Riding the First Wave of Children’s Literature: a look at the Museum of Childhood’s special collection of books

As a postgraduate student studying Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh, I have been lucky enough to receive full access to the museum’s special book collection – consisting of children’s literature printed and published prior to 1850 – in order to update the catalog with information about its contents. While working through the books, I’ve noticed a few trends that seem to reflect the history of children’s literature in general.

The first, and most prominent, trend is one that has changed little over the centuries. Children’s books are full of doodles, inscriptions, and signatures. Cathrine Edwardson’s well-loved copy of Divine Songs for Children shows how even in the eighteenth century, children made books their own by practicing their signatures or drawing pictures in the blank spaces.

Inscriptions like Cathrine’s are not uncommon finds, although it varies widely as to what the children write and where they write it – which makes each book new and unique.

The other trend is one that has changed significantly from the origin of British children’s literature to today.

The bulk of the museum’s special book collection consists of books published just before or in the decades immediately after the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many of them have quite descriptive titles such as The History of Tommy Playlove and Jacky Lovebook, Wherein Is Shewn the Superiority of Virtue Over Vice, However Dignified by Birth or Fortune (1819), or The Sister’s Gift, or The Naughty Boy Reformed, Published for the Advantage of the Rising Generation (1812). These heavily didactic tales seem like a far stretch from the whimsical stories I heard as a child, which has to do with how children’s literature progressed as a genre.

The idea of “children’s literature” emerged in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, when means for printing and publishing became more widespread. The early generations of children’s writers tended to create moral stories in which good behavior was rewarded and bad behavior was severely punished. These stories were influenced largely by Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who believed a child is a blank slate (“tabula rasa”) with an innocent mind on which needed to be written the morals of society. The purpose of children’s literature, then, was to instruct children in exactly what those morals were

MC.2019.080 – magnified preface to The Girl’s Own Book by Lydia Child

MC.2019.080 – magnified preface to The Girl’s Own Book by Lydia Child

Additionally, parents were the ones choosing what books their children read. Often a preface is addressed to them, instead of the children for whom the book was written. They tend to explain to the parents how the book will be useful for the child’s growth and learning.

These books are commonly inscribed with notes such as that in Evenings at Home; or the Juvenile Budget Opened: Consisting of A Variety of Miscellaneous Pieces for the Instruction and Amusement of Young Persons by early children’s writer Anna Barbauld and her brother John Aikin, which indicates that the book was a gift to a little girl “from her affectionate Father.” Thus, many of these books are a better indication of what parents would like to have their children read than what children themselves would want to read.

MC.2019.068 – inscription inside of Evenings at Home by Dr. Aikin and Mrs. Barbauld

MC.2019.068 – inscription inside of Evenings at Home by Dr. Aikin and Mrs. Barbauld

In 1839, Edinburgh-born author Catherine Sinclair challenged these norms in children’s literature by producing a story that depicted children as mischievous – not passive followers of moral instruction – in her book Holiday House. The Museum of Childhood’s special book collection features a first edition, printed by William Whyte and Co. in Edinburgh.

This work was one of the first children’s stories to depict children as, well, children! Her preface states that she wishes to recall the days when children were noisy and frolicsome, when they had individual characters that allowed for eccentricities.

Holiday House foreshadowed the next trend in children’s literature, which began in the 1860s with the publication of children’s stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley. These authors traded explicit morality for imagination and fantasy. They created children’s stories that the children would choose for themselves.

MC.2019.010 – title page of Sinclair’s Holiday House

MC.2019.010 – title page of Sinclair’s Holiday House

This new and so-called “golden age of children’s literature” ushered in by Carroll and Kingsley falls outside the scope of the Museum of Childhood’s special book collection (which consists of items from 1850 and earlier), and thus my own area of expertise, but the Alice books and other fantastical stories are still familiar from my own experiences growing up.

Although the early stories themselves may be less exciting to children today, those in the special book collection at the Museum of Childhood are an important record of the changes that children’s literature has faced through the centuries. They also represent the children themselves, who drew pictures and inscribed their names in their books – much like any child of our own time would.

