From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 50, No. 1, April 2014
Celebrating a 19th Century Children’s Literature Author By Nancy M. Kline
Why have I written about Catharine Maria Trowbridge, her work and her life? During my 1970’s time of working with the Mansfield History Workshop, the late Ruth Munsell encouraged me to learn more about Miss Trowbridge and to work toward some type of publication. I tried to follow her excellent advice at least twice and failed each time. The time now seems auspicious for a third attempt, so I have purchased nine of Miss Trowbridge’s books, conducted some preliminary research, and put some thoughts down on paper.
Catharine Maria Trowbridge, who was born in Mansfield in 1818, began her writing career in 1843 at the age of 25. An anonymous In Memoriam account of her life states that she developed “a taste and aptitude for composition” and that she sent an [apparently unsolicited] article to the Youth’s Cabinet, which was met by “a very favorable reception.”
Miss Trowbridge’s religious affiliation had begun formally in 1832 at age 14 when she joined the nearby Congregational Church in the South Parish. There were no young children in her immediate family – she was the youngest of five. But she was apparently able to understand what would attract children (or what parents would make available for their children to read.) Her writing must have been ideally suited to the times. By the time age and illness forced her to stop in 1888, she had published almost 40 childrens’ books during the 45 years since 1843, along with an as-yet-undiscovered number of articles for children.
(It’s fun to speculate: perhaps publishers of those Sunday-school books saw an equivalent market to Horatio Alger, Jr.’s novels about poor boys who became monetarily successful in life. Alger published his first boy’s book – Frank’s Campaign – in 1864 and continued to publish this type of book intensively until the late 1880’s.)
The favorable reception of Miss Trowbridge’s writing was not limited to publishers of religious materials, such as the Massachusetts or Philadelphia Sunday-School Societies. At least six commercial firms in the United States and abroad published her books, including Alfred Martien and M. W. Dodd, which later became Dodd, Mead and Company. During each of four or more years, she had at least two books in pre-publication by either the same publisher or more than one publisher. Nine or more of her titles are currently available in their original form from book dealers, as facsimile reproductions in hardcover, as digitally typeset and corrected paperbacks, or as ebooks.
A small number of her books used their titles as an initial way of teaching their lessons, such as Christian Heroism (1858), Mistakes (1881), or Snares and Safeguards (1887). By far the larger number of book titles, however, had an individual’s name such as Nettie Wallace (1866) or Frank and Rufus (1864).
Although her books might have been small in overall dimensions, they were not short in length. Dick and His Friend Fidus, for example which was in its fifth edition in 1860, is 231 pages. The type size was not enlarged to help beginning readers. The books were not generally heavily illustrated to help keep an early reader’s attention, but depending on the book, there might have been one or more appropriate engraved illustrations. Her texts did not gloss over difficult every-day events – in Jennie’s Bible Verses (1865), for example, Jennie’s younger sister Susie died at home after a long illness.
Miss Trowbridge’s accomplishments are even more remarkable when her ill health is taken into consideration. She suffered from some type of spinal disease that gradually made her an invalid. Her eyesight was increasingly affected as she grew older, and over time she became almost totally blind. In Memoriam also stated that she was able to write only thirty minutes a day, although we’re not told what caused this added hardship or when it began.
By 1851, only she and her mother were alive and living in the large 1700’s home where she was born. Her mother’s health was failing and they became increasingly unable to care for themselves. A family came to live with them and help them in return for housing. This arrangement continued for another 22 years after Mrs. Trowbridge died in 1866.
Following the death of her mother – Miss Trowbridge’s only real companion – the Congregational Church pastor intervened in an attempt to provide company and intellectual stimulation for this bed-confined, solitary, almost blind, accomplished author. He organized a small group of young church members who would spend at least an hour a day, seven days a week, in reading to her. Although members of the original group moved on into their more adult lives, others took their place and the practice continued until she died in mid-January 1892 at the age of 74.
As writers in 2014 with all of the tools and means of communication available to us, it is almost impossible to imagine how Miss Trowbridge continued to write and publish so successfully, especially between approximately 1851 and the publication of her last book in 1888. How did she surmount her health problems? Who wrote down what she wanted to have printed, and how was that revised? How was the correspondence with the publishers established and maintained? How were the manuscripts sent and the galleys proofread? Were the proceeds from the sale of her books the only income that provided a living for her and her mother, while the latter was still alive?
The In Memoriam author does not provide any details to answer these questions and others. It may be that further investigation in manuscript sources will uncover diaries, family letters, or other useful and informative materials. At the very least, a search of 19th century periodicals such as the Youth’s Cabinet may result in identifying articles written under her name that can be added to her extensive list of published books.
Sunday School Books
Miss Trowbridge’s books belong to a unique genre known as Sunday School books that flourished during the 19th century. These children’s books were intended to teach moral values in an entertaining way. They became a standard part of religious education.
There are more than 30 examples of Miss Trowbridge’s books in our Society’s collection. Most sold for 50 cents to $1.50 each and also came in boxed sets. The American Sunday School Union also marketed such books in packaged Libraries of 100 for five or ten dollars to churches across the country.
Michigan State University has completed a digitization project called “Shaping the Values of Youth: Sunday School Books in 19th Century America.” Their website provides historical background and many examples of this once very popular form of literature. To learn more, please visit http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/ssb/index.cfm.
Below are a few contemporary descriptions of Miss Trowbridge’s works from the Publisher’s Uniform Trade List Directory of 1868:
Dick and his Friend Fidus.
Dick was a poor orphan, who began life under unfavorable auspices. He soon found an abiding friend in Fidus (conscience) whom he often heard whispering, “This is the way, walk ye therein.” By following this faithful counsellor, he escaped the temptations, and manfully bore the trials of boyhood. The story is lively and interesting, with a distinct, though not obtrusive moral.
Nettie Wallace; or, The Priceless Ornaments.
It is an excellent story, illustrating the beauty of a meek and forgiving spirit, and the benefit of confessing and forsaking sin. The object of the story is to show what are the true ornaments of a woman, and how dangerous it is to indulge the young of either sex in anything which begets an undue love of dress.
The Two Friends.
Sketches in a graphic and instructive way the lives of two friends, one of whom from girlhood was trained in strict integrity of principle, the other trimmed her course more according to what other people might say, than according to the principles of right and wrong. The folly and guilt of living for other people’s opinions rather than living for right, are set in a clear light. The contrasted characters of the two girls impress the teachings of the book strongly upon the memory. We commend the book to all Sunday-school teachers as one deserving a place in the library.