The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XVI. Children’s Books

§ 11. John Newbery

Such is the archaeology of children’s books, before the first great diaskeuast arrived. There were lesson books of several kinds, there were moral treatises in prose and verse, there was a mass of oral tradition just creeping into type, there were decayed adult works. But, all was without form and void. The appearance of the books that were produced was mean. The trade in them was spasmodic and unorganised. No one took them seriously or thought of them as a necessary branch of the commerce in printed matter. It was a typical eighteenth century business man, John Newbery, farmer’s son, accountant, merchant’s assistant, patent-medicine dealer, printer and publisher, who saw the possibilities and the openings. He began to publish books at Reading in 1740, but removed to London in 1744 (first to Devereux court and then to the address long associated with children’s books, St. Paul’s churchyard). The first year in the metropolis saw his first child’s book—The Little Pretty Pocket Book. It was a neat, well-printed volume, with very fair woodcuts. It contains a dedication “to the Parents, Guardians and Nurses in Great Britain and Ireland,” and incitements to games, with moral applications dragged in. It was designed to “make Tommy a good Boy and Polly a good Girl.” No doubt it did so; and the process must have been far from disagreeable. It was followed the next year by three volumes of The Circle of the Sciences. The Lilliputian Magazine (1751–2), The Governess or Little Female Academy (by Sarah Fielding, the novelist’s sister), The Twelfth Day Gift, Mother Goose’s Melody, her Tales and, most celebrated of all, Goody Two Shoes, were among his early publications.

The characteristics of Newbery’s books were very marked. They were strongly and yet attractively produced, with good print and paper. They contained a great variety of matter, and were thoroughly alive in every way. There is a real personality behind them, even though they are now as utterly obsolete as their contemporary, the dodo (which is illustrated in a Newbery natural history of 1775). The English is plain and respectable; the coarseness of earlier, and even some coeval and later, productions is almost entirely absent. There is a strong vein of honest vigour running through them—The Twelfth Day Gift has a frontispiece labelled “Trade and Plumb Cake for ever, Huzza!”—and the commercial success of the industrious apprentice is frequently insisted upon. The author—it is not unlikely that Newbery himself is the single individual behind such feigned benignities as Mrs. Lovechild, Tommy Trip and Giles Gingerbread—is really trying to please children as well as to improve them. “He called himself their friend, but he was the friend of all mankind”: Goldsmith spoke from experience.

John Newbery died in 1767, having definitely created a new branch of literature. His business split into two—one under Francis Newbery (a nephew) and the other under a second Francis Newbery (a son) and Thomas Carnan (a stepson). The firms were not amicable rivals, and Carnan and Francis the younger also quarrelled and separated, apparently in 1782. Ultimately, “all the old publications of Newbery passed into the hands of Elizabeth [the nephew Francis’s widow] and to Harris and his successors.” The final legatees of this ancient firm, Messrs Griffith and Farran, survived into the twentieth century, still publishing children’s books.

The trade side of these works is an important one, and it may be convenient to deal with it at this point. The publisher—in the eighteenth century still more than half retailer as well as producer—had, for obvious reasons, greater power over juvenile books than over serious adult works. Indeed, he was often the author himself; the later Newbery’s most formidable rivals, Darton and Harvey, were even artists and engravers (very bad ones) as well. The publisher determined that momentous detail, the format of the volume; and it might, with some reason, be contended that his taste in this direction, from 1750 to 1760 and from 1800 to 1810, has not been equalled since. Certainly, the gilt and brightly coloured covers made of Dutch paper—copies so bound are now rare, and the paper is no longer made—the entire decency and fitness, as of an Adam house, in margin, type and spacing, the enduring ink and clean impressions of the best specimens, show a standard of production at least as well suited to a domestic interior of Georgian England as more ambitious binding and typography to more lavish periods. The publisher, too, decided on the quantity and quality of the illustrations: Bewick, Stothard and some of the producers of colour-work early in the nineteenth century reached a very high level of quality, and the quantity was seldom stinted. He decided, also, as is the custom to-day, the size of an edition; and the numbers, where they can be discovered, are surprisingly large. One firm, at least, usually printed 2000 for a first edition, and such works as Roscoe’s Butterfly’s Ball had an immediate circulation literally as great as that of a really successful novel of to-day. Moreover, the sales were steady and long-lived. Berquin’s Ami des Enfans ran to 20,000 copies in ten years. A dozen of Priscilla Wakefield’s books went into not less than sixty editions (apart from piracies) in twenty years. Mrs. Trimmer’s Robins sold to the extent of two editions every three years for a whole generation at least. The prices were low, as expressed in our values; from sixpence to three shillings and sixpence, with one and sixpence as a very general average, for volumes with copperplates; wood-block editions (which tended to disappear after about 1790, except in chapbooks) were even cheaper, and coloured plates did not cause any great increase, mainly, no doubt, because the colouring was done by hand, by regiments of children, who dabbed on each one colour in one place. The colour have a gay grace not always achieved by more perfect mechanical means. Authors were not highly paid; but their relations with publishers seem to have been intimate and pleasant, on the whole: the publisher was a tradesman, but a man of some dignity as well. After Newbery, many firms specialised in children’s books. The value of “juvenile” copyrights was often considerable; some works were even worthy of being turned into “trade” books—issued, that is, by syndicates of publishers. The story of copyright sales is very suggestive. Piracy abounded.