A Maclean’s Album

A WONDERLAND OF children’s books

Maclean’s presents a Christmas album of rare and colorful art for children from a little-known Canadian collection

JOHN GRAY December 21 1957
A Maclean’s Album

A WONDERLAND OF children’s books

Maclean’s presents a Christmas album of rare and colorful art for children from a little-known Canadian collection

JOHN GRAY December 21 1957

A WONDERLAND OF children’s books

Maclean’s presents a Christmas album of rare and colorful art for children from a little-known Canadian collection


Once upon a time, seventy-seven Christmases ago, an English schoolchild was given a brightly illustrated book called Beauty and the Beast. He must have enjoyed it. for he didn't rip it apart or convert it into spitbalIs, and so it survived through the years. One day it fell into the hands of Edgar Osborne, an Englishman who. for three decades, has lingered in bookstores, haunted old libraries and rummaged through attics for just such nostalgic volumes. His collection, numbering eighteen hundred

children's books, rests not in England, but in a special children’s library in Toronto. The gay pictures on this and the following pages are taken from it. To many adults, a glimpse at these old books will evoke a gentler age when children, flat on stomachs, pursued their literary bents without benefit of television or comic books. It will surprise some to learn, however, that in spite of the stiff competition many old favorites (such as “A Apple Pie" on the next page) are still going strong among today's moppets.





When manners and morals made the man

A large portion of the Osborne Collection is devoted to books that taught children things—how to be good, how to multiply, how to spell, how to get to Heaven. These volumes—which arc probably the original “how-to” books—were often full of gay illustrations that made their heavy-handed moral atmosphere more palatable. But such books seldom lost sight of their purpose: to instruct the mind, improve the manners, and mend the morals of the youngsters to whom they were directed.

It probably says something for their appeal that most of these books are no longer read. There are exceptions, as in the case of Kate Greenaway’s A Apple Pie. But A Apple Pie, a traditional nursery tale designed to teach the alphabet, was a favorite to begin with. There are editions of it in the Osborne Collection in Toronto that go back to the eighteenth century and it's safe to say it’s not been out of print for about two hundred years. But the Greenaway version lives on because of the illustrations.

Kate Greenaway was one of a trio of giants in nineteenth-century children’s art. Her books were instantly popular when they first appeared. and have remained so. Her work, with that of other members of the trio, Randolph Caldecott and Walter Crane, marks the beginning of the modern illustrated books today’s children take for granted.



Bright illustrations relieved the heavy moral tone of such books.


England is from Geographical Fun, an expensive, 1868 colored, printed book containing humorous sketches of many countries. This kind of instruction was painless.


First printed limericks are Sixteen Wonderful Old Women (left) dated 1820. Two years later Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentle-

men (right) appeared, and it was one of these verses that inspired Edward Lear’s wonderful nonsense, including the horrible cow seen below.

The age of nonsense and tall tales

There is no point in discussing nonsense. It is, it’s delightful, and all the rest is sausage. Just how the world came to be blessed with a verse form we now call a limerick, and with a genius to exploit it as versatile as Edward Lear, is an undoubtedly important matter. But it needn’t detain us. The verse form HVW made up and Lear was intrigued with one particular example of it (The Old Man of Tobago) and he did write a whole book of such “limericks,” and if there’s anyone you wish to thank particularly, thank him now. The Baron Munchausen is a little different. Tall tales have always existed. The Baron’s are superb—though not really any more so than Mark Twain’s jumping frog or the Paul Bunyan who originally strode out of a French-Canadian forest. But this is rational nonsense, something less than the controlled insanity of Edward Lear.

continued on next page



The world of make-believe

There is probably no part of childhood more enjoyable than the wonderful world kids make up in their heads. And that portion of children's literature that deals with makebelieve lives on through all changes of fashion. Almost all the stories illustrated on these pages were told before they were written, and it's now impossible to say who first "made them up,” or what child originally enjoyed them. They can have morals tacked on to them (as in The Seven Champions of Christendom) and children will gracefully ignore them. Scholars may get ulcers trying to track them down (as they have with Old Mother Hubbard) but children don't care. The things they enjoy most are the beautiful people, the brave knights, the naïve dunces and the wicked dragons that abide in our fairy tales and nursery rhymes. It's a world where everything always turns out all right in the end: St. George slays the dragon, the princess marries her prince, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Rhyming version of The Surprising Adventures of Puss in Boots, or. The Master-Cat, was published in 1825. Illustrations were colored by child labor before 1840.


