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Peter Parley Explains the Moon to Children, Part 1

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Today’s guest post is by Jacqueline Coleburn and Anthony Mullan. Jackie is a rare book cataloger at the Library of Congress and is cataloging the Library’s rare children’s books.  Peter Parley books are a particular interest of hers. These books, which were very popular in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, offer insight into the evolution of American children’s literature, and can tell the modern reader a great deal about American attitudes and thought. Anthony Mullan is a volunteer who was formerly a reference specialist in the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. One of his current interests is 19th century American geographic education.

Samuel G. Goodrich portrait by Matthew Brady Studio. Daguerreotype Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860) was not a household name in the first half of the 19th century, but his pseudonym Peter Parley was.  As Peter Parley, an old story-teller with a gouty foot who enjoyed entertaining children, he offered his audiences fact-filled and abundantly illustrated books and magazines.

Goodrich was born in 1793, into a family of modest means.  His father was the minister at the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield, Connecticut. Because he grew up to be a prolific writer for children, it is interesting to consider what books he read during his own childhood.  Young Samuel had the Bible, The New England Primer, and Divine and Moral Songs, by Dr. Isaac Watts, at his disposal, similar to many children of the time. At the age of 12 he enjoyed Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.

What is most interesting about his childhood reading, and most prophetic when we consider his writings for future generations of American children, is the books he detested.   He had no use whatsoever for Mother Goose, fairy stories, or tales of giants, and grew to consider such reading detrimental to young minds.  About reading Little Red Riding Hood he says, “… I felt a creeping horror come over me … I soon seemed to see the hideous jaws of a wolf coming out of the bedcloths … (His Recollections of a Lifetime, 1857, v. 1, p. 166-167).

Samuel, obviously a very literal young person, grew up to write books for children that were full of facts and figures and what he considered to be useful knowledge.  He strove to make history, geography, and the wonders of nature riveting, and much less terrifying, than the make-believe world of goblins and monsters.  Books, “… reasonable and truthful, and thus to feed the young mind upon things wholesome and pure, instead of things monstrous, false, and pestilent” (His Recollections of a Lifetime, 1857, v. 2, p. 172).

Peter Parley’s Tales about the Sun, Moon, and Stars, 1836.

The Library of Congress has acquired and cataloged all but 25 of his 150 titles, many in several editions. Most of Goodrich’s books are held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.  One of his most famous, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, first published in 1837, was selected for the Library’s exhibition, Books that Shaped America.

Best known for his books on geography and history, Goodrich also wrote on the sciences for young scholars.  His books on astronomy are of particular interest here.

In the engraved frontispiece to the 1836 edition of Peter Parley’s Tales About the Sun, Moon, and Stars, we see Mr. Parley himself, with his foot propped up and holding a cane, telling tales to his young friends.  He often tells his audiences, “I am an old man. I am very gray and lame. But I have seen a great many things, and had a great many adventures, and I love to talk about them.”  His friendly, folksy, and unintimidating tone endeared him to his young readers.

Goodrich had no patience for stories about cows that jump over moons (His Recollections of a Lifetime, 1857, v. 2, p. 311).  His cows stay firmly in pastures and give milk to thirsty children, and the Moon is more interesting as it truly is.  Goodrich endeavored to communicate the best astronomical facts and figures available about the Moon to his readers.  His finest talent may have been his ability to put potentially difficult concepts into child-relatable words

Telescopic views of the moon, from Glance at the Physical Sciences, 1844, page 22.

“The moon, a satellite of our own planet, is the heavenly body of which we have the most accurate knowledge …” (Peter Parley’s Tales about the Sun, Moon, and Stars, 1842, page 21).  Goodrich communicates that knowledge to children in an engaging manner, full of illustrations and helpful analogies appropriate to a 19th century American child’s imagination.

Peter Parley’s Tales about the Sun, Moon, and Stars, 1842, page 15.

Goodrich describes the Moon as “a large round body, with an uneven surface, of land and water.  It is about one fiftieth part as large as the earth; and is two hundred and forty thousand miles from the earth. If a swift bird could fly constantly from the earth toward the moon, it would perform the journey, from one to the other, in eighty days and nights”  (Peter Parley’s Tales About the Sun, Moon, and Stars, 1842, p. 54). Our Moon is actually 27% the size of the earth, but he is just about right concerning its distance from Earth (average distance is 238,855 according to  Goodrich also gives his young reader a commonplace comparison, along with a mental image, to gauge that distance.

Stay tuned for Part II of Peter Parley’s entertaining instructions to children of the 19th century on the Moon and other heavenly bodies.

Comments (3)

  1. Well done and most enjoyable. Shared with the Marquette Amateur Astronomers FB page. Thanks, Ms. Terrell!

  2. * Oops, thanks to Jacqueline Coleburn and Anthony Mullan (and Ellen Terrell for curating)!

  3. Wonderful blog. It’s fascinating to learn about Peter! Will the Library try to acquire the 25 titles it is lacking?

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