Every night I try to read a bedtime story to my daughter. Some of her favorite stories are Time for Bed, Will’s Mammoth, and A Little Brown Puppy and a Falling Star. All the stories are wonderfully illustrated, have happy endings, and leave you with a “warm, fuzzy” feeling, like most modern children’s stories do.

What a contrast to the children’s books I found at the museum! I was quite taken aback when I started flipping through our collection of stories. Most are from the turn of the century and they have a decidedly different approach to story-telling. Here is an example:

The Polar Bear and Her Young

In illustration of the remarkable attachment of the female Polar bear for her young, an affecting instance is given in Phipp’s Voyages: Early one morning the ship’s crew observed three bears making their way rapidly over the frozen ocean, in the direction of the ship, attracted probably by the scent of some blubber of the sea-horse which had been set on fire, on the ice, the day before. As they drew near they were discovered to be a she-bear and her two cubs. They ran eagerly towards the roasted blubber, which the mother bear took up, piece by piece, and laid before her cubs. As she was fetching away the last piece, they leveled their muskets at the cubs and shot them both dead, at the same time wounding the mother, but not mortally. It would have drawn tears of pity from any but the most unfeeling, to have marked the affectionate concern expressed by this poor animal, in the dying moments of her expiring young. Though she was sorely wounded and barely able to crawl, she carried the lump of flesh to her cubs, as she had done the others, tore it to pieces, and laid it down before them. When she saw that they refused to eat, she laid her paws first upon one, then upon the other, and endeavored to raise them up, making, at the same time, the most pitiable moans. Finding at last that they were cold and lifeless, she raised her head towards the ship, and growled a curse upon the destroyers, which they returned with a volley of musket-balls. She fell between her cubs, and died licking their wounds.

That was taken from a book called Merry Moments! It is a collection of children’s stories, but in almost two-thirds of the stories the main character dies! In virtually all the stories there is a prevailing sense of doom, and a lesson to be learned. There are also many instances of illness and violence. I found this to ring true with almost all the story books I read. Here is another example, the tale of Ten Little Pussy Cats:

Ten little pussy cats went out to dine, One choked his little self and then there were nine. Nine little pussy cats sat up very late, One overslept himself and then there were eight. Eight little pussy cats going down to Devon, One said she’d stay there and then there were seven. Seven little pussy cats chopping up sticks, One chopped himself in half and then there were six. Six little pussy cats playing with a hive, A honey bee stung one and then there were five. Five little pussy cats coming in for law, One got in chancery and then there were four. Four little pussy cats going out to sea, A red herring swallowed one and then there were three. Three little pussy cats walking in the zoo, A big bear hugged one and then there were two. Two little pussy cats walking in the sun, One got frizzled up and then there was but one. One little pussy cat living all alone, He got married and then there were none.

That one really surprised me the first time I read it. The illustrations are comical, yet graphic. If I had this book as a kid, I think it would have given me bad dreams!

Another example of the demise of main characters is the story of Mr. Frog and Mr. Rat, which you may be familiar with. The two go off to woo Mrs. Mouse and she invites them in for some beer and “good cheer”:

But while they were making a merry din, A Cat and her kittens came tumbling in. The Cat she seized the Rat by the crown, The kittens they pulled the little Mouse down. This put Mr. Frog in a terrible fright, So he took up his hat, and he wished them good-night. As Froggy was crossing a silvery brook, A lilywhite Duck came and gobbled him up. So this was an end of one, two, three-The Rat, the Mouse, and little Frog-ee.

I know I would have been crying by the end of this one. I was a child raised on Sesame Street and books where everyone lives happily ever after. The prevailing messages taught to us were about making the world a happy and pleasant place, accepting others, and non-violence; which, I’m sure, sprung out of the “Hippie” generation. So you can see how these stories came as a shock to my system.

When I thought about it, I realized that these children’s stories were written in a way that mirrored life at that time. Illness and death were a part of life that affected people, often children, on a regular basis. None of the books sugar-coated these issues.

I also noticed many stories about how children should behave, and the terrible consequences of bad behavior. I got the distinct impression that if a child did not obey his mother or have good table manners, he would become a murderous thief and burn in the fires of hell. That would be enough to keep me in line!

These themes also carried through to the “readers” that children used in school. It appears that children’s stories were intended to get across the hard facts of life, and also to reinforce moral codes. These are good things to do, I’m just glad I was born in a time where the stories weren’t so scary!

Just so you won’t have bad dreams, I’ll leave you with a new, politically correct story from Father Gander Nursery Rhymes: The Equal Rhymes Amendment, by Dr. Doug Larche. It is called “Ms. Muffet & Friend”:

Little Ms. Muffet sat on a tuffet, Eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider and sat down beside her, And she put it in the garden to catch insects.

By Julie Tomala
Copyright 1997, Morrison County Historical Society

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