She went to the Fruiterer’s To buy him some Fruit ; When she came back He was playing the flute.


She went to the Tailor’s To buy him a coat ; When she came back He was riding a Goat.

Described as “indestructible." this 1847 printing of a favorite nursery rhyme had its pages mounted on linen. Old Mother Hubbard was first published in 1805 but it is a traditional story.

The story behind the story of The Three Bears

The outstanding item in the Osborne Collection is a manuscript of The Three Bears, the earliest known version of this traditional story. It was written in 1831 as a birthday present for four-year-old Horace Broke by his aunt, Eleanor Mure. Six years later the poet Robert Southey published his version of the story, which is both better literature and better known. The discovery of the Mure manuscript by Osborne caused a furor in literary circles for it deprived Southey of what many critics had considered his crowning achievement, the creation of The Three Bears, an honor Southey never claimed for himself. Both the versions agree in their essentials, but are different from the story told today for the bears are all male and the heroine is an old woman. The little girl of today’s story first appears in a printed version in 1850, where she is called Silver-Hair. The main difference between the versions—as shown in the illustrations at the left—is the endings. In Miss Mure’s story the bears try to burn and drown the old woman and finally toss her on the steeple of St. Paul’s. In Southey’s version she leaps out the window and is never seen again.

A wonderland of children’s books see pages 13-17

How Edgar Osborne collected his priceless treasures

Shortly after the First World War, Edgar Osborne, a young English librarian, visited his childhood home in Hampshire, lie didn't get home very often and on this particular trip was rooting about in the lumber room when he came upon a bundle of battered old books. They were his own boyhood books, and he was soon happily surrounded by them, remembering rainy afternoons when he'd relieved a beleaguered fort with Henty, or was a cat walking by himself in places that were alike to him, with Kipling.

He got such a kick out of the books, in fact, that he carted them back to his own home in Derbyshire, to show to his wife Mabel. She was as excited as he and soon added to them her own nursery books.

This chance encounter with his childhood started Osborne on his lifetime hunt for children's books. It was another chance encounter that led him to give the books to Canada.

The Osbornes attended a meeting of the American Library Association in Montreal in 1934. When the formal sessions ended the visiting English librarians toured several Canadian libraries, and in Toronto the Osbornes met Miss Lillian Smith, then head of the Boys and Girls Division of the Toronto Public Libraries.

Once upon a Christmas

Miss Smith, who retired in 1951. was the first children's librarian in Toronto. While she did her work in a less frenetic age that didn't offer the living-room magic of Disneyland or such heady movie fare as I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Miss Smith's basic principles for running a children's library are still packing them in. The principles are simple: get the kids young, expose them to the best books that can be found, and let nature take its course.

The Osbornes were impressed by Miss Smith, and by the spirit she injected into her library (and her librarians). It was Mrs. Osborne who later suggested that Toronto might be an excellent place to house the collection. After his wife’s death in 1946, and in her memory, Osborne offered the books to Toronto. They arrived in 1949.

Since then Edgar Osborne has had to do quite a bit of explaining in England as to why he let the books out of the country. While no one has ever tried to rank the known collections of English children’s books, Osborne’s is one of the best. He gave it to the Toronto library because he thought Canada could, and would, make good use of such a collection, because he wanted it preserved as a unit, and because of Miss Smith. But some of the books, such as the manuscript copy of The Three Bears, the earliest known written version of this story, are unique, and quite a fuss was made about their being taken away from Great Britain.

