The University of Florida boasts extensive collections of art, literature, science, and agriculture among others. These collections are scanned, photographed and catalogued into a digital library for all to use.
One of the collections is the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature which is full of wonderful books centuries old. It was easy to be taken in by their collection of fairy and folk tales published in the 19th century. The sumptuous cover artworks, often embossed with gold or silver ink, are impressive alone but throughout many of the books there are also sweet, classic illustrations for the reader to enjoy. The stories range from enduring tales we still know today to the more obscure folk tales and everything in between.
It is fascinating to see our familiar tales in their classic form meant for families and children to read centuries ago. English fairy and folk tales are familiar to many in the UK and US but within this collection we are also offered an insight into other cultures’ literature. Some British writers in the 1880’s thought it important to introduce children to tales from other lands such as Finland and India. This was meant to not only celebrate differences but to also recognise similarities between our cultures.
Most fairytales and folk stories follow recognisable tropes such as the dashing hero, the damsel in distress, the friendly helper, and the evil villain as seen in Propp’s ‘Morphology of the Folklore’ written in 1968 (available to buy in the UK and the US). Starting as an oral tradition, story telling was a way to pass on advice to future generations, as well as to entertain and amuse. Simply, fairytales are at their base a folk tale, but with added magic! Fairies, cursed witches, and mythical beasts are used to give the listener or reader a sense of escapism.
Many of the 19th century book covers are still in such good condition that it is easy to see how well they were looked after, perhaps because they were made to last, but also as many books were considered an investment of sorts. One book of stories can keep a child entertained for a long time and by making them hard-backed and hardy they could be read, re-read and shared with siblings and friends.
It is time well spent, trawling through the beautiful book covers and reading the strange and enrapturing stories offered by Baldwin Library. We hope you have enjoyed this little selection we have laid out here but do not forget the selection out there is absolutely vast, prepare to get lost in 19th century literature! Happy reading…