John Newbery: 1744-67 - 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


John Newbery: 1744-67


However, what all of these endeavours lacked was a coherent approach to the development of a specifically children’s literature. Before the mid-eighteenth century, book publishing for children lacked seriousness of purpose. John Newbery’s publishing activities changed this; he developed the children’s side of his business through a sustained and forceful exploitation of the market. Newbery began as a provincial bookseller and newspaper proprietor and also dealt in patent medicines, activities which continued to be significant elements in his complex business empire. However, soon after his move to London from Reading he produced A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744). Verses with wood blocks of children at play comprise most of this slight but significant offering, which became one of the best known of all the early children’s books. His Lilliputian Magazine (1751-2) was more substantial, although less successful, and continued the Newbery mixture of light-hearted material - jests, songs, riddles - and more moral tales. There followed A Pretty Book of Pictures for Little Masters and Misses (c. 1752), and Nurse Truelove’s New Year’s Gift (c. 1753), similarly light-hearted in tone and content. Binding in Dutch floral boards was also his trademark, and the overall quality of their production marked his books out from the cruder reading materials of the previous century.

Perhaps his most famous book - and certainly the one which drew the admiration of Charles Lamb - was The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765). This tale of the ‘trotting tutoress’, Margery Meanwell, encapsulated all of Newbery’s emphasis in his books on the mercantile class, a group in society to whom trade and good sense meant everything. Margery progresses from penury to a good marriage through hard work, thrift and the use of her talents: a tale with true moral sense for the middle-class children at whom it was directed.

Newbery also contributed to the burgeoning schoolbook market with a series of lesson books, The Circle of the Sciences (1745-8), and books like Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of England, in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to His Son (1764). (Goldsmith probably also wrote Goody Two-Shoes.) Indeed, most of Newbery’s output for the youth market was intended for schools or for home tutoring; only sixteen or so were mainly for entertainment. His schoolbooks were generally weightier and more expensive: the Account of the Constitution and Present State of Great Britain (1759) cost 2 shillings. The more lighthearted items cost less and were usually printed in several editions: ‘Abraham Aesop’s’ Fables in Verse was priced at 6d and was in its sixth edition by 1768. However, at a time when chapbooks were being sold for 1d, even these were expensive by the standards of the day. Newbery was intent on selling to the middle classes and aspiring artisans, not the mass of the labouring population.

Newbery’s great talent was his understanding of the new market for children’s books and schoolbooks: exploiting that market required tenacity of purpose and the development of a class of books which appealed to both parents and children. Advertising and distribution was also essential to ensure a good volume of sales. By marketing his books through the important provincial newspapers of the day, and using the newspaper distribution outlets, Newbery maximised the penetration of his books into rural areas from his famous shop at the Bible and Sun in St Paul’s Churchyard, London, which was the focus for his activities. Newbery’s later years were his busiest period; between 1755 and 1767, when he died, he published around 390 adult and children’s books, although his contribution to the development of a children’s publishing trade has tended to obscure his many other business activities. He probably made more as a purveyor of quack medicines than from the children’s books, and his newspaper interests and magazine publishing were also of considerable value.