To Amuse and Interest: Moral and Cautionary Tales for Children from the Collection of the Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives
August 25, 2014
“When children can read fluently, the difficulty is not to supply them with entertaining books, but to prevent them from reading too much and indiscriminately. To give them only such as cultivate the moral feelings, and create a taste for knowledge, while they, at the same time, amuse and interest.” ~Richard Lovell Edgeworth, “Address to Mothers,” 1815
Before the middle of the 18th century nearly all children’s books were either purely instructional (spelling books, conduct books) or extremely religious. Children seeking light and enjoyable reading matter had few choices beyond adult books they adopted as their own. London bookseller John Newbery was one of the first to notice the need for specially produced, entertaining children’s books for home consumption. In 1744 he published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, generally considered to be the first work of children’s literature and described by the author as a mixture of “instruction and delight.” Everything about the book was intended to appeal to a juvenile audience—it was small with brightly colored, floral paper wrappers, it contained several woodcut illustrations, and, at just six pence, it was inexpensive. Newbery also added a particularly ingenious marketing ploy—for a mere two pence more, buyers could purchase either a red and black ball (for boys) or pincushion (for girls) into which the young readers could stick pins to track their good (red) and bad (black) behavior. The book was a success, prompting Newbery and other pioneering authors to produce similar works throughout the 1740s and 1750s. By 1800 these short, didactic stories, which were intended to teach right and wrong with simple and amusing prose, verses, and illustrations, had become the predominant genre in children’s literature. The subject matter of these early versions was usually domestic or rural, as fairy stories or anything fanciful were considered at best old fashioned and at worst destructive to a child’s education and faith, and the attitude was generally secular, with the hero or heroine being rewarded for good behavior with worldly goods. For example, In Newbery’s Giles Gingerbread (1764) the reader is told, “Merit and Industry may entitle a man to any Thing.”
A subtle shift in tone came with the works of Maria Edgeworth, who has been described as the first English classic writer for children. In 1796 Edgeworth published The Parent’s Assistant, in which she elevated the moral tale from a simple lesson of right and wrong to an exercise in reasoning and self-improvement. Edgeworth’s characters learned to control their emotions and think for themselves through experience, observation, and experimentation. Eventually the Edgeworth ideal, which was much imitated throughout the early decades of the 19th century, fell out of fashion and was replaced by a stricter model. In its new form the moral tale took on a more overtly didactic tenor and religion became the dominant theme, fueled in great part by the Sunday School movement and a strengthening evangelical sentiment in England. As one scholar notes, “the aims of the writers was now to produce a godly, rather than rational, child.”
Another change to the genre came in the form of cautionary tales—stories or poems that explicitly warn about the dangers of foolish behavior—which first appeared in the late 18th century. While the moral tale focused on the rewards of good behavior, the cautionary tale focused on the repercussions of bad behavior. In Rhymes for the Nursery (1806) Ann and Jane Taylor, authors of “The Star” (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”), included morbid warnings about playing with fire and falling into wells. The most popular of the cautionary tales is Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, published in German in 1845 and in English in 1848. Hoffmann wrote it as a Christmas present for his young son after being disappointed by the overly moralizing and heavy-handed offerings in the Frankfurt bookstores. The fates of the unfortunate children in Der Struwwelpeter, while often graphically depicted, are humorous and satirical in their exaggeration, and were justified by Hoffmann as simply echoing the perversity and violence in most fairy tales.
Though it reached its zenith in the mid-19th century, the moral tale did not disappear; it carried on throughout the century in different guises, such as the stricter evangelical and temperance stories published by the Religious Tract Society and the more subtle “novels of character” like Tom Brown’s School Days and Little Women. The renaissance of fairy stories and the advent of fantasy novels in the mid-to-late-19th century may have increased the options of entertaining reading material for children, but the moral story remained, and remains today, as an integral part of children’s literature.
The Library exhibit, To Amuse and Interest: Moral and Cautionary Tales for Children, on view from September 15, 2014 through January 24, 2015, features a selection of books from the collection of the Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives.