Courtesy of McLoughlin Brothers…
What does the name “Mother Goose” call to mind? For one thing, it’s pretty much synonymous with fairy tales and nursery rhymes, isn’t it? The name Mother Goose also tends to conjure up a picture in the mind’s eye of many people a kindly old lady, telling stories to children, but very much a figure from times past–just like the tales associated with her, which are actually rooted in the (pre-printing) oral story-telling tradition in France1.
I’ll take a quick look at some aspects of the “history” of Mother Goose tales in a moment, but first I’d like to focus on how she’s pictured–both in actual illustrations and in imagination. I’ve always seemed to imagine Mother Goose as a timeless sort of character, not changing much with passing trends, in much the same way that the tales associated with her remain relatively “stable” as texts (which isn’t to say that details in the tales don’t change in different versions–they do–but rather, that the tales themselves and their essential outlines have generally been remarkably durable and quite constant over time).
What sort of a portrayal am I talking about? One much like the view of Mother Goose featured on the cover of a sales catalog issued in 1909 by American children’s book publisher McLoughlin Brothers, which I recently cataloged. Take a look for yourself! The hat, the cape, the “granny glasses” … clearly, a figure from a bygone era. Nobody dressed like that in 1909! McLoughlin Brothers wants to hearken back to another era, not a specific one, but one generally located in the past. And it’s worth pointing out that Mother Goose isn’t actually mentioned by name anywhere on the cover, but it’s immediately obvious who is pictured, now as it was then. Talk about an image fixed in the public’s mind!
Since Mother Goose is featured on the the cover of McLoughlin’s catalog, it’s almost as if the firm is trying to appropriate her as their spokesperson, endorsing the products they want to sell! And who could resist an endorsement from Mother Goose herself?
A similar depiction of Mother Goose appears on the title page of this McLoughlin catalog too. Her appearance and clothing is consistent, as you can see. She’s mounted on a goose here–a visual play on her name!–set against a circle suggesting the moon, a depiction McLoughlin Bros. frequently used, including as a series logo for their “Mother Goose Series.”
That same image of Mother Goose appears in more than ten McLoughlin catalogs, as we can see on the two title pages below, one from 1909 and one from 1913. All McLoughlin changed on the title page was the date (and the catalog’s content, of course).
A timeless character, an unchanging pictorial rendition… Pretty much what we’d expect…
But as I worked my way through some of the other, later, McLoughlin catalogs, I noticed something surprising! McLoughlin modified their portrayal of the “timeless” figure of Mother Goose, more or less in sync with shifts in the overall “look” of their artwork and design.
The first catalog where I noticed a change was McLoughlin’s 1923 issue. She’s still riding the familiar goose on the cover, but she has lost her “old-fashioned” glasses and her clothing has been slightly updated. Her cape is billowing out behind her, and the figure is less static and little more dramatic. Small changes perhaps but quite a different look.
The change becomes more noticeable in McLoughlin’s 1947 “Catalog,” which drops the Anglicized spelling “Catalogue” in favor of the “American” and more “modern” version of the word.
Mother Goose’s “look” has really been made over by McLoughlin’s artists this time, in terms of both her clothing and her determined facial expression. No granny glasses. She seems to be a woman who knows exactly where she wants to go and who is getting there fast, as her flapping cape suggests. After all, she’s flying, much like the planes that had become increasingly familiar objects to readers in the 1940s. (Her goose also seems to have gotten progressively happier too.)
To me, the overall impression of the 1947 illustration is consistent with the artwork we see in McLouglin’s actual children’s books of this period–also generally more schematic, less fussy in the detailing of feathers and clothing folds, and just more “modern” in feeling than the previous versions.
The change in the cover design of the cover of the 1947 catalog is really striking–that’s really what keyed me to the changes in Mother Goose’s appearance on the title page. The colors are vivid and bright, the text pared down, and a more stylized font used. The actual cover illustration is populated with characters from the “Little Lulu” books that this catalog itself touts as a new McLoughlin offering in children’s books.
But, despite the new look and new characters, what is Lulu herself reading to the children? Why, it’s “Fairy Tales,” the familiar old favorites associated with Mother Goose! Some things really are timeless!
Fairy tales themselves are essentially timeless. Tales and stories get told and retold over and over again. Part of their attraction lies in their very familiarity, the same way that part of Mother Goose’s attraction is how familiar a figure she seems to be. McLoughlin Bros. repeatedly uses illustrations of her in their advertising, apparently in hopes invoking this comfortable familiarity to appeal to child-readers and their book-buying parents. But in terms of both how Mother Goose is depicted and the overall look of McLoughlin’s catalogs, things come a long way in 40 years, as we can see in the grouping below of the catalog covers I’ve been talking about:
McLoughlin Brothers–always attuned to ways they could update children’s classics with an eye to sales and marketing–does much the same thing with the “timeless” figure of Mother Goose in other places too. In addition to recycling old favorites in many cases, the firm also seemed to be endlessly trying out “new takes” of them–just to see if these might catch on with customers. Sometimes “old” and “new” coexist side-by-side, as we see in the catalog entry below for two “Mother Goose Editions”:
Next to the cover of one book featuring the familiar “old” version of Mother Goose is another cover depicting Mother Goose as a little girl on the cover of “Little Mother Goose.” A very different character, one presumably seeking to capitalize on how much children are attracted to illustrations of other children. But apart from her trip to the Fountain of Youth, Little Mother Goose’s paraphanlia is very much in the traditional mode–and instantly recognizable to a child-reader or adult book-shopper as “Mother Goose.”
Another version of Little Mother Goose appears on the cover of McLoughlin Brothers’ 1906 catalog, one of those featuring the same traditional view of Mother Goose on the title page that we saw above (in the 1909 and 1913 catalogs). Traditional and updated views of Mother Goose are thus juxtaposed, quite different depictions but both immediately recognizable. (Note how the hint of a moon in the “logo version” has been turned into a smiling Man in the Moon here.)
McLoughlin Bros. invokes the “timeless” aspect of Mother Goose, while feeling free to innovate and update, just as they did time and time again with virtually all children’s literature they published.