Kathryn Downing
MSc Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh


For Further Reading:

International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Second Edition. Edited by Peter Hunt. London: Routledge, 2004. Vols. 1-2.

McGavock, Karen L. “Agents of Reform?: Children’s Literature and Philosophy.” Philosophia 35 (2007): 129-143. doi: 10.1007/s11406-007-9048-x.

Darton, Frederick Joseph Harvey. Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781139060752.



Changing Childhood

Little Lord Fauntleroy Suit

One of the exhibits in our new Changing Childhood gallery is a brown velvet three-piece suit with crocheted lace trimmings. We chose it partly to show how formal children’s clothes were in the late 19th century but also because it’s an example of a hugely popular fashion.

These suits were worn by small boys from the late 1880s into the early 20th century and were inspired by the story, Little Lord Fauntleroy, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was serialised in the St. Nicholas magazine in 1885 and published as a novel the following year. In 1888 it was produced as a play in New York and London and it’s since been made into films and a television series. Described as a classic ‘rags to riches’ story, its sentimental nature had great appeal for Victorian audiences and was an instant success.

Little Lord Fauntleroy cover

The main character, Cedric Errol, is transformed into Little Lord Fauntleroy, and his description in the book started the craze for ‘picturesque’ outfits. “What the Earl saw was a graceful childish figure in a black velvet suit with a lace collar, and with lovelocks waving about his handsome, manly little face.”

Little Lord Fauntleroy illustration

The illustrations by Reginald B. Birch provided details of a style that was copied in many variations. Fauntleroy suits were made in several materials but velvet was the most popular, especially in black, dark blue, green and brown. Some boys were subjected to wearing their hair in ringlets but they were probably in the minority.















While the Fauntleroy Suit was a favourite of many mothers, it was often hated by the boys who wore it. Especially older boys. But for boys of three to six or so, it may have felt like an improvement on the dresses they would otherwise have been wearing. Some people credit the Fauntleroy Suit with bringing forward the age for ‘breeching’ little boys – moving them from skirts to trousers.

The suit on display was worn by Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976) who became an artist, art historian, designer, writer and the Director of the Scottish National Galleries (as they were then known) for 18 years. He grew up on Orkney in a comfortable, middle class family which shows just how widespread this fashion in children’s clothes was. The suit is in very good condition so may have been kept for Sunday Best but we don’t know how often it was worn. Some items found in the pockets include a paper party hat, a printed joke and a cotton handkerchief with a picture of Mickey Mouse so perhaps some younger member of the Cursiter family wore the suit to a fancy dress party?

The Big Gallery 1 Project: Changing Childhood


One of the display cases in ‘Play.’

By Lois Burke

We’ve been a little quiet on the Stories of Childhood blog in recent months as the Museum of Childhood has been undergoing a major redevelopment since October. We’re now open again, and better still, from 1st June we’ll be open every day!

Without giving too much away about the gallery (we want the new space to delight and surprise visitors!) in this post I’d like to share my experience of helping in the redevelopment project. This has been great fun, as well as a learning curve.

The gallery that has been redeveloped is ‘Changing Childhood’, the first space you encounter in the museum. The permanent exhibition takes visitors on a journey through ‘Life’, ‘Learn’ and ‘Play’, which are the 3 major themes that curators Lyn and Susan chose to highlight. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the exhibition through listening and viewing stations, tactile interactives and a dress-up area, as well as engaging with the objects on display. Hopefully visitors will reflect on what childhood means to them, where it ends, and how they think it has changed over time.

Before the building work started and the objects were installed, a lot of planning and collaboration took place. The curators had meetings with gallery designers Studioarc months prior to any construction work. Themes, objects, colour schemes, text panels, and audio/visual elements all had to be agreed beforehand, which meant a thorough process of research and re-drafting. As would be expected of any major project which involves several collaborators, compromises had to be made!

Empty Gallery One 2017 3

The empty gallery, before building work began.

