What Children’s Books Did Anna Green Winslow Read?: A Look at Her Diary 1771-1773

Probably the most famous child diarist in colonial America, Anna Green Winslow wrote journal letters regularly to her parents in between 1771 and 1773 when she was living with her paternal aunt Mrs. Deming in Boston.   Her loyalist father, the commissary to the British regiments in Cumberland, Canada, sent his only daughter away from home to be “finished”–that is, to improve her penmanship at Samuel Holbrook’s writing school and to attend a sewing school to become more adept at plain and fancy work.  Luckily, twelve-year-old Anna liked her pen and her needle equally well and won praise for her pretty writing, her knitted lace, and her spinning.  Calling herself a “whimsical girl,” she recorded jokes that made her laugh.  But she also listened attentively to  sermons Sundays in the Old South Church congregation and could summarize the minister’s argument clearly and accurately. Of course, she liked clothes and “tasty headdresses.”  Early in her stay, she begged her mother to let her “look like other people,” that is, follow Boston fashions.

Anna was a avid reader as well, attending to her Bible, the newspapers, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  Alice Earle Morse, who edited Anna’s diary in the 1890s, recognized the titles of several Newbery children’s books imported from London.  Anna didn’t say much about their contents, so illustrating them with pages from the copies in Cotsen brings her reading experiences to life.

For New Year’s in 1772, she notes that she received a copy of the “History of Joseph Andrews abbreviated,” that is, the abridgment of Henry Fielding’s famous novel published by Francis Newbery.  “In nice Guilt and flowers covers” she says approvingly.  Here is the title page and the binding in Dutch gilt papers (it is actually the binding on the Gulliver below, which is much nicer than the one on the Fielding handsome)  If you look in the gutter, you’ll see evidence of oversewing to repair a well-read copy.

It was a very cold, snowy day on March 9th, 1772 and Anna applied herself to mending two pairs of gloves and a handkerchief and then finishing half a border for a new lawn apron for her aunt.  She also read “part of the xxist chapter of Exodous [sic] & a story in the Mother’s gift.”  The Mother’s Gift is not one of the better known Newberys and it’s impossible to tell which edition she had without any titles of the stories she read (it came in a two- and a three-part version).   It does include one about a girl who thought too much about her clothes and maybe Anna recognized herself in that character.

On April 16th, she dined at Aunt Storer’s, where her cousin Charles loaned her “Gulliver’s Travels abbreviated,” another Newbery abridgment of a work originally written for adults.   Anna reports that her aunt gave her permission to read it “for the same of perfecting myself in reading a variety of composures [probably compositions].  She sais farther that the piece was desin’d as a burlesque upon the times in which it was wrote.”  Anna’s spelling mistakes have been retained, by the way.

She went to “drink tea” at Aunt Storer’s on April 24th.  Her aunt loaned her three more of her cousin’s books, which is a bit droll, as cousin Charles was barely a year old.  This is what he had in his infant library: The Puzzling Cap, a riddle book; The Little Female Orators, an anthology of short fiction, and “Gaffer Two-Shoes” which almost certainly The History of Goody Two-Shoes.   Anna might have liked solving the riddles about the  writing slate and stays, even though the only underwear she mentions in the diary are her shifts.

In The Little Female Orators, she might have nodded approvingly at the two ladies warming themselves in front of a nice fire, especially because winter that year was especially bitter.  Sometimes the snow was so deep that Anna had to be carried home from writing or sewing school.

Being mighty proud of her shoes, whether decorated with pom-poms or marcasite buckles, Anna must have rejoiced with little Margery Meanwell when she received a new pair of shoes, which meant she no longer had to go barefoot.Surely this illustrated survey of the books Anna dipped into dispels the hoary myth that Puritan children were deprived of all entertaining reading!

From Far from the Madding Crowd to Back Onto Center Stage

My, what big paws you have…   Cotsen’s beloved tiger now back in residence in his old haunt atop the Wall of Books and ready to greet Cotsen Gallery visitors again.

Life is all about serenity, isn’t it? Comfort, peace of mind, and the chance to hang out the “Do Not Disturb” sign when you want a little down time and R&R…

But sometimes you can have a little too much of a good thing, can’t you?  A little too much quiet, calm, and distance from old friends — or admiring fans, in the case of public figures.

Perhaps this was how the Cotsen Gallery’s peaceable kingdom of stuffed animals and fairy tale figures felt during their year-long vacation from the Cotsen Gallery during the (now completed) renovations of the Gallery and Wall of Books?  All of them usually live on top of and inside the Wall of Books, keeping company with many of the oldest and most notable books in the Cotsen collection (dating from the 15th through the 18th centuries).

Of course there’s no way for mere mortals to know what “inanimate” objects think and feel, but children’s literature is full of stories where dolls, plants, and objects of all sorts have secret inner lives and even adventures.  (For some more info on that fascinating aspect of children’s stories, take a look at “The Secret Lives of Plants” on the Cotsen blog.)

During the renovation work, the animals and books from the Wall of Books lived together in the extremely quiet, calm, and quite secure depths of the Rare Book vaults. But apart from the occasional passer-by staff members paging books for library patrons, this must have been a bit lonely after a while.

“Where did all our visitors and the children go?” —- Cotsen’s “peaceable kingdom” animals in the Rare Books vaults during renovation of the Cotsen Gallery.

No admiring visitors saying “hello,” no undergraduates passing by, and — most important of all — no delighted children coming in to visit, admire you, and sometimes even talk to you. (Providing a space for children to enjoy was a key part of Lloyd Cotsen’s vision for the Cotsen Library, in addition to establishing a rare book collection for use by scholars, researchers, faculty, students, and Princeton classes.)

Madeleine and friends inside the Rare Book vaults. “It’s nice and quiet in here, but we miss all our friends!”

Well, that phase is over now.  After a nice hiatus, all the Cotsen animals and figures are back in their familiar homes — atop the Wall of Books, inside the Wall with the books, and inside the Cotsen curatorial offices.  Tan, rested, and ready, as they say… And eagerly waiting for new visitors and old friends to pay them a visit, as of this coming Monday, April 23.

Cotsen’s bear and sheep back inside the Wall of Books, perhaps getting a quick nap in anticipation of all their visitors?

Cotsen’s bear and sheep back inside the Wall of Books, perhaps getting a quick nap in anticipation of all their visitors?

Why not stop by and say “hello”?  The animals will thank you — in their own quiet way, of course… Wait a second, did I hear a whisper of a talking stuffed animal or a talking horse?