The Children's Books collection at the American Antiquarian Society is, within its scope, the world's finest. Extending from the sober prose of Thomas Shepard's children's catechism, Short Catechism Familiarly Teaching the Knowledg of God (1654), to the cheerful images of children at play in Young America's ABC and Pretty Picture Book (1900), the collection chronicles the emergence of an American literature for children. Books written for children can provide important evidence of the forces structuring childhood experience, that is, the ideals and ambitions of the society that wrote and published them. Scholars studying a variety of social issues-- the treatment of the physically handicapped, city life, temperance, and slavery--will find rich materials here. The AAS collection of books for children is thus an unparalleled resource for studies in such fields as the history of childhood, child discipline and the education of children, the history of reading, and the history of publishing, printing, and the graphic arts.
At present, children's literature at AAS is divided physically among several collections. Children's books published before 1821 are part of the Dated Books and Dated Pamphlets collections, while those published from 1821 forward are housed as applicable among the Children's Literature, McLoughlin, School Books, Sabbath School Books, Primers, and Catechisms collections. Children's books issued before 1801 and after 1820 are fully cataloged in the AAS online catalog; the children's imprints issued between 1801 and 1820 are accessible under the subject heading, "Children's Literature" in the AAS Imprint Catalog, a card catalog available in the library reading room. Children's books issued between 1801 and 1820 are in the process of being fully described in the AAS online catalog. New titles are being added every day.
As d'Alté Welch noted in his A Bibliography of American Children's Books Printed Prior to 1821 (Worcester, 1972), the Society "has by far the largest and most interesting collection of children's books seen.... [It] contains almost two thirds of all extant American [pre-1821] children's books." After Welch's untimely death in 1970, our already unrivaled collection was further strengthened by the acquisition of his personal collection. At 3, 500 titles, these early children's books comprise an unparalleled resource for those seeking to understand the development of the children's book market in the United States.
Most American books for children printed before 1821 were printings of English chapbooks--which included traditional tales like "Cock Robin" and "Children in the Wood, " abridgments of literary works like "Robinson Crusoe, " and books of amusement and instruction, particularly those first issued by the London publisher John Newbery. Many of these chapbooks originally published by Newbery were reissued for the American market by Worcester printer and AAS founder Isaiah Thomas. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, such English writers as Maria Edgeworth and Sarah Trimmer began producing a literature more especially designed for children, and their works were quickly reprinted in the United States.
Welch's bibliography covers only the nonpedagogical genres of pre-1821 American juveniles, but the AAS collection is nearly as strong in early primers, textbooks, and catechisms. The Society holds the single strongest collection (about 200 editions) of New England primers printed before 1830, as recorded in Charles Heartman's bibliography The New England Primer Issued Prior to 1830 (New York, 1934), and nearly half of the non-New England primers recorded by Heartman in "American Primers, Indian Primers, Royal Primers, and Thirty-Seven Other Types of Non-New England Primers Issued Prior to 1830" (Highland Park, N.J., 1935).