves and were to "act like children."

For the most part, the changes in tone and content during the 32 years were due to the changes in editors and their personalities On the other hand, they also were a response to changes in the way the child was thought of and to changes in the nature of children's literature itself. Originally didactic to the point, sometimes, of the absurd, children's literature became less so as the nineteenth century wore on, especially after the 1860's, when the influence of such nonsense fantasies as Alice in Wonderland and of such mass wish-fulfillment as Beadle's Dime Novels led to an emphasis on entertainment in children's literature at large. Children's periodicals proliferated after the Civil War, and Fuller was competing with a host of other magazines which devoted themselves almost wholly to entertainment. The change in children's literature was at least partly due to changes in ideas about the child. At the beginning of the century, the emphasis was on the child as a young individual to be educated into an adult as quickly as possible; by around 1860, the child was seen more as a whole person with her own wants and needs, an individual to be protected and sheltered from the harshness of life; and images of the child changed, so that his innocence was emphasized rather than his innate desire to rebel against adult authority.

This thesis has 5 chapters. Chapter 1 is an overview, with synopses of the Museum's history and of the histories of children's literature and of childhood during the nineteenth century. Chapter 2 deals with the readers of the periodical -- who they were and how they felt -- and contains a history of the monthly "Chat" -- the most popular part of the magazine. Chapter 3 covers Goodrich's years at the Museum; Chapter 4 covers Stearns' years; and Chapter 5 examines the Museum under Alcott.

As the guiding spirit of the Museum, Robert Merry took on a life of his own in its pages and in the readers' imaginations, and they often wrote of him as if he actually existed. Because it is often impossible to credit his views and pronouncements to any one person, I have chosen to continue this tradition. I also have chosen to adapt the MLA's parenthetical documentation style by using brackets to denote pieces from the Museum itself, and parentheses to denote documentation from other sources.

Every author likes to share the labor of her research, and I would like to acknowledge the following: the Children's Literature Research Collection provided copies of some of the children's periodicals used in this thesis; I can only hint at the debt I owe Chris and the rest of the staff of Interlibrary Loan, who toiled for two years to find copies of the Museum with covers; Nancy Howard, of Xerox Corporation, helped me to get copies from microfilm, which greatly aided my task; Tom Stotler, of Old Paper World in New Hampshire helped me to find missing issues of the magazine at bargain prices; J. Randolph Cox provided information about nineteenth-century American popular literature and invaluable information on reference works; Deidre Johnson answered all the other questions I had about nineteenth-century popular literature and children's series books and provided the use of her Tandy 2000, computer programs, and her expertise on matters computorial; and she and Ellen Katsoulis not only plied me with references and original materials, but aided me in my quest for materials relating to Samuel Goodrich and the Museum. And, finally, I must acknowledge the valuable assistance of my original adviser, Dr. Chester Anderson, of my final adviser, Dr. Gayle Graham Yates, and of my very patient readers, Dr. Roland Delattre and Dr. Lawrence Mitchell. Inaccuracies in this text are not theirs but mine.

Copyright 1999-2006, Pat Pflieger