Category Archives: Children’s Books

Celebrating Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week… with an Antiquarian Spin

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By Margueritte Peterson

February 1st marks the beginning of Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week! Now, we’ve written several blogs on some of our favorite children’s book authors, but what we haven’t done in a while is take a look at some of our most popular antiquarian children’s literature items! We thought we’d take a little tour through some of our inventory and see how we can celebrate this week of Children’s literature with some… antiquarian flair!

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 11.00.11 AMThe beginning of what we know today as Children’s Literature is commonly attributed to authors around the mid to late 19th century, with authors like Charles Dodgson, Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling paving the way for fantastical and nonsensical Children’s Literature – more often than not written for the pure enjoyment of children. However, before true “Children’s Literature” existed, the writing for the young was more didactic in nature, always teaching a skill or a moral lesson (sometimes with even an implied punishment for failure to learn the lesson provided). This 1806 “Young Child’s A-B-C or First Book” is a Children’s chapbook teaching the A-B-C’s in Hornbook style – with images of items beginning with the letter in question. It is a first printing of this chapbook, rare in the trade and in fairly nice condition for its age! See it here.

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Almanacks began to appear in the 1800s as well, with one popular type being Kate Greenaway’s yearly ones for Children. Though these continued to have a sense of didacticism in them, as they were a fount of knowledge and information, fun colored hand-drawn images of small children in fashionable clothing made these little books a bit different from their earlier counterparts. Our 1886 Almanack (published in 1885) is a clear representation of the Kate Greenaway publications, with a scarcely seen 19th century dust jacket still intact. See it here.

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 11.02.11 AMIn the 1900s we begin to see more and more child-oriented literature, such as naturalist and animal illustrator Cecil Aldin’s “The White Puppy Book”. This book in particular contains 25 illustrations (a clear distinction of the rise of literature for the children’s enjoyment), of which 12 are full-page illustrations. This illustrator used his skills to bring enjoyment to children with this book, with humorous images of a white puppy. See it here

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Skipping ahead to 1955, we see the popular Children’s Series books at peak demand. Edward Stratemeyer had formed his syndicate in 1905, and series books like Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys had been favored by the young for decades. One of our favorite series that doesn’t (in our humble opinion) receive enough acclaim for its creativity and individuality are the Freddy books! Our 1st edition of “Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars” is one – the Freddy series including stories of a fun-loving pig that tries desperately to go on many different adventures. They are illustrated intertextually with brightly colored and humorous Dust Jackets. See this item here

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 11.02.35 AMAlmost every adult in the United States knows the Dick and Jane series to help teach children to read with humorous lines and repetition. The series was iconically illustrated by artists such as Eleanor Campbell and Robert Childress, and though first appearing in the 1930s remained popular ever since, even being reissued in 2003. The iconic phrase “See Spot Run!” comes from this series! A set of 16 scarce reading cards from 1962 can be found here

So how else can you celebrate Children’s Author and Illustrator week without splurging on a neat antiquarian item? Well, whether you are a parent, a teacher, a bookseller or a librarian, here are a few ideas!

TALK with a librarian or a local children’s bookseller. They can recommend the perfect books for yours and your children’s age or interests!

READ with friends and family. Reading together is fun and helps create enthusiastic, strong readers. It’s never too late to become a reader!

VISIT independent bookstores and children’s specialty bookstores and learn about a new (or long gone, in our case) children’s author today!

And visit the Children’s Author’s Network for more ideas on spreading the Kid Lit love this year! 


Happy Birthday to our Favorite Children’s Book Serialist… Mr. Edward L. Stratemeyer!


By Margueritte Peterson

On October 4th, 1862, a children’s literature tycoon was born. With his humble beginnings, of course, no one ever would have suspected that a talented writer and publisher was in their midst. Stratemeyer was born the youngest of six children in Elizabeth, New Jersey to a young tobacconist and his wife. Both of Edward’s parents had immigrated from Hanover, Germany in 1837, and yet Stratemeyer’s main language was English growing up. 

As a child, Stratemeyer read Horatio Alger often, enjoying his rags-to-riches tales immensely. He later was said to have remarked on how much Alger’s stories influenced him as a young man, and gave him some of the confidence he later used to begin his career. It looks as though even as a teenager Stratemeyer had some idea of what he wanted to do as an adult, as he opened his own amateur printing press in the basement of his father’s tobacco store. He printed local & homemade flyers and pamphlets, and a few short stories such as The Newsboy’s Adventure and The Tale of a Lumberman. After graduating high school, Stratemeyer worked daily in his father’s shop, and kept up printing a few items here and there. It wasn’t until he turned 26 that he sold his first story to popular children’s periodical Golden Days, and received $76 for his contribution (a fact that the helpful internet informs us was over six times the average weekly paycheck for the average US citizen at the time). 

