Bad Children of History #16: The Recalcitrant Tomboy

I’ve been trudging my way through Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, a book about which I can’t articulate anything positive or negative that hasn’t already been said more thoroughly and eloquently than one could manage in an introductory paragraph to a blog post. However, in light of discussions around the book, I’ve been thinking about girls and women who defy society’s rigid expectations, those truly wonderful spinsters of fiction and their tomboyish counterparts— including, of course, “Romping Polly”, the free-spirited star of this week’s Bad Children of History.

Romping Polly is another of the ill-fated children from the classic Struwwelpeter, a book last featured in our first-ever Bad Children of History post. The illustrations of Polly below are again taken from the 1890 English translation of the book, published in Philadelphia by Porter & Coates.


At the very beginning of “The Story of Romping Polly”, we see her receiving a stern warning about her inappropriately-feminine styles of play:

I know that you will often see
Rude boys push, drive, and hurry;
But little girls should never be
All in a heat and flurry.

Nodding her tomboy-ish head, Polly acknowledges her aunt’s lecture, and then promptly scurries down some sort of decorative border and leaps toward her jumping and running playmates. Looks like fun, right?


WRONG! There’s nothing fun about falling down such that your leg detaches like a lizard’s tail. (Mind you, the text simply says that “her poor leg was broken”, but the illustration leads me to believe that it was something infinitely more drastic.)

Polly is carried away on a makeshift stretcher, while her detached leg (or should I say “the limb all wet and gory”) is carried away by her tearful brother.


Let’s choose to ignore the butcher’s knives in the lower left of that illustration, shall we?

What happened to poor, rough-playing, enthusiastically-frolicking Polly? How did her life turn out, in the wake of her inattention to compulsory 19th century feminine behavior?


Full many a week, screwed up in bed,
She lingered sad and weary;
And went on crutches, it is said,
Ev’n to the grave so dreary.

Yep. Little ladies, don’t try to play with the boys, or else you may end up a hunched woman in an unflattering bonnet walking with crutches toward your own gravesite. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

Art//Archives Sneak Peek: Storms!

The weather outside is borderline-frightful, but look how delightful these weather and storm books are!

We have books and manuscripts on meteorology, storm-related shipwrecks, the 1938 Rhode Island “tidal wave”, and urban flooding, as well as a book with a superb etching of “Lightning above a Volcano”.

Stop by Special Collections today, Tuesday, between 10:30 and 1:00 to hang out with these weather-related items!

Bad Children of History #15, with Essential Etymological Preface

Essential Etymological Preface: The English language is an ever-shifting beast, with corresponding changes in the meanings of words. That said, through at least the 18th century, the word “slut” was used to refer to an ugly, slovenly, unkempt person, often a woman. (For examples of this usage, check the OED2.) The Online Etymology Dictionary describes the word’s likely origins from the colloquial German schlutt, meaning a slovenly woman, and claims that its contemporary usage wasn’t cemented until some time in the 1960s. Sam Bovill has a blog post describing the word’s semantic shift, and Malcolm Jones, in an article in The Daily Beast, notes that over the centuries, “slut” has been used to refer to “men, women, dogs, and light fixtures”.

Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at today’s featured book, a very tiny volume entitled The Merry Andrew: or, the Humours of a Fair. Here it is, with my smaller-than-most hand included for scale:


The title page doesn’t have a publication date, but my best guess is some time between 1810 and 1820.

The author includes his own cautionary preface at the start of this tale, noting that the “humours of a fair” aren’t all levity and entertainment– for instance, the surging crowds there can easily trample a small boy.


For little boys are often trod upon, and even crushed to death by mixing with the mob. If you would be safe, by all means avoid a crowd. Look yonder, Dick Wilson there has done the very thing I cautioned you against.

It’s a little hard to see his head down there at surging-crowd-knee-level, but Dick Wilson is definitely there, full of his usual bad ideas. He’s not today’s primary bad child of history, but he is, according to the author, an “impertinent little monkey”, which is definitely one of my new favorite insults.

As long as you’re not like Dick Wilson, you can see all kinds of fascinating and entertaining things at the fair. You can visit the Wheel of Fortune, pre-Vanna White:


You can see these entertaining gentlemen:

You can ignore your mother’s good advice and ride these dangerous-looking carnival rides:

(Sidenote: the text around that second illustration mystifies me. “You know what I mean by the Up-and-down? It is a horse in a box, a horse that flies in the air, like that which the ancient poets rode on.” Is that a reference to Pegasus? Did ancient poets love carnival rides? Clarifying comments encouraged.)