Internship tasks

From my perspective as a PhD intern with the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities, I was given the responsibility of curating the audio/visual elements in the new gallery space. This meant that I was tasked with the sourcing of film, photographs and oral histories, liaising with individuals about copyright considerations, and organising the film, photos and voice clips into an engaging narrative about the history of childhood. In the A/V aspect alone we have developed several great partnerships with organisations and individuals around Scotland, to ensure that our depiction of Scottish childhood is as diverse and representative as possible.

This began with me searching the museum’s existing archives for photographs depicting child ‘life.’ I soon discovered that photographs from some eras were thin on the ground, so I put a call out to Edinburgh City Council Staff to submit their childhood photos from the 1970s to the present.

While this was going on, our ‘opening soon’ window vinyls were being put up at the entrance. The de-installation, or decant of the gallery began in earnest too. It was all hands on deck as we carefully packed away the objects that were previously on display, photographing them all for our records and taking notes on their condition. This process was truly fascinating to me – I loved learning about the different shapes that one can make with tissue paper to best support objects in boxes.

lois rupert

Decanting the gallery in October 2017

Back in the office, I continued with my A/V quest. I went to visit The Yard in Edinburgh’s New Town, a support centre for children and young people with disabilities, and accepted their kind offer of photographs from their collection. I also explored the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive in order to create an edited film portraying our three gallery themes. Then I plundered the museum’s oral history archives, to find interesting audio clips that will be played in the gallery. In all, the digital album, video montage, and audio stations that you’ll find in the gallery were all curated by me!

It is so heartening now to see this exciting research culminate in the newly opened gallery. The Museum of Childhood’s collection has been recognised as having national significance, and it truly deserves to be exhibited in the best possible way. Looking ahead to the planned redevelopments of the other galleries, AKA ‘Phase 2’, is an exciting prospect. We hope you will come and visit us soon!


The introductory display in the ‘Changing Childhood’ gallery.


Six carved wooden figures with large eyes and black geometric decoration on pale unvarnished wood.

Empire and Education in Edward Lovett’s Display of Dolls

By Catriona Ellis

The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh claims to be the first in the world to focus on the history of childhood, but the museum is not the only place in which some of these toys have been displayed.  Many of the dolls were the result of enthusiasm for collecting of one man – Mr Edward Lovett (1852-1933).  But collections are not only for the joy of collecting, but also the joy of sharing with a wider audience. 

View of the Exhibition 'It's Alive' at the Museum of Childhood Edinburgh, June 2017

It’s Alive! tour for visually impaired visitors


This summer the museum plays host to a cast of curious clockwork characters from the House of Automata, alongside a new series of etchings by Robert Powell.

We invite you to join us for a descriptive tour of the exhibition and a hands-on automata performance, tailored to visually impaired visitors.

Come along to experience the magic of mechanical life. In Robert Powell’s prints we will explore the uncanny overlaps between nature and technology, and the role of automata in legend and literature. Then, the automata will come to life in the expert hands of Michael and Maria Start, including a tiny feathered bird who sings 170-year-old songs.

11.00am – 12.30pm

Friday 28th July 2017

Places are limited. Book by email alice.sage@edinburgh.gov.uk

Museum of Childhood, 42 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TG

Directions to Museum http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/Museum-of-Childhood/Visitor-Information/Find-Us

A 'Strawberry Girl' automata, resembling a ceramic doll holding a basket of strawberries, in front of a patterned wallpaper and Victorian diorama.

Background information

Michael and Maria Start are collectors, restorers and promoters of mechanical life. The intriguing automata in the exhibition have been brought to Edinburgh from their secret workshop in the Highlands.

Robert Powell is an Edinburgh artist who creates hand-painted prints, filled with black humour and glorious detail. This new series, ‘Pneuma: The Mechanical Egg’, has been created especially for the exhibition.

Accessibility information

A lift provides step-free access to the exhibition, and there are accessible toilets in Gallery 3. Unfortunately we do not have parking on site.




Write at the Museum 2!

Write at the Museum was a series of four monthly workshops at the Museum of Childhood.

Six writers joined us for afternoons of creativity in the tranquil (some might say eerie!) space of the closed museum. They were free to roam the galleries and work in any space which suited them, and much of the work produced was indeed inspired by the material culture of childhood.