Lauren B. Hewes and Kayla Haveles Hopper, eds., Radiant with Color & Art: McLoughlin Brothers and the Business of Picture Books, 1858-1920

Cover for Radiant with Color and Art book

Lauren B. Hewes and Kayla Haveles Hopper, eds. Radiant with Color & Art: McLoughlin Brothers and the Business of Picture Books, 1858-1920: December 6, 2017 – February 3, 2018, the Grolier Club, New York. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, [2017]. 144 p. col. ill., maps. ISBN 978-0-692-96711-9.  US$30.00.

“What’s the use of an exhibition catalog,” Alice might well have said to herself, “if it doesn’t have beautiful pictures and brilliant essays?” This catalog of the McLoughlin Brothers’ more than sixty years of publishing children’s books, games, and toys surely would have delighted little Alice. The first third of the book consists of three well-written informative essays and the last two thirds make up the illustrated exhibition catalog itself. The items were drawn primarily from the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society with help from private collectors Linda F. and Julian L. Lapides, Richard Cheek, and the George M. Fox Collection at the San Francisco Public Library.

The Essays

In the first essay, the exhibition’s co-curator Laura Wasowicz traces the history of the firm beginning with an early partnership between John McLoughlin and Robert Elton to the founding of its successor, McLoughlin Brothers in 1858 by John McLoughlin, Jr. (1827-1905) and Edmund McLoughlin (1833-1889), down to the sale of the company in 1920 to the board games firm of Milton Bradley. From the earliest days John Jr., the real superintendent of the company, marketed its books in numerous series at various price points, different reading levels, and degrees of production quality. McLoughlins became experts in not only relying on classic and new fairy tales but also books about current events, e.g. the Civil War, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West exploration, and the Spanish-American War. The 1867 catalog lists, in addition to its series books and compilation books, paper dolls and “a line of 65 different board and card games”! They employed famous illustrators like Sarah Noble Ives, William Bruton, Edward P. Cogger, Enos Comstock, Frances Bassett Comstock, and many others. They used powerful steam powered presses, eagerly adopted new technologies (e.g., relief chromotypography, zincography, and chromolithography), acquired competitors (e.g., James Miller), worked with competitors (e.g., D. Appleton & Company for Appleton’s Spanish language books), created a network of salesmen in addition to their mail order and wholesale marketing, and by 1903 employed 850 people in their Brooklyn, New York factory. Finally, the books from McLoughlin Brothers with their brightly colored covers were cheap, costing usually less than half the price of British books as their 1872 catalog boasted.

Prior to the U.S. Copyright Act of 1891, McLoughlin’s pirated numerous British children’s books. In his justifiably vitriolic letter to Scribner’s Monthly in September 1877, the British illustrator Walter Crane denounced the unauthorized and bastardized pirating by McLoughlin of his illustrations to his Baby’s Opera; and indeed his pre-Raphaelite-like subtle colored  illustrations printed from wood blocks by Sir Edmund Evans were replaced with garish images produced by zinc relief plates. After World War I, however, the third generation of McLoughlins showed little interest in the firm, whose fortunes declined to the point of ending in the sale of the company to Milton Bradley in 1920, a fact which segues nicely into the second essay of the catalog.

Justin G. Schiller, in “McLoughlin Brothers Archives—A Brief Account” traces the dispersal of the firm’s records. The business ledgers and correspondence disappeared early in the 20th century, so Schiller attempted to reconstruct the history of the firm from McLouglin’s print archive. That collection was divided in part between Milton Bradley Company’s treasurer, George Marshall Fox, and its vice president, Charles Miller. A third segment of the archive accompanied the sale of what remained of the McLoughlin line to Grosset & Dunlap in 1954. Schiller modestly describes his role in securing the transfer to various repositories of some of those parts and today part of the archive is to be found at the American Antiquarian Society. In addition to the sales, for there were several, the dispersal of the thousands of McLoughlin wood blocks is a side story in itself.

In the final essay, “Cinderella Close Up: An Illustration Case Study,” Laura Wasowicz analyzes four different McLoughlin editions of Cinderella. The 1852 Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper used wood blocks from the original design of English engraver John Lewis Marks, which were then stereotyped, the outlines printed in black, and then hand-colored with, in this case, some careless overlap in the colors, like a child coloring outside the lines. The 1863 Cinderella in the Fairy Moonbeam Series seems to have been a somewhat unsuccessful attempt at chromoxylography (printing with woodblocks for each color). Cinderella and the Little Glass Slipper, circa 1867, is an example of zincography, using the less-costly zinc plates rather than wood engravings. Finally, the 1895 multi-part book Puss in Boots. Cinderella. Red Riding Hood was produced by chromolithography in twelve colors, i.e. requiring twelve passes through the press.

The Catalog

William Dean Howells once said “there ain’t anything in this world that sells a book like a pretty cover” and the illustrations (some 90 of the catalog’s 205 entries have pictures) were ample proof of that dictum in the case of McLoughlin Brothers. Many of the catalog entries contain detailed notes, often of several paragraphs, on the production, derivation, historical context, and bibliographic data of the works exhibited. Like the Grolier exhibition, the entries are divided into nine sections, each preceded by a one-page essay, e.g. “Early History of Picture Books in America,” “Illustrators at McLoughlin Brothers,” and “The Golden Age of McLoughlin Brothers.” To take just two items as examples, consider first: McLoughlin’s cover of William Cowper’s The Diverting History of John Gilpin, which was pirated from London’s George Routledge & Sons, but is far brighter and attractive than the original British edition. Secondly, Sarah Noble Ives brilliantly depicted Cinderella as a pre-Raphaelite beauty in her watercolor, gouache, and pen-and-ink illustration.

Even a basic catalog of McLoughhlin’s output, however, is lacking in large part because of the complexity and magnitude of the task. McLoughlin regularly repurposed, adapted, and manipulated much of its material. Between 1860 and 1890, for example, they published more than 1000 titles in about 150 series. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, exists in 16 different series with more than 30 variations in additional content, cover illustrations, and size. Almost all the exhibits in the Grolier Club show were in nearly mint condition, whereas my wife and I, on the contrary, have in our Lewis Carroll collection five McLoughlin Alices, each of which has some cover soiling, rips in their thin cloth spines, and quite apparent overall child wear.

McLoughlin’s motto was, “Educate and Amuse,” following Quintilian’s maxim docere [et] delectare, although they may have done a bit more of the latter than the former; but McLoughlin Brothers in any event made a remarkable contribution to American publishing and life. One small quibble – a title and author index would have made the catalog even more useful.

August A. Imholtz, Jr.

Beltsville, MD