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.

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