Because The Merry Andrew is a historical children’s book, this catalog of delights is followed by brief discourses entitled “Descant on Time”, “On Learning”, “On Business”, and “On Idleness”, and the book closes with two short rhymes, “To a Good Girl” and “To a Naughty Girl”.

Below are said good and naughty girls, looking suspiciously like the exact same lass with a slightly different hat and bustle:


So, pretty Miss Prudence, you’re come to the Fair,
And a very good girl they tell me you are.
Here, take this fine orange, this watch, and this knot,
You’re welcome, my dear, to all we have got.

So, pert Mistress Prate-a-Pace, how came you here?
There is nobody wants to see you at the Fair.
Not an orange, an apple, a cake, or a nut,
Will any one give to so saucy a slut.

(Did you keep our etymological preface in mind this whole time? Good, good.) Lesson: don’t be brazen or dirty, or you won’t get any snacks. If you’re pretty, however, you’ll get lots of desirable things, including but not limited to a “fine orange”. Now, children, go forth to the fair, unless there are crowds. Just be careful on the Up-and-down!

Bad Children of History #14: A Macabre Maiden

Today’s story comes from Dolly and I, an 1872 volume penned by the improbably-named Oliver Optic.


The star of our tale is a ten-year-old girl named Katy, daughter of a factory agent, and a “pretty good girl”, although we’re told from the get-go that she was a demanding baby and, as she grew older, “she did not like to see others have any thing which she could not have.”

The text of Dolly and I is full of the detailed goings-on of dolls (I imagine this is appealing to the book’s intended audience), but to make a long story short: Katy is gifted a beautiful wax doll, and she doesn’t want to share it with her sweet-tempered sister Nellie, who must make do with numerous broken-ish dolls.


Despite Katy’s meanness, Nellie is still kind to her. As a reward for her kindness and good nature, Nellie herself is gifted a wax doll– and this one has eyes that open and close!!



As I’m sure one can imagine, Katy is 100% furious. How dare Nellie have a blinking doll, when Katy only has a beautiful non-blinking doll? (Mind you, Nellie is so empathetic, she feels guilty about her doll’s niceness and her sister’s anger.)

What does Katy, blinded by her envious rage, do? She stumbles up the dark stairs after dinner one evening, makes her way into her poorly-lit play room, and then:


Golly. The accompanying narrative makes it even creepier:


‘Your dolly shall not be better than mine any longer,’ she said to herself. As she said this, she took the scissors from the work basket on the bureau, and finding one of the eyes with her fingers, she struck one of the points right into it. Then she turned the scissors, so as entirely to destroy the eye. Not content with this, she spoiled the other eye in the same manner.

Sneaking the defiled doll back into her drawer, Katy slinks downstairs and tries to act cool. When dear, sweet Nellie suggests some pre-bedtime doll-playing, Katy demurs, feeling “just as though she should sink through the floor”. Nellie, completely unaware of her sister’s inner turmoil, runs upstairs, grabs her blinking doll, brings it down to the table, and…

…wait for it…


Is it magic?

No, it’s the retributive tendency of the otherwise marvelous universe, for in her jealous frenzy, Katy accidentally poked out the eyes of her very own wax doll.

Our story ends with Katy’s mother scolding her, Katy crying herself to sleep, and the non-blinking wax doll being “utterly ruined”. Tell us, Oliver Optic, what’s the moral of this sad, sad tale?

When you envy others, although you may not punch out the eyes of your own doll, you hurt yourself more than any one else.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Bad Children of History #12: Lessons (Rapidly) Learned

We’ve seen some bad children of history learn lessons through brute force (lighting on fire, sustaining injury from a porcupine, being tossed into a tree by a drunken bull), but today we’re going to see a bad child learning proper behavior in a gentler way– through The Force of Example.


Here’s the (anti-?)hero of today’s tale, a schoolboy named Charles.


The telling illustration above really lays the groundwork: we can see that Charles has a loving mother who wears a ruffly bonnet and guides him toward school with a firm yet gentle hand. We can see the rough floorboards and simple door indicating that these aren’t fancy folks, but they’re not so down and out that Charles would go to school in anything but clean trousers and a wee top hat with a floppy brim. We can see Charles uncertainly pointing at the open door, showing that he’s not entirely thrilled at the prospect of another day of lessons.

Charles begins the trek to school, but as he passes into the woods, he realizes that it’s nice outside– far nicer than it would be inside his classroom. (I realize this same thing whenever I have to spend another perfectly good beach day inside the library.)

Wait a minute! Charles can just stay in the woods, and not go to school at all!


Slumped forlornly on a stump, his sweet realization is suddenly overshadowed by the reality that playing outside by one’s self is kind of boring.