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-11-20-45-amAfter experiencing this hint of fame and riches, the young writer moved to the larger city of Newark (NJ) and opened a paper shop. He continued to write while earning his daily bread, and penned stories in many different genre’s – short westerns, serials for New England periodicals, dime novels, detective fiction… you name it, he wrote it (well, perhaps except for romances. But I digress). In 1893, just three short years after moving to Newark, Stratemeyer was hired by well-known dime-novel author Gilbert Patten to write for the Street & Smith periodical popular with young boys & men at the time, Good News. Stratemeyer was a popular editor & author at the magazine. 

Just a year later in 1894, Stratemeyer began publishing some of his stories as hardcover novels, the first of which being Richard Dare’s Venture – part of the Bound to Succeed series. Though his first four novels sold reasonably well, the publisher of the stories, Merriam, was unable to publish any further stories due to an economic depression that struck the United States in the late 1890s. Stratemeyer wouldn’t be sad for long, however, as shortly thereafter publisher W. L. Allison picked up his books and published twelve of his titles, and in 1899 an amazing thing happened to young Stratemeyer… he was asked to finish writing for two of his childhood heroes! 

Our affordable copy of The Rover Boys on the River, one of the series known to be Stratemeyer's favorite!

Our affordable copy of The Rover Boys on the River, one of the series known to be Stratemeyer’s favorite! See it here>

First Stratemeyer was asked by Lee & Shepard to pen the last book in a series begun by “Oliver Optic”, of William T. Adams. Adams had passed away before being able to complete the series, and the fans were left with baited breath. Around the same time, author Horatio Alger’s health was declining and he was also unable to finish his writings. Stratemeyer began work on Alger’s stories shortly before Alger’s death in 1899. Alger’s sister Olive negotiated with Stratemeyer to complete some of Alger’s stories that remained as notes or early chapters but that were never finished, and publish them under Alger’s name. The first popular series that Stratemeyer wrote was known as The Rover Boys – an instant success and a series that achieved immense popularity. Stratemeyer is even said to have mentioned that this series was his favorite throughout the years of authorship and publication!

In 1905, just a few short years later, Stratemeyer formed the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate and began hiring journalists and other writers to pen stories based on his plot ideas. Stratemeyer paid each author a flat rate for the books they submitted, and then kept all of the copyrights to the novels themselves. The journalists wrote under pen names, which also allowed different authors to publish books in the same series. In this vein, printer, author and publisher Stratemeyer was now acting as a “literary agent” for ghostwriters in a way. 

Through the Syndicate, Stratemeyer would be the imagination behind quite a few immensely popular series books, including the Tom Swift series, the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and the Nancy Drew books. Though there are many more titles and series under the Syndicate’s name, these are the most well-remembered today. After Stratemeyer’s death in 1930 at the age of 67, the ownership of the Syndicate was passed on to his two daughters, Harriet and Edna. At first, the sisters thought to sell the Syndicate, but quickly realized that they preferred to keep their father’s business alive. They went on the keep the Syndicate running for twelve years together, and then Harriet kept the Syndicate together until her death in 1982. 

Today, Edward Stratemeyer’s books are largely considered some of the most beloved and well-known children’s series books in the business. They certainly opened a door for series books, and gave many authors the ability to write a be published (even if it wasn’t under their name and they had no rights to their work… but regardless). Happy Birthday to Edward L. Stratemeyer!


“You’re wrong as the deuce, and you shouldn’t rejoice. If you’re calling him Seuss – he pronounces it Soice.” (But then changed it to Seuss, so…)

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By Margueritte Peterson

If someone says “Children’s Books” to you, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Picture books? Perhaps here is the better question… what author first comes to mind? I would venture to bet that at least 90% of you come up with the same name. However, did you know that the name you come up with is not his true name? (Probably most of you do, since you are members of the book world or bibliophiles and would know something like that… but humor me!) 