And how does a county librarian, who is not a wealthy man, come to have treasures such as the manuscript Three Bears in his collection? As anyone w'ho has ever collected books will know, there's nothing to it. Collecting books, like gambling, chasing women and playing the horses, is a form of madness, and the true collector is like a prospector who thinks he’s about to strike the mother lode. A bookstall is never passed, a library never ignored.

Osborne added to this kind of insanity some advantages of position and timing. As county librarian for Derbyshire until his retirement in 1954 he found himself being invited to examine the libraries in old country mansions where both the masonry and the finances had begun to crumble, and picked up some books this way. He began collecting long before children’s books became fashionable—and expensive.

The Osbornes were selective in their collection from the very beginning. They didn’t want to line their shelves with “classics,” or to amass all the children’s books ever published, but to gather “a representative library of bygone days.” To be included, a title had to be one that had been read and re-read by successive generations of children. The resulting collection illustrates most stages in the development of English children’s books, from a Catéchisme for children printed in 1590 down to Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, first published in 1901.

Osborne looked for books wherever they were likely to be found, and often where they weren’t. He dug the earliest English book in the collection from the dust and debris in a room behind a room behind a chapel that hadn’t been disturbed for a century. This book, a rare copy of "A Catéchisme or Christian Doctrine necessarie for Children and Ignorante People.” is dated 1590. Written by a “Bacheler of Divinitie,” Laurence Vaux, it was printed in Holland and smuggled into England because it was a manual of Catholic instruction, a type of book about as popular among officials in sixteenth-century England as horror comics are among parliamentarians in Ottawa today.

Vaux's book is neither the oldest in the collection nor the first real children’s book. The oldest is a 1566 copy of Aesop's Fables, chiefly interesting today for the woodcuts that illustrate it. These were done about 1475 and were probably enjoyed by children even though they

couldn’t read the Latin text. Not until 1671 was the first real children's book published. James Janeway's "A Token for Children, being an exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children.” is a harsh, morbid Puritan tract that was meant to amuse and entertain children —but in a Puritan way.

One element in any form of collecting is sheer luck. Osborne had his share. The manuscript copy of The Three Bears was part of a small lot of books he got from a bookseller for a modest sum. It’s unique—and priceless. During the Second World War he and his library staff undertook to screen all books that were offered for salvage in Derbyshire to make sure no rare or historically valuable volumes were destroyed. The many books they saved from the pulp machines were deposited in libraries and institutions all over Great Britain, but Osborne took the opportunity and picked out any children’s book-, he saw to add to his collection.

Some books were given to him. The family of Nancy Mitford, the English writer, contributed books found when their old country house was torn down. Louis Shore Nightingale. Florence Nightingale’s cousin, found a bundle of books in Florence’s Derbyshire home. Lea Hurst, and gave them to Osborne. Many contain her chiidhood autograph.

Osborne gave the collection on condition the Toronto library preserve it, make it available to students and other interested persons (though it’s not a lending collection and isn’t used by children at all), appoint a full-time librarian to take care of it, add books when possible and publish a catalogue.

The conditions have all been fulfilled.

As far as adding books is concerned, this has been going on at such a pace the librarians can’t keep up with it, and the eighteen hundred volumes in the original gift have already grown to almost three thousand. The library is buying books; Osborne continues to send items from England, though he is now paid for anything he finds; and there have been gifts from Canadians. One elderly Toronto man recently filled several gaps in the Henty section when he donated more than a hundred Henty books.

The biggest job to date has been the catalogue, which is due to be published in a fat five-hundred-page volume next summer. This giant detective job has fallen mainly on the shoulders of Miss Judith St. John who was appointed librarian in charge of the collection in 1953.

