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

Maginel W. Enright
Dodge, Mary Mapes,
Hans Brinker or the
Silver Skates (with
Edna Cooke), McKay,
Early Children’s Books 
It is generally thought that the first book made specifically for children was Orbis Sensualium Pictus or Visible World by Bishop John Comenius, published in 1658. It was popular in Europe for over a century. Comenius believed that children learned more from pictures, and attempted to teach language to youngsters through the use of woodcut illustrations. 

Charles Perrault collected traditional oral tales in 1697, and they became the basis for his children’s storybook, Contes de ma Mère L’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose) published thirty years later in English. But, as yet, nursery rhymes were considered nonsense.

John Newbery
Children were given primers and textbooks during the later half of the 17th century mainly for didactic purposes. Hornbooks were used to teach the alphabet, and chapbooks were used to illustrate moral lessons. It was not until the mid-1750s when John Newbery published his attractive Juvenile Library that children’s books were produced for their entertainment and created a new genre of books. They were decorative, well designed, small in format and inexpensive. The stories he published were shortened versions of the classics such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, in which the illustrations emphasized the key moments in the story. 

Thomas Bewick
Up to this point, all illustration was reproduced as woodcuts, which reproduced poorly over repeated printings. Thomas Bewick, a wood engraver, overcame this problem by using the end grain of the box-wood block instead of the softer grain on the side, resulting in a consistent printing that didn’t deteriorate over numerous printings and allowed for half-tone effects and hairline detail. Bewick was also notable for becoming the first artist to make his living as an illustrator.

Unfortunately, most illustrators were not wood engravers. They would draw their illustration on the wood block and hope for the best when the engraver interpreted it. George Cruikshank was astute enough to make allowances for the wood engraving process and changed his style to match the capabilities of the medium.

William Blake introduced copper-etched plates, allowing for greater spontaneity in illustration because the artist was now able to draw the printing plate himself without the aid of an engraver. Blake also started the tradition of great artists illustrating children’s books.

In 1807, Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball, illustrated in the manner of Mulready, proved so popular that it led to a flurry of imitators, including The Fishes’ Feast, The Elephant’s Ball and The Mermaids at Home. Robinson Crusoe spawned Swiss Family Robinson. When there are enough of these imitations, a new genre is born.

Wanda Hazel Gág
The ABC Bunny,
Coward- McCann, 1933.

Kate Greenaway
Marigold Garden:
Pictures and Rhymes,
London, Routledge,
1885. Engraved and
colour printed by
Edmund Evans.
Early Color Printing
Early in the 18th century, John Harris, a disciple of Newbery’s, was publishing quality and tasteful little books for children. His method for adding color by hand had turned into a cottage industry, employing young teens to do the painting. They would sit around a table with a stack of pages. The first child would paint the red and pass the sheet onto the next child, who would then add then yellow, and so forth until the page was done. 

During the 1860s, chromo-lithography, from which offset printing was later to develop, was used to print cheaper books with bright colors and oily pages. Compared to the hand-colored illustrations, they were not an improvement.

Edmund Evans
Significant changes were brought to color printing in the 1860s by Edmund Evans, a descendant of the Bewick engraving tradition. Through the use of photography, Evans photographed the key block and transferred it to the other blocks, one for each additional color, usually red, yellow, blue and flesh. After he engraved the wood block intended for black ink, he sent a proof of it to the artist for coloring. Evans engraved each block separately, using the colored proof as a guide, with a series of crosshatches, and was able to produce intricate color variations when the separate blocks were inked and printed in registration on top of each other.

Publishing was starting to become a profitable business. Evans recognized that contracting the illustrator and printing the book himself, then contracting a publisher to distribute it, could reap greater profits. Evans’s books were highly popular due in part to his skill as an engraver, and the illustrators he employed—Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and Kate Greenaway

Walter Crane was commercial designer fascinated with Evans’s experiments and illustrated almost 40 books for him, though he was criticized for poor draftsmanship and being mechanical. His work emphasized well designed layouts harmonizing text and art, often with decorative borders, embellished endpapers and title pages. He later worked with William Morris and his Kelmscott Press. Morris was an originator of the Arts and Crafts movement concerned with bringing quality back into working people lives, which was rapidly degrading due to industrialization. 

The illustration style of Randolph Caldecott can only be described as lively and robust. It is for him that the American medal for the best illustrated picture-book is named after. Alternately, the medal for the best British illustrated picture-book is named after Kate Greenaway, another of Evans’s artists, and probably the first successful female illustrator of children’s books. While she was also criticized for poor draftsmanship, she was none-the-less popular with the masses and spawned a new fashion trend for children, perhaps the first example of the wide spread impact that children’s books can have. 

With the promise of greater profits, publishers competed for the best illustrators by offering better financial terms. Whereas previously illustrators were receiving a flat fee, now they were getting royalties. With the advent of the photo-engraving printing process in the 1890s, artists were allowed to keep their artwork undamaged, and were free to sell the original if they desired. Art galleries were quick to enter the scene when they saw that money could be made from the sales. 

The use of photography eliminated the need for a middleman and, for the first time, the artist was finally free to use whatever medium he or she preferred. Even size was no longer a consideration because the camera could enlarge or reduce an image. 

The opening of trade with Japan influenced artists of this era. The flat color, black outlines and decorative elements of Japanese prints spawned an emerging style adopted by many illustrators like Boutet de Monvel of France, Carl Larson of Sweden, and Ivan Bilibin of Russia. The Arts and Crafts movement was a precursor to Art Nouveau, the artist’s rebellious answer to the decadence of industrialization. 

Elizabeth S. Green
Preston, Josephine,
Book of the Little Past,
Houghton, 1908.

Jessie W. Smith
"Little Drops of Water"
from A Child's Book of
Old Verses, Duffield,
Publishing in America
America had good writers but lacked good illustrators; there were no schools for illustrators. There really wasn’t much need for any since there were no copyright laws at the time and anything that was needed was copied from a foreign book. But improved printing technology increased the demand for quality magazines in the states and in turn increased the need for illustrators. 

In America, St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys & Girls strove to inspire children with “an appreciation of fine pictorial art, cultivate imagination, foster love of beauty, stimulate ambitions, and impart high ideals to children.” Their devotion to quality attracted the best writers and artists of the day, including Howard Pyle. Many books like Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book were first printed in the pages of St. Nicholas.

Howard Pyle
Howard Pyle had been a contributor to children’s magazines like St. Nicholas and Harper’s Young People when he recognized the need for a school for illustrators.  He first started teaching at the Drexel Institute and then later at his own studio in Chadds Ford. His classes proved to be extremely popular turning out students, N. C. Wyeth, Thornton Oakley, Jessie Willcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green to name a few, that later became important illustrators and teachers in their own right, ensuring that the Pyle legacy would be felt in the children’s book field for generations to come. One needs only to look at the current work of Trina Schart Hyman, a fourth generation descendant of the Pyle tradition, to see the influence of Pyle’s teachings.

While America was undergoing many economic and social changes, they still took their cues from England in regards to children’s books. An industrialized culture with growing cities lured young people away their rural way of life. The “American family” was being threatened by immigrants flocking to Ellis Island, consequently spawning nostalgic imagery of domestic life, which had more to do with delusion than facts.

Trina Schart Hyman
Pyle, Howard, Bearskin,
New York, Morrow
Junior Books, 1997.
Women in Victorian England
The 19th Century American Woman
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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