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 8.59.38 AMTheodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2nd, 1904 to a German family in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father ran a family-owned brewery in Massachusetts (well, until the Prohibition did away with that). Geisel went to school in Massachusetts until he went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, graduating in 1925. During his time at Dartmouth, Geisel first showed skill and interest in humorous literature as rose to the role of editor-in-chief of the literary magazine the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern before graduating. Unfortunately, one college incident threatened to end his early literary career – when Geisel was caught drinking gin (the Prohibition was in effect) in his dorm room with some of his friends. In punishment for this crime, Geisel was forced to resign from his position at the magazine. In order to continue publishing his work at the Jack-O-Lantern, Geisel began writing under the pen name “Seuss”, his middle name. The beginning of Dr. Seuss was underway. 

Once graduating from Dartmouth, Geisel began his PhD studies at Lincoln College, Oxford, to earn a degree in English Literature. Though he left Oxford without a degree in early 1927, Geisel was still able to begin his living publishing humorous cartoons. He accepted a job at the humor magazine Judge and 6 months after he began working at the magazine he first published work under his pen-name “Dr. Seuss.” Geisel’s cartoons gained popularity throughout the end of the 1920s and the entirety of the 1930s, largely due to his help with advertisements of popular brands like General Electric and Standard Oil – adverts that helped him and his wife maintain financial stability through the Great Depression. Due to help from a friend (despite his popularity), Geisel was able to begin publishing humorous poems with the Vanguard Press. In 1940, he published a poem under the title “Horton Hatches an Egg” – a poem that has, to this day, sparked further books, movies, animated films and even musical productions. 

Our signed copy of Bartholomew and the Oobleck can be found here!

Our inscribed copy of Bartholomew and the Oobleck can be found here!

Throughout the 1940s and WWII, Geisel created hundreds of political cartoons criticizing Hitler and Mussolini and strongly supported the US war effort. Shortly after the war, Geisel and his wife Helen moved from New York to La Jolla, California and he returned to writing children’s books. Between 1950 and 1960 Geisel published many of the works he is most well-known for today, such as Bartholomew and the Ooblek (1949), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), Horton Hears a Who! (1955 – a more in-depth work on his original poem), If I Ran the Circus (1956), The Cat in the Hat (1957), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). In 1954, William Ellsworth Spaulding challenged Geisel to write a book with 250 words chosen by the education division of Houghton Mifflin of words that all 1st graders ought to know. The result contained 236 of the 250 words and was Geisel’s famed The Cat in the Hat

Though Geisel (surprisingly) never won a Newbery or Caldecott award, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth (1956), a Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1980, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 (for his “substantial and lasting contributions to children’s literature”). Geisel also never had children of his own (perhaps he was too busy teaching and entertaining everyone else’s children!), but will forever be remembered as one of the fathers of Children’s Literature! 


A Wonderland of Books, Indeed! Happy 184th Birthday, Mr. Dodgson!

By Margueritte Peterson

One of my most favorite Children’s writers of all time was born on the 27th of January, 1832. Scratch that – one of my most favorite writers, period, was born on the 27th of January, 1832. Many critics of great literature have commented on the fact that one of the most lasting kinds of literature is the kind that speaks to both children AND adults – writers whose works you can read when you are both 5 and 75 and learn something equally important at both of these starkly different ages. It is my super humble (though really awesome) opinion that the writer we honor today, on what would be his 184th birthday, is one of those writers. It is perhaps also appropriate that we honor his memory this week, as in less than a month there will be an ABAA Fair in Pasadena named after some of his most well-known work. The name of the fair? A Wonderland of Books. Can you guess who it is yet? 

lewisCharles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll – for those readers that are having one of those really slow days) was the fourth child of what would be a family of 12 (just children, that is). He and quite a few of his siblings would suffer from an unfortunate stammer for their lives, a condition often thought to be brought on when a naturally left-handed child is forced to become right-handed early in childhood (though there is no specific evidence that shows this to blame for Dodgson in particular). This stammer would cause the author no end of misery as he felt inferior throughout life and led to his later relationships with children (sparking great work and no end of controversy to this very day). A (somewhat vague) problematic time in Dodgson’s upbringing would arrive when the 13-year-old Dodgson was sent to Rugby School – an independent boarding school in Warwickshire. Years after leaving the school, Dodgson would write, “I cannot say … that any earthly considerations would induce me to go through my three years again … I can honestly say that if I could have been … secure from annoyance at night, the hardships of the daily life would have been comparative trifles to bear.” Though never expanded on, one can assume that Dodgson was either teased mercilessly or suffered even worse hardships at the hands of his fellow students. 

In 1850 Dodgson entered Christ Church College in Oxford, where he excelled academically, despite not always being the most faithful of students. He received first-class honors in Mathematics at the College, and continued teaching and studying the subject until 1855, when he won the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship, a post he then held for the next 26 years. It was during this period that he began to be published nationally (having been writing poetry and satires, often humorous in nature, since young adulthood), in magazines like The Comic Times and The Train. It was during this period (1856, to be exact) that Dodgson first published a poem under the pseudonym “Lewis Carroll” – a work entitled “Solitude” published in the magazine mentioned above – The Train.


The Liddell sisters – Alice, Lorina & Edith.

In the same year as the publication of “Solitude”, a new Dean arrived at Christ Church – Dean Henry Liddell. The Liddell family would feature heavily in Dodgson’s life for years to come, as he became an important influence and friend to the Liddell daughters – Lorina, Edith, and Alice. He would often take the Liddell children on short day-trips around Oxford – rowing or going for walks – and it was on one of these trips that he first began the story that would eventually turn into one of the most beloved children’s books of all time – Alice in Wonderland. His story of a precocious and questioning young girl was a story told to Alice Liddell, who in turn begged Dodgson to put it to paper for her. His personally illustrated manuscript entitled “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” was completed in 1863. After Dodgson’s longtime friend (and fellow author) George MacDonald got ahold of the story, it was his persistence that led to its publication in 1865, with new illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. The book was an instant commercial success – with “Lewis Carroll” receiving attention from around the world. 

One of the most well-known Tenniel illustrations to the first Alice publication!

One of the most well-known Tenniel illustrations to the first Alice publication!

In 1871 Dodgson published a sequel to Alice, titled “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”. Though it was popular as well, it’s somewhat darker mood and gloomier settings did not garner the same amount of success as the first novel. In 1876, “Carroll” published his next great work – a humorous and fantastical poem – “The Hunting of the Snark.” Another work came even later, in a two-volume set of a fairy story titled “Sylvie and Bruno” – though not as well known it has remained in print ever since.

A great love of Dodgson’s throughout his life was photography. The first photographs that are attributed to the author date back to 1856 – around the time that he began his association with the Liddell family. Often, even today, Dodgson comes under scrutiny when fans find out that over half of his photographic subjects include little girls – sometimes scantily clad in what one might consider strange positions or situations. Though no evidence has ever come into question of an inappropriate relationship between Dodgson and any of the girls he came into contact with (as most of his “friends” were children – Dodgson was notoriously shy around adults), many continue to wonder whether he ever considered a more intense relationship with the girls in the photographs. Nevertheless, they are interesting pieces of early photographic work – all done with full knowledge of the subject’s parents and often commissioned by the families themselves! 

Dodgson is well-remembered for Alice and for the children’s stories he came up with, but it should be noted that this Mathematician also produced works that are still remembered if not used today in Mathematical sciences. He published almost a dozen books under his real name (not the pseudonym) on the science, and himself developed new ideas in the subject of linear algebra. He taught Mathematics in his post at Christ Church until 1881, and then remained in residence there for the rest of his life. On January 14th, 1898, two weeks away from his 66th birthday, Dodgson passed away from pneumonia following a bout of influenza, and is buried in Guildford. One thing is for sure and certain, whether you wish to remember him as Charles Dodgson or Lewis Carroll – this author remains, to this day, one of the most well-known names in Children’s Literature (if not the most well-known), and deserves to be celebrated on this his 184th birthday!

One of Dodgson's original illustrations in the manuscript "Alice's Adventures Under Ground".

One of Dodgson’s original illustrations in the manuscript “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”.


A Donation to Children’s Illustration: A Short Tribute to Randolph Caldecott

Randolph Caldecott was born in March of 1846 in a city called Chester, England. He left school at the tender age of fifteen and went to work in a bank branch. In 1861 he saw published his first drawing – and despite the fact that he was to be most remembered for his humorous depictions and lively countryside scenes, Caldecott’s first published work would be of a catastrophic fire at the Queens Railway Hotel in Chester which, along with his write-up of the event, appeared in the Illustrated London News. In his early twenties Caldecott was able to transfer to the Manchester & Salford Bank in the thriving Northern city and began to take night classes at the Manchester School of Art, all while continuing to have his sketches published locally. Upon making the acquaintance of Henry Blackburn and getting published in the London Society, Caldecott realized his talent could be enough to support him and at the young age of 26, he quit his banking job to move to London. In 1869 Caldecott exhibited an illustration in the Royal Manchester Institute, and 7 years later was displayed once more, this time at the Royal Academy. In 1872 he was elected to the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painting.