Miss St. John is a quiet sleuth, with a concealed sense of humor and firm opinions. She was a little bewildered when she first walked into the collection, for it was in no order that a librarian would consider proper. And while she’s rapidly becoming one, Miss St. John was at first no specialist. She started by reading all the books about children’s books—a highly specialized field. Then she tackled the collection itself, learning what books were there and arranging them so they could be found. Finally, a couple of years ago, she felt ready to begin the actual cataloguing, a task full of snares, surprises and the occasional triumph.

Cataloguing requires patience — and good memory. For example, Miss St. John found in the collection a copy of a book titled The Keepsake Guineas, by a woman named Susanna Strickland, who is better known as the Susanna Moodie who later came to Canada and wrote the classic Roughing It In The Bush. Writing children’s books was not the most respectable occupation in the early nineteenth century and many such works were published anonymously. This was apparently true of some of Mrs. Moodie’s work, for Miss St. John later came on another copy of The Keepsake Guineas, anonymous this time, but with the byline, “By the author of . . .” and then a list of several other titles. In this way she was able to identify Mrs. Moodie as the author of three other books in the collection that had previously been anonymous.

More complicated, and more fun, are problems such as the confused question of whether or not Sarah Catherine Martin invented the story of Old Mother Hubbard.

Old Mother Hubbard, one of the nursery’s favorite rhymes, was first published in 1805 in a version that had been written down the previous year by Miss Sarah Martin, an English writer. While she apparently never actually claimed to have created the tale her book is the first written version known and it has been widely assumed she did make it up. But some scholars, such as Iona and Peter Opie (who take two whole pages of very small type to discuss the problem in their delightful and authoritative Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes) have pointed out difficulties in accepting Sarah Martin as the originator of the story. There is, for example, a distressingly similar verse called Old Dame Trot and her Comical Cat that was published two years before Mother Hubbard. And the name—if not the story—keeps popping up in literature. Spenser published a satire called Mother Hubberd’s Tale in 1590.

Miss St. John and her colleagues will settle this particular question—as much as such a question can be settled—when

they publish the Osborne Collection catalogue next summer. Miss St. John has unearthed an enthusiastic contemporary book review of the first edition of Old Mother Hubbard that was written by a remarkable woman named Mrs. Sarah Kirby Trimmer. Mrs. Trimmer was a leader of the Sunday school movement, a noted educationalist and herself an author, who regularly “examined” children’s books in a periodical she edited called The Guardian of Education, and is often remembered today as a violent critic of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. But in her review of Sarah Martin’s book she wrote that “the poetry of the tale is of an ancient date . . . We can recollect at this distance of time that in our infant days (Mrs. Trimmer was born in 1748) the story of this renowned woman . . . afforded us much entertainment.”

In other words, Sarah Catherine Martin didn’t make the story up at all, but simply wrote down a tale that had been carried through an unknown number of generations by word of mouth.

While the Osborne Collection can help to solve scholarly problems like this it will have many other uses. Artists can trace in its volumes the development of art for children. Publishers can use it to see how their predecessors first stumbled onto the gold mine of children’s books and began that fine exploitation of parents they have continued ever since. A lot of social history is buried in children’s books, some of it obvious, some of it not. Few persons leafing through the gaily hand-colored books of the early nineneenth century are aware, for example, that most of the coloring was done; by child labor. Children got about fourpence a day for their work and larger families were organized in an assembly-lipe system, each child handling one color; It was undoubtedly preferable to working in a mine.

Ampng the things Edgar Osborne hoped! to discover by gathering children’s books, were the qualities that make them last. ¡T;

“III general,” Miss St. John says, “children seem to have excellent taste. The books they keep on reading are pretty good ones.” And as Miss Jean Thomson, Miss Lillian Smith’s successor as head of the children’s division of the library, points out, “a classic is something that says something new to each generation.” Osborne himself put it a little differently a couple of years ago: “All healthy

children,” he wrote, “run and like running. They not only run with their legs, they run with their minds also; and therefore the best books for children—those they like best—are those that allow their minds to go at a gallop.”

And perhaps, if their minds do go at a gallop, they’ll live happily ever after,