Not wanting to be outbid, I clicked “Buy It Now” on the eBay page. Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents seemed a fair price for something almost 150 years old. But would it turn to dust in my hands?
A stiff envelope arrived in our mailbox the next week, and I slid out the contents. There, with its orange cover detached, was an 1869 copy of Our Young Folks. It had been a popular children’s magazine published by Fields, Osgood & Co. of Boston after the Civil War. They charged $2 in advance for a year’s subscription.
I had read issues of this magazine online from college libraries. It is an endearing look at Victorian childhood, a primary source for the same. Here was what boys and girls of eight, nine and ten were reading as industry and invention changed their somewhat idyllic world.
And who were the people editing the words, phrases and sentences for a wide audience of children? For awhile, there were three. All had been teachers, and all were poets.
- John T. Trowbridge, who also wrote The South, A Tale of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities, The Drummer Boy, and the Jack Hazard series
- Lucy Larcom, who wrote an autobiography called A New England Girl, which told about her own child labor in a textile mill
- Gail Hamilton, (pen name for Mary Abigail Dodge), who was an early proponent of equal education and occupations for women
They were in good company — friends included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The editors chose stories, poems, illustrations and activities (some by themselves) of interest to children. Many were about the outdoors. For example: “The City Girl,” (1865), a contrast between city and country children with pointers on how the two could be friends; “Swinging on a Birch Tree” (1867); “Bird-Catching,” (1867), a poem accompanied by an engraving by Winslow Homer; and “Strawberries,” (1868), a conversation between a child and a berry.
Engraving by Winslow Homer for the magazine. (www.americanart.si.edu)
They also included “Our Letter Box,” which printed letters from children, very popular as indicated by the number of entries each month. “A bright little new subscriber says: ‘Having set my heart on Our Young Folks, here goes my one dollar for it for six months. By that time I can earn another dollar. The way I learned how good a magazine it was — we borrowed a few numbers of a neighbor, then Mother bought me a number when she went to town, and this year I feel as if I must have it.'” The young man named Frank also submitted a story about his cat, Mrs. Socrates, which followed.
In 1873 Our Young Folks was bought out by a new magazine, St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was enormously successful, reaching 100,000 subscribers in 1883, and published until 1940. It was only trumped in the late Nineteenth Centry by The Youth’s Companion (remember the Ingalls girls reading it?) which published 500,000 copies at a time.
The four Roosevelt children: Anna, Theodore, Elliott and Corinne, and their little neighbor Edith Carow loved Our Young Folks. They still read it as adults, and Theodore said he learned more about life from it than he did from his college classes.
(My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson.)
Had I lived in their time I’m sure I would have read it. It is excellent material, and sheds light on our country’s history, a small piece of which I now own — covered in faded yet still glowing card stock.