Randolph Caldecott.

One of the only surviving images of Randolph Caldecott. 

In 1877 Caldecott’s life would change forever, as he filled in for Walter Crane’s absence in the production of two small children’s Christmas Books – The House that Jack Built and The Diverting History of John Gilpin with color printer Edmund Evans. He would go on to create/illustrate two children’s stories for Evans at Christmastime until his death in 1886. These children’s stories became standards as Christmas annuals and were immensely popular, bringing Caldecott fame from around the world. As an enterprising young man, he also became quite wealthy from his work. As the website states, “Randolph Caldecott is believed to be the first author/illustrator to have negotiated with his publisher to receive, instead of a fixed fee, a ‘Royalty’ per book sold: he received one old penny per book (there were 12 pence to the shilling). The first print run was a cautious 10,000 copies. They were so popular that by July 1886, 5 months after his death, over 800,000 copies had been sold.

Caldecott often visited warmer climates in the winter months, due to consistently bad health (after an illness at a young age the illustrator continuously suffered from a heart condition and gastritis). The last winter of his life, he and his wife Marian Brind traveled to New York and down to Florida. Unfortunately it was an abnormally cold winter, even in Florida, and Caldecott took ill and never returned to the United Kingdom. His last days were lived in St. Augustine, where he died on February 12th, 1886.

The Caldecott Medal with it's replication of The Diverting History of John Gilpin illustration.

The Caldecott Medal with its replication of The Diverting History of John Gilpin illustration.

Let us now turn to the story behind the annual award to a children’s book illustrator named in Caldecott’s honor. Rene Paul Chambellan, an American architectural sculptor who specialized in the Art Deco style, designed the medal in 1937. The medal itself depicts two of Caldecott’s most famous illustrations – a scene from his work The Diverting History of John Gilpin and one of his nursery rhyme “Song of Sixpence.” After the Newbery medal was created (also in 1937 – as an award for distinguished children’s literature), “many persons became concerned that the artists creating picture books for children were as deserving of honor and encouragement as were the authors of children’s books, Frederic G. Melcher suggested in 1937 the establishment of a second annual medal. This medal is to be given to the artist who had created the most distinguished picture book of the year” ( – American Library Association). The rules of the Caldecott award are quite simple, really. It must be a book with original work (whether also written by the illustrator or not) by an American citizen or resident (or in a U.S. Commonwealth) that distinguishes itself in the field of children’s illustration. The medal itself weighs just over 3 pounds, and is not worn but rather presented in a box for display.

"And the Dish ran away with the Spoon!" An Illustration by Caldecott, demonstrating his humorous, exciting and moving illustrations.

“And the Dish ran away with the Spoon!” An Illustration by Caldecott, demonstrating his humorous, exciting and moving illustrations.

Though the reason for a British illustrator being chosen as the figurehead/namesake of an American award continues to confuse some of the American public, the American Library Association website claims (rightly so) that Caldecott was one of three of the most influential children’s illustrators working in the 19th century. Along with Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, Caldecott helped shape an entirely new generation of children’s illustration with his humorous visuals. As ALA states, “his illustrations for children were unique to their time in both their humor, and their ability to create a sense of movement, vitality, and action that complemented the stories they accompanied.” We cannot deny the fame that Caldecott experienced, even in his short period as an artist, but we also cannot deny the influence he exerted on illustrating for children and the importance of humor, color and excitement in his pieces. Thank you Randolph Caldecott!


Tavistock Books’ Almost-Annual Reference Book Workshop

There is a significant difference between booksellers who advertise their wares with professional descriptions, a clear understanding of the item in question, an honest assessment with regard to the item’s condition… and your typical eBay/Amazon blasters: “FREE SHIPPING! May or may not have highlighting and/or missing pages.” The pride in being a Good (or VG+) bookseller comes from the ability to sell something about which you are knowledgeable and which is priced confidently and accurately.

Oftentimes, as booksellers, we hear the question “Why?” Why is this book worth $495? Why would I pay that much for a book which Joe Shmoe, Bookseller offers for $29.99? There is no shame in asking these questions. Even booksellers can look at their colleagues’ wares and stare confusedly at the screen while waiting for the computer to sprout tiny-computer legs and giggle, while simultaneously erasing that last 0 or two. All that being said, however…. what can give booksellers the ability to price confidently and describe accurately? Two words.

Reference Books.Reference Books

If you are reading this blog, there is a good chance you have looked at listings of antiquarian books before and have noticed some crazy notations in our write-ups. What is a BAL11092? Or a Gabler G2390? An average person has a good chance of not particularly understanding what the numbers mean. Heck, another bookseller might not even have a clue to what you are referring. A good bookseller will know, however, that the inclusion of those small jumbles of letters and numbers beyond their edition statements represent the dedication and honesty of the person offering the item. They have gone to the trouble of understanding what they hold in their hands, so that their customer can have the guarantee and peace-of-mind that they are buying a 1st/1st, a 1st edition thus, or a reprint. What allows a reference book to (sometimes) up the price or (often) lower the price? Well… I guess you’ll just have to take the Tavistock Books’ Reference Book Workshop to find out!

This year’s course took place this past Saturday, the 23rd of August. The day-long course consists of an intense look at different genres of reference books, their scope, and their usefulness to the book-selling, book-collecting and book-cataloguing trades. Sections covered include Literature (do the acronyms NUC or NCBEL mean anything to you? Here’s where you will find them explained!), Americana (with an emphasis on Western Americana & California… can you say Kurutz three times fast?), Children’s Books, Early Printed Books, and Online Reference Tools. This course is a fast-paced survey, useful for any bookseller, collector, or librarian interested in understanding the tools booksellers use to identify and price their books.

Workshop 2014

This year’s workshop was attended by 4 booksellers (some new, some slightly seasoned), two librarians, and a lover of all things book-related. Intelligent questions were asked, anecdotes shared, and quite a bit of knowledge imparted on these smiling (though, by the end of the day, slightly haggard) faces. Due to the limited amount of space in the shop (where the workshop is held), we cap the number of “pupils” at 7 per year. Should you be interested in attending, please email and ask to be included on our mailing list, so that when the reminder comes about next spring to sign up, you can be first on the list!

The workshop truly is helpful to those dealing with the book-trade, and the Tavistock Books Reference Collection of over 3,000 reference volumes alone are worth the trip to see! And, as per tradition, lunch is on us at a great sushi place on our charming island of Alameda, CA. Interested in attending a workshop one day? Let us know!



Horatio Alger, Jr: Failed Minister Turned Juvenile Fiction Author

Today we remember Horatio Alger, Jr for his numerous children’s novels–and often little else. The prolific author’s life was shrouded in mystery and fabrication for decades, making him an even more fascinating figure for collectors of rare and antiquarian books.

A Childhood of Privation

Born on January 13, 1832 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Alger was the son of Reverend Horatio Alger and Oliv (Fenno) Alger. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy local merchant, but the Alger family always struggled financially. Reverend Alger was an able minister, but the post didn’t pay much. After all, as the saying goes, “A doornail is as dead as Chelsea.”

To supplement his pastoral income, the elder Alger served as the town’s postmaster, tended a small farm, and even occasionally taught grammar school. These various pursuits left little time for educating his son; Alger supposedly did not learn his alphabet until he was six years old or receive any formal education until age ten. his education was also skewed toward algebra and Latin.

Alger's work first appeared in print when he was only seventeen years old, in 'Chivalry & Voices of the Past' in Pictorial National Library.

Alger’s work first appeared in print when he was only seventeen years old, in ‘Chivalry & Voices of the Past’ in Pictorial National Library.

Ultimately Reverend Alger’s efforts were insufficient, and he had to surrender the family’s land to creditors in 1844. The family moved to Marlborough, about halfway between Boston and Worchester. Alger attended Gates Academy there for three years, from 1845 to 1847, graduating at age fifteen.

The following year, Alger attended Harvard University. He paid for tuition by acting as the “President’s freshman,” that is, the student who runs errands for the president. Alger’s uncle Cyril Alger, a wealthy industrialist, also contributed to his tuition. Alger distinguished himself as a student, winning numerous academic awards and prizes for his essays. After Alger graduated in 1852, he reflected, “no period in my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls.”

An Uncertain Future

In September 1853, Alger entered Harvard Divinity School–but soon withdrew to take a position as assistant editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser. He soon left that position as well, taking a series of jobs as teacher, principal, and private tutor. During this period, Alger published two hardcover books: a collection of previously published works, Bertha’s Christmas Vision (1856); and the satirical poem Nothing to Do (1857). Even with both teaching and writing, Alger couldn’t earn a decent living. He reentered Harvard Divinity School in July 1857 and graduated on July 17, 1860.