Other, less-bad children are on the way to school, so Charles needs to expand his search for a playmate. He approaches various creatures, including a bee (desperate much?), a dog that looks like a bear, a goldfinch, and a free-ranging horse. Here’s a sloppy montage of those interactions:

animal_montageMind you, and I know this is hard to believe– no one wants to play. The bee can’t remain idle because she has to pursue some honey, the dog can’t remain idle because he has to herd some sheep, the bird can’t remain idle because she has to build a soft nest, and the horse can’t remain idle because she has to plough a field (I know we’ve all heard that one before).

Poor Charles is despondent.



Here’s where Charles admirably guides himself to the correct, moral decision, after observing the gainfully-employed examples of various fauna. He wipes away a tear and proclaims, to no one in particular,

Why how foolish it is,
To sit here and cry!
I will hasten to school,
And my tears I will dry;
When I’m there, I’ll be steady,
And try to excel;
For if I take pains,
I may learn to read well;
Then I’ll be attentive,
My book I will mind;
For he who is busy
Is happy, I find.

Hey, thanks, busy animals! Now maybe you can give me a pep talk as I head into my office on this beautiful day.

Bad Children of History #11: The Era B.A.S. (Before Alka-Seltzer)

Look, I found the least-subtly-titled children’s book of all time:


It’s Little Nancy, or, the Punishment of Greediness: A Moral Tale. It was published around 1810 by Morgan & Yeager, the fine Philadelphians who also brought you Little Sophy, or, the Punishment of Idleness and Disobedience (not joking).

When we first meet little Nancy, she’s at home, and she’s just received a delightful invitation.


Little Nancy one day
Was invited to play,
And with her young friends to make merry;
In a garden so fine,
Where fruit, cakes, and sweet wine,
Were provided to make them all cheery.

When the letter was brought
She was pleased at the thought,
And a dozen times over ’twas read;
On each word did she dwell,
Till by heart she could tell
The whole letter, ‘ere she went to bed.

Extreme slant rhyme of “merry” and “cheery” aside, I’d say this sounds like a typical little girl who is very, very excited to go to a party with her friends.

The next morning, before little Nancy leaves for the party, her mother reminds her not to eat greedily, “as she much wish’d to break her of this”. Nancy tries to bear this advice in mind, but then she gets to the party, where she runs around with her friends and proceeds to see this:


What warm-blooded human could possibly resist that basket of fruit, those extremely tiny plates, that enticing egg cup, or that round thing on the end that might be a pie?

Not Nancy, unfortunately. She eats as much as she can. In fact, she keeps eating until her friends drag her away, whereupon she slumps in a glade, overcome by her spate of gluttony.


Gosh. Now that’s a little girl overcome by “the pain that intemperance brings”, if ever I’ve seen one.

Nancy’s not fit to play tag in the forest any more, so she’s taken home and put to bed.


Now being unable
To return to the table,
Yet anxiously wishing to stay;
She was sent home to bed
Crying out, (though half dead)
“I will never again disobey!”

We’re not really told how little Nancy makes the transition from “stomach ache” to “half dead”, so we’ll have to take Morgan and Yeager’s word for it. Luckily, she seems to have a good adult by her side, ready to help her don her bonnet and remove her long socks, especially as she seems to have learned her lesson entirely through a single treatment of aversive therapy. And you, young readers– you don’t even have to eat a whole bunch of pie off of extremely tiny plates to learn this lesson! You can just read Nancy’s tale and take heed.

Art//Archives, and a Human Combustion Addendum

First: today (right now!), from 10:30 – 1:00, we’re having our regular open hours in Special Collections. This week we’re featuring books on the topic of fruit, in honor of the raspberries and mulberries that are currently attracting huge numbers of birds to my backyard, much to the detriment of the car parked in the driveway.

Above left are some plums from George Brookshaw’s 1817 Groups of Fruit, Accurately Drawn and Coloured After Nature, with Full Directions for the Young Artist: Designed as a Companion to the Treatises on Flowers and Birds. Above right you can see a frankly terrifying “Banana Trumpeter” from the 1935 children’s book Tommy Apple and His Adventures in Banana-Land.

Second: as a follow-up to our post a couple of weeks ago on the flames of intemperance, I received an email from someone who may or may not have been my mother with a link to this excellent article on the spontaneous human combustion scene in Dickens’s Bleak House, as well as the corresponding 19th century furor over the fact that Dickens was purportedly fueling “a world of spontaneous combustion truthers”.

Here’s Bleak House illustrator Hablot Knight Browne’s rendering of the gruesome scene: