Publishing for children: the early eighteenth century - Texts in English used by children, 1550-1800 - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


17. Texts in English used by children, 1550-1800


Margaret Evans


Publishing for children: the early eighteenth century


There was growing commercial interest in publishing books for children that not only taught them but also provided some amusement, as the numbers of children in the British population increased during the eighteenth century. The child population was to reach its peak in the early nineteenth century, but the intense commitment to educating the children of the middle classes, which was evident during this period as academies and small private schools sprang up across the country, stimulated the market for schoolbooks and lighter reading. Nathaniel Crouch’s Winter Evening Entertainments was an early example of the transition to more child-centred material as publishers identified the potential for selling books to parents and schools. The chapbook publishers - John Marshall and William and Cluer Dicey were two of the earliest London publishers to specialise in small books for children, many of them religious or moral tracts - produced material at the cheaper end of the market to satisfy this demand. Children also borrowed from adult books. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726. Chapbook versions which were written for children appeared later and adaptations became a genre in their own right, with the Robinsonnade evolving into a European-wide phenomenon through numerous versions of the story. One of the earliest examples to appear was Peter Longueville’s The Hermit: or, the Unparalleled Sufferings and Surprising Adventures of Mr Philip Quarrl (1727). Joachim Campe’s Robinson the Younger appeared in 1781, and a superior version - The New Robinson Crusoe - was issued by John Stockdale in four volumes with twenty-two woodcuts in 1788.

Of the books being published specifically for children, Mary Cooper’s The Child’s New Plaything (1742) and Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book Voll II [sic] (1744) are two of the most interesting. Several of the traditional nursery rhymes which were intended simply to amuse children appeared for the first time in print in this latter volume, a tiny book printed in red and black with neat copper engravings. The verses are an odd mixture of ribald drinking songs and old favourites. ‘Lady Bird, Lady Bird, Fly Away Home’, for example, sits somewhat uncomfortably beside ‘Fidlers Wife’:


We are all a dry/With drinking ont

We are all a dry/With drinking ont

The piper kisst/The Fidlers wife

And I cant sleep/For thinking ont.


Thomas Boreman, who published a set of ten miniature books, the Gigantick Histories, between 1740 and 1743, also considered a new venture of books for amusement as well as instruction worthy of some investment, and there are isolated examples of other publishers issuing significant items for children.

One of the more important was the first English translation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales: Robert Samber’s Histories, or Tales of Past Times. Told by Mother Goose (1729). Fairy tales became established not only in the productions of the mainstream publishers; the chapbook publishers took them up and distributed them widely beside the moral and religious tracts. The Contes de Fees of the Countess d’Aulnoy, translated as her Diverting Works (1707), became popular in chapbooks, and included ‘The Yellow Dwarf’, ‘Goldylocks’ and ‘The White Cat’. Madame de Beaumont’s Le Cabinet des Fees (1785-9) was also published in English versions and her adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ became a staple of chapbook literature.