University of Delaware Library


Stories: Before 1850

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, all books for children were religious books in the sense that all literature was seen as requiring a stated moral perspective. Since fairy and folk tales, beloved by children in both oral and written form, were seen as threatening to the established moral order, a body of literature was developed to ensure that children's reading would reflect the conservative Protestantism of the time. The high infant mortality rate and large numbers of women dying in childbirth, also contributed to the focus in children's stories on pious lives and early deaths.

Richard Johnson
The Little Wanderers; or, the Surprising History and Miraculous Adventures of Two Pretty Orphans. Hartford: Lincoln & Gleason, 1805.

This is the first American edition of a story originally published in England by John Newbery in 1786.

Hannah More, 1745-1833.
Sacred Drama: Chiefly Intended for Young Persons. Boston: J. West, 1811.

Hannah More wrote hundreds of religious tracts, stories, and dramas for children, all based on her extremely conservative Protestant views. She actually opposed the availability of books written for children, feeling that too many books would "protract the imbecility of childhood. They arrest the understanding instead of advancing it."

Charles Lamb, 1775-1834.
Tales from Shakespear: designed for the use of young persons. London: Printed for M.J. Godwin ..., 1816.

The Tales were adapted for children by Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. First published in 1807, the drawings were done by William Mulready and engraved by William Blake. The Tales are remarkably free from the heavy moralizing usually found during this period and use the poet's words whenever possible. Although the illustrations and format have changed over the years, the Lambs' adaption of Shakespeare can still be found today.

Thomas Day, 1748-1789.
The Forsaken Infant, or, Entertaining History of Little Jack. Glasgow: Lumfden, 1819.

A moral tale telling the story of a foundling who, thorough bravery and hard work, rises from poverty to become a soldier. Jack travels to Asia where he saves the favorite horse of the Kan of the Tartars, is rewarded with riches, and returns to a life of prosperity in England.

Mrs. (Mary Martha) Sherwood, 1775-1851.
The History of Little Henry and his Bearer. Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1827. Little Henry, the earliest missionary story for children, was first published in 1814. Its enormous success has been compared to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Written by the wife of a British army officer stationed in India, it tells the story of a six-year-old boy's conversion to Evangelical Christianity and his efforts to convert his Indian servant. The climax of the tale is Henry's inspiring death at the age of eight. Much of the book's appeal was the vivid description of its exotic setting, which would be used equally effectively at the end of the century by Rudyard Kipling.

The History of Little John Merry. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, circa 1830.

A Book for Young Children. Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, circa 1845.

The Converted Child. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, circa 1830.

The American Sunday School Union was an interdenominational organization founded in 1817 to establish Sunday schools. It deliberately set out to create an American children's literature with a religious outlook to counterbalance what was seen as the vulgarity of the chapbooks and the underlying political content of folktales. These inexpensive books were widely available and were popular among working-class children who had few other choices available. They were often used as Rewards of Merit, prizes given to children in school for good grades or behavior.

Stories for Little Girls: an amusing book for the moral improvement of children. Guben [Germany]: Printed by F. Fechner, circa 1840.

Stories for Little Boys: an amusing book for the moral improvement of children. Guben [Germany]: Printed by F. Fechner, circa 1840.

These books were published in Germany for the American export market. Each title has twelve short stories, illustrated with a hand-colored plate. The tales in the boys' book have to do with occupations; for example, the young sailor, the young baker, and the woodcutter. In the girls' book, however, the characters have no specific skills; they are identified only as the slovenly little girl or the sulky child.

Introduction Early Works Fables and Fairy Tales Books of Instruction Primers Poetry Popup and Movable Books Stories after 1850


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