The 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth is celebrated on July 28th and here we showcase some rare items held in the Library’s Children’s Literature Collection.
Beatrix Potter held strong principles about the importance of content in her children’s books. Her oeuvre of 23 books was attractive to child readers at the turn of the 20th century for the following aspects: their small size; well-balanced text and illustration; nuanced phraseology; and gentle humour.
For example in The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904) the mice find a doll-house and attempt to eat the food in it. They are infuriated when they find the food inedible and in their frustration throw the food about the doll-house. Later they find a real use for items such as the cradle, which they fill with their offspring. The gift to child readers lies in the contrast between the sterility of the doll-house and the real coziness in the mouse hole and in mouse family life.
Beatrix Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and from a young age would eagerly sketch and paint when the Potter family took annual seaside holidays or in the Lake District. At 12 years of age she received specialist art tuition in London. Her children’s book career began with her picture letters sent to children of friends. A facsimile of Potter’s illustrated letter for The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse has recently been published with the text on lined paper in Potter’s own handwriting and tipped in images from the Warne publication.
In 1893 Peter Rabbit appeared in such an illustrated letter and subsequently Beatrix self-published this story in 1901 as The Tale of Peter Rabbit. A new printing from the original line blocks can be found in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
In 1902 publisher Frederick Warne & Co. published a full colour version The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The story of Peter Rabbit has since taken many formats including this pop-up version Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s Garden.
Unauthorised versions of The Tale of Peter Rabbit began to appear in America in 1904. The publishing house of Frederick Warne was founded in London in 1865 and in 1881 Frederick established an office in New York.
By the end of 1902 Peter Rabbit had sold 28,000 copies in England making the copyright very valuable. This title was sent from the London office of Warne to their New York office but at the time the US copyright had not been secured by Warne and Peter Rabbit became a book in the public domain and therefore a non-copyright work. Henry Altemus published The Tale of Peter Rabbit with Potter’s illustrations but reproduced in low quality and a slightly revised text, and registered his edition for copyright protection in the US at the Library of Congress in January 1904.
This opened the path for American publishers to bring out their own editions because Altemus had essentially published a book that was in the public domain. The SLV holds A Bibliography of Unauthorised American Editions of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ by Beatrix Potter, 1904-1980 that lists the unauthorised American editions published up to 1980.
Another ‘pirated’ US copy is this (below) shaped book published in 1916 by Saalfield Publishing Co.Saalfield produced a series of Peter Rabbit stories including Peter Rabbit and Jimmy Chipmunk, or Sammy Squirrel, and Peter Rabbit’s days with his Ma and his Pa. In 1906 Frederick Warne proposed a series of three of Potter’s stories reproduced in concertina format enclosed in a purse. Booksellers complained of the tedious nature of having to fold the contents back into the purse at the bookshop closing time. Warne subsequently only published two titles in this series, including The Story of Miss Moppet.
These beautiful Beatrix Potter titles (and ‘pirated’ editions) are part of our Children’s Literature Collection.
Find out more about Children’s Literature using our research guide.
Image slider captions and records:
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck, by Beatrix Potter, Harmondsworth, England, Frederick Warne, 1985. J 823.912 P85J.
The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, London, Frederick Warne, 1985. J 823.912 P85MIST.
The Pie and the Patty-Pan, by Beatrix Potter, London, New York, Frederick Warne & Co., 1905. Rare J 823.912 P85Pie.
The Tale of Timmy tiptoes, by Beatrix Potter, London, Frederick Warne, 1985. J823.912 P85TI.
The Tale of Tom Kitten, by Beatrix Potter, London, Frederick Warne, 1985. J823.912 P85TO.