In Search of Historic Children’s Magazines

Back in the 1980s I obtained reprints of The St. Nicholas Anthology and The Second St. Nicholas Anthology, both edited by Henry Steele Commager, and originally published in 1948 and 1950.

I read not only the wonderful stories, but the introduction and prefaces, which told about what many consider to be the best children’s magazine of all time. St. Nicholas Magazine was founded in 1873, lasted until 1940 (with a brief revival in 1943) and published the work of some of the world’s finest writers and artists. Many subscribers saved back issues, then sent them off to be bound between crimson covers, so their beloved magazine could be shelved on a bookcase for years of rereading.

My St. Nicholas anthologies are wonderful, but I wanted more. I longed to own a complete issue of the classic magazine, so I could experience what past generations of children eagerly read each month.

Later on I obtained Companions of Our Youth – Stories by Women for Young People’s Magazines 1865 – 1900, edited by Jane Benardete and Phyllis Moe. This 1980 anthology contains nineteen stories originally published in five magazines, plus the biographies of twelve female authors. This book taught me there were numerous important nineteenth century children’s magazines, but my heart still belonged to my “first love” – St. Nicholas. Oh, how I wanted an entire children’s magazine.

Once I was browsing through an antique shop and found two issues of St. Nicholas, but the price was beyond what I could afford to spend that day for something that wasn’t really a necessity. That was before Internet shopping sites, and before I had a credit card that would allow me to buy now and pay later, so it seemed unlikely I would ever happen upon issues of St. Nicholas right when I had enough extra cash on hand.

More than a decade later I was working near a used book store that was going out of business. Each week the percentage-off discount was raised on the store’s remaining stock. I soon discovered the books I wanted were being snatched up before I could afford to purchase them, but – being short on logic – that didn’t keep me from roaming about the store during my lunch breaks, looking over books I’d already rejected as being of no interest to me.

Towards the end of the going-out-of-business sale I found a table piled high with books I hadn’t seen before. A sign stated that all books on the table were a dollar each, and after a quick scan of the offerings I guessed they were volumes acquired during bulk purchases, but ones the book store owner felt had little chance of ever selling.

As I was turning away from the table I caught a glimpse of a battered book with a faded cover showing Victorian-era children. The book title seemed rather odd to me – it was called Wide Awake.

I picked up the volume to see what it was about and, glory be – I was holding bound 1886 issues of Wide Awake magazine, one of the periodicals featured in my Companions of Our Youth book. Years earlier I’d been longing for one issue of St. Nicholas, and here I’d found six issues of another magazine.

I carried my treasure up to the sales counter, said I’d found it on the dollar table, and asked if it was supposed to be there. The owner assured me I really could buy it for one dollar. She said a better copy would have been worth more, but the cover was in such bad shape it had no value to a collector. This collector had a differing opinion about that, but I didn’t argue, I just paid my money and took Wide Awake home.

At first I was a little disappointed in my June through November 1886 issues of Wide Awake, for some of the articles and stories were rather dull, and a few showed a condescending attitude towards those without the good sense to be born a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I felt St. Nicholas Magazine would have provided a higher quality read.

But, on reflection, I had to take into account that I’ve only read selected stories from St. Nicholas, and if I were to read several entire issues I would likely come across stories that may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but have little appeal more than a century after being published. Standards and attitudes change, and all magazines reflect the times when they were published.

For the most part the Wide Awake stories are an entertaining read.

I had originally planned to end this essay with a little thumbnail sketch of the history of Wide Awake magazine, but I was surprised at how little has been written about one of the nineteenth century’s most important children’s periodicals. There are no website tributes to Wide Awake, and if anyone’s ever written a research book chapter or an article about it I haven’t been able to track it down.

Nothing gets my researcher brain-cells fired up more than coming across a neglected history topic. I was able to gather up bits and pieces of information about Wide Awake, and that story will be told in a separate post.

I’ll end this essay by saying that if anyone is interested in obtaining copies of historical children’s magazines, then keep your eyes open, for they are out there. That’s a lesson I learned when I kept being drawn to a going-out-of-business used book store, and I glanced at a pile of seemingly uninspiring books.

