Amherst College is probably not the first place that springs to mind when one is looking for children’s literature of the nineteenth century, but it is actually an area of great strength in the Archives & Special Collections. While we can hardly compete with the nearby American Antiquarian Society’s holdings in this field, we have substantial holdings to support a variety of research projects. We have extensive holdings of one of the most prolific publishers of children’s books in the 19th century — Samuel Goodrich — and an assortment books for children published in nearby Greenfield and Northampton.
The college can also boast a direct connection with one of the leading authors of children’s books in 19th-century America — Jacob Abbott, author of nearly 200 books including the very popular Rollo Series. Abbott served as a professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Amherst College from 1825 until 1829. He began his career as an author with a popular manual of piety called The Young Christian (1832) and published the first Rollo book in 1834. His books were immensely popular, as indicated by the frequent reprintings, imitations, and piracies throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. For instance, this web site devoted to Rollo’s Tour in Europe contains a wealth of images and information about the printing history of just one subset of the Rollo books. The Archives & Special Collections has a large collection of Abbott’s works, though not all of our titles are represented in the online catalog yet.
As successful as Jacob Abbott was, he was not quite as successful as Samuel G. Goodrich, creator of the Peter Parley series of books for children. We hold nearly 600 copies of Goodrich’s books including first editions, reprints, foreign editions, piracies, and parodies, all of which can be found in our online catalog. Our holdings range from Goodrich’s early forays as a publisher to the very first Peter Parley book — The Tales of Peter Parley, about America (1827) — to 20th-century reprints. We also hold a small collection of Goodrich manuscripts, largely correspondence with his authors: The Samuel G. Goodrich Collection, 1812-1972.
Goodrich is a particularly fascinating subject because he was so fiercely devoted to promoting American authors and American themes in literature, as evidenced by the subject of the first Peter Parley book. In 1828 Goodrich launched his own literary annual titled The Token which appeared annually until 1842. This anthology was one of several available to American readers in the nineteenth century, but Goodrich made a point of promoting American authors. His most famous contributor was Nathaniel Hawthorne, but writers such as Catherine Sedgwick, Nathaniel Parker Willis, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also appeared in The Token. Hawthorne wrote some Peter Parley books as a pen-for-hire which surely influenced his later forays into children’s literature.
The Peter Parley books cover a wide range of topics: history, travel, science, the bible, and more. Most of them are filled with illustrations, though the quality of the pictures varies considerably. Some of the most fascinating titles are the more miscellaneous ones, such as Peter Parley’s Book of Curiosities Natural and Artificial (1832).
Among our holdings of general rare books, we have a special category for titles published in western Massachusetts in the 18th and 19th centuries. Among these titles are several very small books for children published by A. Phelps of Greenfield and J. Metcalf of Northampton. Unlike the works of Goodrich and Abbott which appeared in large print runs in hardcover, these books are very small with delicate paper wrappers. It is truly amazing to find such ephemeral books in such excellent condition. All of these items are included in the online catalog.