Horatio_Alger_JrAlger’s first assignment was a congregation in Chicopee, Massachusetts. He took the post and immediately started planning a grand tour of Europe. To fund the trip, Alger agreed to write travel columns for the New York Sun. He set off in September 1860 and would remain in Europe for ten months. Alger returned to an embattled country at the dawn of the Civil War.

Though he was drafted, Alger’s poor health and diminutive stature kept him on the home front. Meanwhile, Alger was increasingly frustrated with his inability to make a living as a writer. At this point, the majority of his works had been comedic sketches for adults. Many of them were published under pseudonyms because Alger himself thought them second-rate.

Noting that books for children weren’t exactly in great supply, Alger decided to shift his focus to writing children’s dime novels. He contacted AK Loring with an outline for Frank’s Campaign, a story about a boy who assembles a junior army while his father is fighting in the Civil War. The book was published in 1864. In November of that year, Alger accepted a new ministerial position in Brewster, Massachusetts. While still fulfilling all his pastoral responsibilities, Alger wrote Paul Prescott’s Charge (1865), which received favorable reviews.

In January 1866, two boys in Alger’s congregation accused the minister of having molested them. Alger admitted that his behavior had been “imprudent” and immediately submitted his resignation. Though the congregation wanted to charge Alger publicly, the American Unitarian Association convinced them to keep the matter quiet and be satisfied with Alger’s resignation and the assurance that he would never be a minister again. The congregation acquiesced, and after a brief stint at his parents’ home, Alger moved to New York City.

New Start in the Big Apple

That year Alger published three books: Timothy Crump’s Ward, Charlie Codman’s Cruise, and Helen Ford. The first two were merely revisions of earlier serial strories. The books were well received, but they didn’t generate particularly strong sales. In 1867, Alger submitted Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York to Student and Schoolmate magazine. Ragged Dick recounted the tale of a young bootblack living on the streets of New York.

The story built on Alger’s fascination with boys who lived on the city’s streets, then known as “street Arabs.” Alger visited the places these boys frequented, including the Newsboys’ Lodging House, where the boys could get a meal and a bed for whatever they could afford to pay. Alger often championed their cause and also took boys in himself. These boys often served as the inspiration for his stories.

Ragged Dick was so popular that Student and Schoolmate invited Alger to be a regular contributor, and Loring published an expanded version later that year. Alger signed on with Loring to write five more books in the Ragged Dick series: Fame and Fortune (1868); Mark the Match Boy (1869); Rough and Ready (1869); Ben the Luggage Boy (1870); and Rufus and Rose (1870). None of these were anywhere near as popular as Ragged Dick. But Alger, determined to make his living as an author, wrote at an incredible pace. He submitted articles to a number of magazines, from Ballou’s and Harper’s, to New York Weekly and Young Israel.


Photo Credit: Stanford University

He also agreed to write more series for Loring. These included the “Luck and Pluck Series,” the “Brave and Bold Series,” and the “Tattered Tim Series.” Many of these remained in print for quite a while. It’s evident, too, from the cover of the Boy’s Home Weekly (pictured at right), that Alger’s name sold magazines; that’s why it appears not once, but twice on the magazine’s cover.

Meanwhile Alger still aspired to write for adults–a dream he’d never fully realize. Though a few pieces were published, children’s dime novels financially sustained him. He published a poetry collection, Grand’ther Baldwin’s Thanksgiving in 1875 and a novel called The New Schoolma’am; or, A Summer in North Sparta in 1877.

Alger also wrote a novel called Mabel Parker but decided to wait to publish it because of a slump in the book trade. It would be published posthumously by Edward Stratemeyer with revisions and under the title Jerry, the Backwoods Boy (1904). Gary Scharnhorst published the original version in 1986 under the Archon Books imprint.

Time for Reinvention as an Author

In 1873, Alger took a second tour of Europe, this time returning in time for the stock market crash of 1874. Soon after, he departed on a tour of the western United States. Alger found himself running out of ideas, so he shifted his books’ settings, placing them in new locales rather than big cities. These works sold well, but by this time Alger was publishing to a saturated market. Dime novels for children had proliferated, and Alger’s sales began to drop.

Deadwood_Dick_Denver_DollsTo keep up with the market, Alger began making his stories more lurid. He incorporated violence and criminal activity, similar to what one would find in Edward S Ellis’ Deadwood Dick stories. This proved an ill-advised move. Newspapers, schools, and other organizations had begun protesting violent literature for children.

