By Ruth McGurk
San Francisco holds a unique archive for the study of early children's books, which will interest scholars of printing, parents, artists, writers, or anyone curious about the book arts. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that children began to be treated differently from adults and a special class of literature beyond ABCs was provided for them.
The George M. Fox Collection of Early Children's Books is housed at the Marjorie G. and Carl W. Stern Book Arts and Special Collections Center at the San Francisco Public Library. Donated in 1978, it consists of over 2000 volumes of mostly nineteenth-century picture books. It was donated by the father of George King Fox of Pacific Book Auctions who also serves as the auctioneer at PCBA's biennial auction. Fox the elder worked for the Milton Bradley toy company, which had purchased the children's book publishing company McLoughlin Brothers. Fox acquired the archives of McLoughlin Brothers, which itself was the successor to Elton and Company, publisher of valentines, toy and juvenile books. Fox then expanded his sights to early color children's books in general.
For those of a scholarly bent, the Fox collection is an untapped trove of multiple copies of the same titles, nearly complete runs of long-running series and, of course, the file copies of the McLoughlin Brothers. Some of the latter are titles acquired from English publishers, marked up with the editorial and illustrative changes thought necessary for the American market. Through studying the collection it is possible to watch publishing tactics take shape, printing conventions be established, color printing emerge from its infancy, and the emphasis in children's literature shift from moral instruction to amusement. McLoughlin Brothers themselves span the change from the didactic to the diversionary: their emblem includes the words "Educate and Amuse." The commercial considerations of a publishing house tilt their view of children from moral blank slates to potential customers. After all, gaudy illustrations sell more books than dogma.
For those who find children's books entertaining on their own account, delving into the collection is its own reward. Housed as it is in good archival fashion in envelopes within folders within boxes, there is a deal of unwrapping to be done to get at the books. The collection is not listed online and the card catalog is rife with the bibliographical lacunae of the period: few dates, few authors, fewer illustrators. So I found it more productive to plunge in than to look for specific items. The books are grouped by publisher and are shelved chronologically only to the extent that particular publishers survived for finite periods of time. I will refer to books by the series and box number in which they are housed and lastly by folder number. Sometimes there are multiple books in a folder, so it may take a little effort to find them.