And remember – never judge a book by it’s battered cover. It could be the gem you’ve long wanted.

The History of Wide Awake Magazine

To understand a magazine it helps to understand it’s founder.

Daniel Lothrop, born August 11, 1831, was an excellent student who possessed a “retentive and singularly accurate memory”. So states an article in the December, 1884 issue of The Bay State Monthly. His greatest aptitude was in mathematics, and at the age of seven he assisted his teacher in instructing the upper classes by using the blackboard to demonstrate a difficult problem in cube roots.

By the age of fourteen Daniel Lothrop was considered ready for college, but he chose to begin working, so he was put in charge of an elder brother’s drug store. He increased sales by adding a book counter.

At age seventeen Lothrop started his own drug store – presumably with a book counter – and in 1850, at age nineteen, he purchased a book store.

Over the next eighteen years Lothrop established several businesses, visited numerous book stores, and made plans to establish his own publishing company, with a goal of selling to both the Sunday School and home libraries.

In 1868 Mr. Lothrop hired three manuscript readers – two were ordained ministers and one was a professor, but all had D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) at the end of their names. The D. Lothrop Company, of Boston, Massachusetts, would follow its founder’s two guiding principles: “Never to publish a book purely sensational, no matter what the chances of money it has in it”, and “to publish books that will make true, steadfast growth in right living”.

In 1874 D. Lothrop Company expanded into publishing children’s magazines. The first periodical was The Pansy, a nondenominational Sunday School paper, named for the pen name of its editor, Isabella Macdonald Alden.

During the following year the company’s most popular magazine, Wide Awake, was established. In the first issue (July, 1875) readers were informed “Magazines like Wide Awake are good for young folks, and contain nothing of the ‘run-away-to-sea’ style for boys, or the ‘elope-and-be-happy’ incentive for girls, which are greatly cried against by parents now-a-days.”

Ella Farman (later Ella Farman Pratt), author of several children’s books published by Lothrop, was the magazine’s editor, and Charles Stuart Pratt was associate editor. The two married in 1877.

Each issue contained between 60 and 72 pages filled with well-illustrated stories, poems and articles. There were also puzzles, printed on a page entitled Tangles. Many popular writers of the time were published in Wide Awake, though most are now forgotten. Some of the magazine’s authors who are still being read are Edward Everett Hale (who wrote The Man Without a Country), Sarah Orne Jewett (The Country of the Pointed Firs), and poet James Whitcomb Riley (Little Orphant Annie). One author who became famous through stories first published in Wide Awake was Harriet Mulford Stone, who wrote under a pen name. There will be more about her a little later.

Wide Awake was aimed at a readership of children between ten and eighteen years of age, and the editors chose manuscripts that reflected Mr. Lothrop’s evangelical viewpoint – as well as the established beliefs and standards of the time period. Most of the contents are still an enjoyable read today.

Lothrop developed a strong close relationship with his authors, and took an interest in their writing careers. One such writer was Harriet Mulford Stone, who submitted Polly Pepper’s Chicken Pie to Wide Awake in 1877. This became her first published story, and was printed under the pen name of Margaret Sidney. Phronsie Pepper’s New Shoes appeared in Wide Awake the following year.

Editor Ella Farman Pratt requested Miss Stone to write a series of stories about the Pepper family. That series was published in 1880 issues of Wide Awake. In 1881 D. Lothrop Company published the stories as the novel Five Little Peppers and How They Grew – the first of a long line of best selling books chronicling the adventures of the Peppers. Another 1881 event was Daniel Lothrop’s marriage to Harriet Mulford Stone.

I wanted more information about the above-mentioned marriage (how long had they known each other?), but all of the biographical articles I could find merely listed the chronological order of the events of 1880 and 1881. After more research I came upon The Wayside: Home of Authors, a book published by Margaret M. Lothrop in 1940.

She tells how her father read with pleasure the “adventures of a courageous and natural family group the Five Little Peppers” in his Wide Awake magazine. “He was surprised to find that very small children could be made to appear on paper as if they were wholly alive. He became interested in what their author ‘Margaret Sidney’ might be like. Since he was going to New York on business, he decided to stop in New Haven and call on her.”

