Fun and frivolity - 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


Fun and frivolity


It might appear that an emphasis on earnest moral teaching and the influence of the educational theorists had driven all that was frivolous from children’s reading. Newbery’s greatest contribution to children’s publishing had been his introduction of lighter-hearted literature. Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book Voll II had also stood as an early example of sheer amusement for children, together with a few other items which have survived. The Famous Tommy Thumb’s Little Story Book was issued by Stanley Crowder and Benjamin Collins (c. 1760), and, like The Top Book of All (c. 1760), contained verse and light material, including the game of ‘The Wide Mouth Waddling Frog’. Riddles were especially popular with adults in the seventeenth century and owed their survival to their continuation in innovative children’s books such as these.

Despite the prevalence of moral tales and didacticism, there were, therefore, items to amuse and divert children towards the end of the century in addition to the chapbook literature of the period. Mother Goose’s Melody was probably published c. 1780: at about the same time as Nancy Cock’s Pretty Song Book was published by John Marshall. Mother Goose’s Melody, a 96-page Newbery book in two parts - with fifty-one songs and lullabies in Part One - is particularly important because of the number of times it was to be reprinted in Britain and America (Opie and Opie 1951/1980: 33). Issued by John Newbery’s successors (a 1791 edition was issued by Francis Power, John Newbery’s grandson) this was, at 3d, a cheap little book by Newbery standards and hence likely to be widely bought. Gammer Gurton’s Garland, published in Stockport in 1784, was a further important example of an early published collection of nursery rhymes.

Books containing moral material in a light-hearted guise were also becoming commonplace. For example, adaptations of the Goody Two-Shoes tale were published: The Entertaining History of Little Goody Goosecap (1780) was John Marshall’s version, with The Renowned History of Primrose Pretty Face (1785) following a similar theme - a profitable marriage is the reward for virtue and probity. Children’s publishers also dealt in the production of maps and games; books were not the only educational materials to provide amusement. John Wallis was one of the most successful of these; his Chronological Tables of English History for the Instruction of Youth (1788) and The New Game of Life, which he issued in collaboration with Elizabeth Newbery in 1790, were instructional games with counters and dice - and a set of neatly printed instructions.

By the late eighteenth century, publishing for children had become a sufficiently profitable undertaking for several major London publishers and many provincial chapbook publishers to be issuing a range of children’s items: for instruction and amusement. The firm of William Darton began business in 1787, when William Darton set up as an engraver and printer. The firm was to specialise in neatly engraved books for children and to produce some of the finest coloured books in the early nineteenth century. The Newbery tradition was carried on by Elizabeth Newbery, who took over one arm of the business when her husband (nephew to John) died in 1780. She specialised particularly in the education market, but also continued with many of the earlier Newbery items, and also collaborated with other publishers. Her Catalogue of 1800 indicates the range that was available to parents and schools - and children - by the end of the eighteenth century. In addition to the 400 or so more substantial items, including schoolbooks and moral tales, she offered thirteen one-penny and fourteen two-penny chapbooks as makeweights. Vernor and Hood, Joseph Johnson, John Nourse, who specialised in French books for school and home, and John Marshall were some of the other firms engaged in the London trade. Children’s books were also being produced in provincial publishing centres: Newcastle was one of the earliest chapbook centres to specialise in children’s works, but there were also small provincial presses across the country, from Wrexham to York and from Alnwick to Wellington.

The quality and variety of production had also improved immeasurably. Much of the credit for this is due to the development of illustration techniques, through the work of John and Thomas Bewick who perfected the art of wood engraving, and the increasing use of copper engravings in the more expensively priced children’s books (Whalley and Chester 1988: 27-8). William Blake was a major illustrator, but his own children’s book, Songs of Innocence (1789) was only widely known much later.

By 1800, the children’s book trade was well established and children had a wide- ranging literature at their disposal. Not all of it was just for entertainment, but increasingly it was being written with their developmental needs in mind. From their origins in the formal writing of the early schoolbooks, Puritan texts, popular literature and fables, children’s books had emerged as a class of literature. The book trade was poised to develop this even further and to exploit the technical innovations of the next century.



Axtell, J. L. (1968) The Educational Writings of John Locke, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cressy, D. (1980) Literacy and the Social Order, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Darton, F. J. H. (1982) Children’s Books in England: Eive Centuries of Social Life, 3rd edn, ed.

Alderson, B., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Opie, I. and Opie, P. (1951/1980) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pickering, S. F. (1981) John Locke and Children’s Books in Eighteenth Century England, Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Roscoe, S. (1973) John Newbery and His Successors 1740-1814: A Bibliography, Wormley: Five Owls Press.

Spufford, M. (1981) Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Eiction and Its Readership in Seventeenth Century England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whalley, J. I. and Chester, T. R (1988) A History of Children’s Book Illustration, London: John Murray/The Victoria and Albert Museum.


Further reading

Hunt, P. (ed.) (1995) Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, M. V. (1989) Engines of Instruction, Mischief and Magic: Children’s Literature in England from Its Beginnings to 1839, Aldershot: Scolar Press.

Opie, I. and Opie, P. (1974) The Classic Fairy Tales, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plumb, J. H. (1975) ‘The New World of Children in Eighteenth-Century England’, Past and Present 67: 64-95.

Summerfield, G. (1984) Fantasy and Reason: Children’s Literature in the Eighteenth Century, London: Methuen.