Children’s books provide a view of earlier times

“To my dear little Margaret – a very happy Christmas, with love from Granny.”

This loving inscription, written 111 years ago, lives between the covers of a children’s book protected in the University of Windsor’s Rare Books and Special Collections – preserved for interpretation by scholars and historians who not only study it for its beautiful language and illustrations, but also for what it says about the times in which it was published.

UWindsor archivist and librarian responsible for rare books and special collections, Brian Owens, says the library houses an exquisite collection of illustrated children’s books and school readers published from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century, which not only provide a snapshot of how children were being raised during this era, but also a view into everything from fashion and literacy to standards of morality.

Dr. Owens says that late 19th century British children’s authors and illustrators Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane had a tremendous cultural influence on both children and adults of their era, as well as reflecting the influence of some of the greatest thinkers and artists of their time.

“In examining their work, you can see influences of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones,” Owens says. “It’s the whole arts and crafts and art nouveau aesthetic movements that were gaining a foothold at that time.”

He says works by these authors represent a return to things pastoral and a rejection of industrialization.

Owens says Greenaway’s idealized version of children dressed in clothing from the Regency period, the first decade of the 1800s, became so popular that British department store Liberty designed a line of children’s clothing that became the rage with fashionable mothers of the time.

“There is a certain Victorian sentimentality that would not be eroded for about another 50 years, until World War II.”

The archivist and librarian says that the latter part of the 19th century also saw an incredible increase in literacy, with Britain becoming the most literate nation on the planet. He says Canadian children would have been exposed to the same types of children’s literature as British children, and may also have had access to U.S. publications, depending on where in Canada they lived.

Kara Smith, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education who teaches English language methodology for teachers, says that children’s literature preserved in the UWindsor Rare Books and Special Collections can provide scholars with evidence of everything from immigration patterns to social mores in schools.

“During the foundation of Canadian schools, there was a large wave of British immigration and these rare texts represent a foundation in time for the Ontario educational system,” she says. “Until the 1950s, British spellers were used in schools, but we can see a turning point in Canadian history, marking our separate identity with the first Canadian speller owned by the archives.”

Dr. Smith says that the turn of the 20th century reflects a strong British sensibility in children’s literature and is an indicator of what was happening in the lives of Canadian children at the time.

“The collection’s chapter books by authors like May Wynne show very British representations of what children were told to do then,” she says. “Every chapter of the story had a particular moral value. Books for children today are still very focused on particular moral values, but our focus in schools today is the diverse and rich types of families including all our students – they stress being accepting and tolerant of the people who are represented in our communities.”

She says that as the Faculty of Education celebrates its 50th year in Windsor next year, these books allow people in Windsor-Essex to see where Ontario literacy began.

As for little Margaret? She took care of her grandmother’s Christmas gift of Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers until her death in 1998 at the age of 98. It is now in the UWindsor Rare Books and Special Collections for others to study and enjoy.