Miss Lothrop retold the story heard from her mother. Every two weeks Daniel Lothrop continued to have business in New York, and kept stopping in New Haven to conduct additional business. Margaret Lothrop concluded her mother’s story by writing: “As a smile crept around her mouth, and her blue eyes began to dance, she added simply, ‘And then the New York business did not seem so important!’ ”

At the time of the marriage the bride was a thirty-seven year old maiden lady, and Mr. Lothrop was a fifty year old widower. Until the demise of Wide Awake all of the Five Little Pepper novels were first serialized in the magazine before being published in book form by D. Lothrop Company.

The new Mrs. Lothrop shared her husband’s interest in the Chautauqua movement, which started out as a summer school for Sunday School teachers, and expanded to include educational lectures and courses on self-improvement. In 1882 Wide Awake began including a Chautauqua Young Folks Reading Union (CYFRU) Supplement. Most of the books chosen for the supplement’s reading course were published by Lothrop. The CYFRU supplements were discontinued in 1888.

Mr. Lothrop’s involvement in the Chautauqua movement led to Wide Awake articles addressing social issues, such as the “Indian problem” which many well-intended people thought could be solved by easing Native American’s into middle-class society by means of education and evangelization.

I own a bound volume of the June through November, 1886 issues of Wide Awake, which contains two articles concerning Natives Americans. In Three Little Indians, captured Apache children are brought to a frontier fort. The young “savages” are given calico gowns, which were ripped off, for the children preferred to go about nearly-naked. They refused to sleep in beds, or use cutlery while eating. The author criticized them for continuing their “incorrigible” behavior, without considering the difficulty of being a child confined in a foreign environment, where no one speaks a language he or she can understand.

Another article is Some Indian Children which tells of “civilized” Christian Indians helped by missionaries. These Indians, who had abandoned traditional native dress and customs, were compared with those who clung to the unacceptable “savage” ways. As a Christian who believes in evangelism that doesn’t condemn traditions compatible with Christian beliefs, I found the articles harsh and unsympathetic. But they were written for an audience many generations removed from my world, and the viewpoints expressed may have been an improvement over former theories and practices. I’m sure most magazines of the time period published similar “politically incorrect” articles.

Wide Awake never built it’s circulation above 25,000 subscribers, but the magazine’s reach extended beyond those who received it monthly through the mail. Twice a year six issues of the periodical (minus advertising pages and the Chautauqua supplements) were bound into attractive hard covers and marketed as gift books. For many years these volumes were titled Wide Awake Pleasure Book.

Serialized stories were planned so that they began in the first of the bound issues, and ended in the last one. In 1886 a one year subscription to Wide Awake was $2.40. A half-year of issues could be obtained in a choice of two different designs of hard back gift books for $1.50 and $1.75.

On February 18, 1892 Daniel Lothrop died unexpectedly, at the age of sixty-one. For a time his widow, Harriet Mulford Stone Lothrop, a/k/a Margaret Sidney, set aside her writing career and took on the job of book and magazine publisher. Though she shared many of her husband’s values, and he’d often discussed publishing matters with her, none of the Lothrop magazines lasted long after Mr. Lothrop’s death.

To continue producing a high quality periodical with a rather small number of paid subscribers required a publisher whose greatest aptitude was in mathematics, and who had been increasing the profits of businesses since childhood. The last Wide Awake issue was published in August, 1893; it then merged with St. Nicholas Magazine.

According to the R. Gordon Kelly book Children’s Periodicals of the United States (Greenwood Press, 1984) Wide Awake was an emblem of a vanishing culture, and the product of a genteel publishing tradition. I suspect the magazine was an emblem of publisher Daniel Lothrop. Most of the contents were (and still are) entertaining and / or informative. Some of the viewpoints expressed appear biased to modern readers, but they teach us about people who set out to solve problems without the benefit of hindsight, which so often shows unintended sad consequences – along with the benefits – of well-intended plans.

On the whole I give Wide Awake high marks as a high-quality, enjoyable publication. As for all those Five Little Pepper stories it introduced to the world, if you set aside the need for logic in the plot lines, they can still be fun to read. An important component in books and stories vying for a spot in my list of favored bookshelf companions.