The Boston Herald editors specifically called out Alger, noting that “boys who are raw at reading [and want] fighting, killing, and thrilling adventures…go for ‘Oliver Optic’ and Horatio Alger’s books.” Clearly this strategy was not the answer Alger had been looking for.

When President James Garfield died in 1881, Alger’s friend John R Anderson suggested that Alger write a biography of the president for children. By this time, sales were flagging, and Alger needed a new source of income. He reasoned that critics could hardly say something terrible about a presidential biography without seeming unpatriotic, so he gave it a try. Alger put together the manuscript in only fourteen days, using other biographies and news clippings. From Canal Boy to President got good reviews, so Alger wrote two more biographies. From Boy to Senator (about Daniel Webster) was published in 1882, and Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy came out in 1883.

Alger increasingly spent time out of the city to protect his lungs from smoke and soot. When his health began failing in 1898, he permanently relocated to his sister’s farm. Alger desperately wanted to keep writing, but he simply couldn’t. He decided to hire a ghostwriter to complete the manuscript of Out for Business, settling on editor Edward Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer was ill as well, and was not able to begin work on the manuscript until after Alger had died on July 18th, 1899. By the time Stratemeyer finished the book (both parts – Out for Business and Falling in with Fortune) in 1900, the book would be published posthumously in Alger’s name.

Collecting Books by and about Horatio Alger, Jr

When Alger passed away, his sister respected his wishes that his diaries and personal correspondence be destroyed. That left a momentous task for any would-be biographers. In 1927, Herbert Mayes was commissioned to write Alger’s biography but quickly grew frustrated with the task; there was little extant record of Alger’s life, and his contemporaries were reluctant to share information.

Mayes gave up. He decided to write a parody of Alger instead, opting for the scandalous tell-all format so popular in that era. “All I had to do was come up with a fairy tale…the going was easy, particularly when I decided to write copiously from Alger’s diary. If Alger kept a diary, I knew nothing about it,” Mayes admitted in an introduction to a reissue of his Alger: A Biography Without a Hero.

Mayes did not admit the book was a fake until the 1970′s. By then, plenty of revisions–equally fallacious–had been written. A true biography would not emerge until 1985, with Gary Scharnhorst and Jack Bales’ The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. For collectors of the author, this plenitude of biographies makes for a fascinating collection in its own right, and the biographies certainly complement a collection of Alger’s literature.

Meanwhile Alger was an incredibly prolific author; by the time of his death, Alger’s name was on 537 novels and short stories (including variant titles); 94 poems; and 27 articles. He also wrote under a number of pseudonyms (the ones we know: Carl Cantab, Harry Hampton, Caroline F Preston, Charles F Preston, Arthur Lee Putnam, and Julian Starr).

It’s likely that Alger used other pseudonyms we don’t know about, so some of his works may be lost forever. It’s also possible that a savvy collector or scholar could eventually identify other works that should be attributed to Alger. Collectors rely on bibliographies by Bob Bennett and Ralph D Gardner, but sometimes these experts even disagree on bibliographic points. Bennett’s bibliography, A Collector’s Guide to the Published Works of Horatio Alger, Jr 1832-1899 is considered the definitive bibliography.

Because of the sheer number of various Alger editions, a bibliography is indispensable to Alger collectors. It’s important to identify the right points of issue, which may be as obvious as a different title or minute as a tiny artistic detail on the book’s dust jacket. Some books may not be true first editions, but really “first editions thus,” that is, they represent the first time a book was published in a particular format. In some cases, for instance, the paperback edition was published before the hardback, so the hardback book is not the true first edition, but it could still be the first edition thus, meaning it was the first hardback edition. The Horatio Alger Society offers a terrific online guide to identifying first editions, which is a wonderful supplement to a full bibliography.

Ultimately, however, collecting Horatio Alger books will indeed require a bibliography because he so frequently published serially in magazines and other periodicals. These items can be tough to track down because they were not meant to last a long time and were generally printed on very cheap paper. This scarcity is yet another reason why so many find collecting Alger a challenging and engaging pursuit.

Have a question about collecting Alger? Interested in building a personal library of juvenile fiction? We’re happy to help! Please feel free to contact us with inquiries.

Related Posts:
The In’s and Out’s of Collecting Serial Fiction for Children
A Panoply of Primers
Irwin and Erastus Beadle: Innovators in Publishing Popular Literature
Three Pioneering Authors Who Used Pseudonyms

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