History of Children's Book Illustration
and the Role Women Played

Anne Anderson
The Little Busy Bee
Book,  Thomas Nelson
and Sons, ca. 1915.
It has been said that childhood was the invention of the Victorian era. If that is true, then it can be said that the Victorians as we know them were a by-product of the industrial age.

The impact the industrial revolution has had on publishing, and children’s books in particular, cannot be stressed enough. Not only did it provide the means, with improved printing presses and rail system for distribution, but it also provided a market for the books, a growing and literate middle class, hungry for knowledge and eager to buy books for their children.

But how does woman fit into this equation? Let’s first examine the conditions for women in the 19th century, then the history of illustration as it pertains to children’s literature.

Barbara Cooney
Miss Rumphius, Viking
Penguin, 1982.

Cicely Mary Barker
A Flower Fairy Alphabet,
London, Blackie, 1934
Women in Victorian England
Drawing and Painting were considered acceptable pastimes for a young woman, of which one reviewer of the late 17th-century wrote:
“It demands no sacrifice of maiden modesty nor of matronly reserve; . . . it does not force her to stand up to be stared at, commented on, clapped or hissed by a crowded and unmannered audience, who forget the woman in the artist. It leaves her, during a great portion of her time at least, beneath the protecting shelter of her home, beside her own quiet fireside, in the midst of those who love her and whom she loves.”
During 19th-century in England, it was customary for an unmarried middle-class woman to seek employment after the death of her father, or during economic strife. Because of their station in life, they were not allowed to work in factories or in domestic service; the role of governess was the only career open for a gentlewoman. Colleges and Universities started to open their doors to young women in order to prepare them to be teachers. 

In 1768, The Royal Academy, London’s conservative school of art, opened its doors but it was not until almost a century later that it admitted its first female student. Even then, women were not allowed to draw from nude models, not until 1893 when partially draped female figures were finally allowed. In 1871, Kate Greenaway, one the first successful female illustrators, attended the newly founded Slade School because they advertised equal education for both sexes. 

While England was locked into the Victorian mindset, there was artistic upheaval underway in France and Europe. No longer enjoying royal patronage, the artists were free to experiment and experiment they did.

Clara Miller Burd
Stevenson, Robert
Louis, A Child’s
Garden of Verses,
Saafield, 1930.

Virginia Lee Burton
The Little House,
 Boston, Houghton
Mifflin, 1942.
The 19th Century American Woman
In colonial America, out of necessity, women were an integral part to the founding and development of this country. The lack of women resulted in very few spinsters, and enhanced their status. Although they still had limited legal rights, they were allowed to own property and operate their own business. Class and social status was not a consideration, only one’s abilities, initiative and resourcefulness mattered. 

This limited equality changed after the Revolutionary War. Growing industrialization and increased wealth created a large middle-class. There was more leisure time for women and they aspired to become the “lady of the house”. Magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book were mass-circulated and informed women about fashion, entertainment, morality, and child-rearing. Women became isolated and their homes became their shrines. 

A wake-up call came to women during the civil war, when again they were called upon to help. They became nurses tending the wounded, managed plantations and businesses while their husbands were away, and even worked in munitions plants and mills. Many of these women continued to work after the war since many of these professions were now deemed acceptable.

The 20th-century saw one revolutionary movement evolve after another, each claiming to reject past traditions. Paris, the center of the art world at this time, gave rise to Fauvism and Cubism; in Italy it was Futurism; Germany, Expressionism; and Russia, Constructivism. But America was still locked into a 19th-century aesthetic. Women from Europe and America flocked to Paris to study art, most attending the Academie Julien or the Academie Colarossi. Clara Miller Burd and Elizabeth Orton Jones were two American illustrators that trained in Paris.

Elizabeth O. Jones
Field, Rachel, Prayers
for a Child, Macmillan,
Early Children’s Books
Early Color Printing
Publishing in America
Modern Printing
After the War
The Depression Years
After World War II
© 2000–2002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.

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