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A Week to Remember: Beatrix Potter

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter with her dog at Hill Top
Photo credit: Charles G.Y. King© National Portrait Gallery, London

On July 28, 1866, Beatrix Potter was born. Potter was the author and illustrator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and more than 20 other animal stories for children, books which remain popular more than a century after they were written.

Potter grew up in a prosperous London family and was schooled at home by a series of governesses. Her parents enjoyed nature and the countryside, and Beatrix and her brother had a variety of pets when they were young. The family took summer vacations in Scotland and in the Lake District of England. The Potter children had great freedom to roam the countryside on these vacations, and Beatrix enjoyed sketching the local plants and animals.

Like most women of her era, Potter did not attend university but was educated privately. She was most interested in various aspects of the natural sciences and studied fossils, insects, and archaeological specimens. But by the 1890s, she had narrowed her interest to a focus on mycology, the study of mushrooms and other fungi.

Potter’s drawings of British mushrooms were so precisely detailed and accurate that they are still used by British mycologists to identify certain species. Her scientific studies in the field were advanced enough that in 1897, Potter had a paper presented at the Linnean Society on the reproductive cycle of certain fungi. The phrasing there is deliberate: Potter “had a paper presented” by someone else, because the Linnean Society was an all-male institution. Women were not allowed to present their own work, or even to attend the presentation. A century later, in 1997, the Society issued a posthumous apology to Potter for its sexism in dealing with her research.

Potter’s drawings were not limited to sketches of mushrooms. In the early 1890s, she and her brother designed and printed their own Christmas cards, and she began selling illustrations to publishers. While on vacation, she often sent letters to the children of family friends, illustrating them with sketches of the local wildlife.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Potter, Beatrix

One such letter was the foundation of her literary career. In 1893, she wrote a letter to the son of one of her former governesses, in which she told him the first version of the story that eventually became The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She first published the story in 1901, in a small private edition for family and friends.

One of her friends took the book to various London publishers (though he had rewritten the story in his own rhyming version). The publisher Frederick Warne loved the book and thought it would be a good way for them to enter the then-booming market in “little books” for children. They chose to stick with Potter’s original prose, and Potter agreed to make color versions of her original black-and-white illustrations.

The book was a great success when it was published in 1902, and Potter wrote 22 more “Tales” over the next 25 years, featuring such now-familiar characters as Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Potter was a savvy businesswoman; when her books became popular, she and her publisher understood that there was money to be made in related merchandise. A Peter Rabbit doll went on the market in 1902, followed by coloring books, wallpaper, board games, tea sets, and other spin-off products.

In 1905, after the death of her fiance, Potter bought a small farm in England’s Lake District. The tenant farmer who had lived there agreed to stay on and continue doing the actual labor of running the place while teaching Potter the skills of farm management. She continued to buy land and expand the farm for the next several years.

In 1912, Potter married William Heelis, the local lawyer who served as her agent in her real estate dealings. They lived on Potter’s farm, which had been renovated to include a larger home for the tenant farmer and his family, and a studio/workshop space for Potter. She continued to expand her land holdings, and eventually became one of the area’s most respected sheep breeders. Potter also believed strongly in the preservation of farmland, and worked with the National Trust, a conservation organization, to purchase large amounts of land in order to keep it from being developed.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Potter, Beatrix

Potter continued to write new books into the early 1920s. She continued to write and publish new books into the early 1920s. After that, she chose to devote most of her time to her farm and to charitable causes. She did write and illustrate a story occasionally, but more for her own amusement than with the intention of publishing them

Potter died on December 22, 1943, of complications from pneumonia and heart disease. She left most of her property, including the originals of her illustrations, to the National Trust. Her husband survived until August 1945, and after his death, the remainder of the family’s land was also left to the Trust.

More of Beatrix Potter’s “Tales” are available as e-books. Sarah Gristwood and Nadia Cohen are the authors of comprehensive biographies of Potter. Linda Lear’s book focuses specifically on Potter’s scientific work, and Marta McDowell writes about her life in farming and gardening.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Potter, Beatrix

Potter has been honored and paid tribute in a variety of forms. Susan Wittig Albert’s “Cottage Tales” series of mystery novels feature Potter as sleuth; the series begins with The Tale of Hill Top Farm. The musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown includes a song called “Book Report,” which finds the “Peanuts” kids struggling to write about Peter Rabbit; John Lanchbery composed the music for a 1971 ballet, Tales of Beatrix Potter.

And in 2016, for the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, more than 30 authors and illustrators of children’s books compiled their thoughts on her work, drawing and writing about her famous characters, in A Celebration of Beatrix Potter.

Also This Week

August 2, 1790

The first census of the United States was conducted. The Constitution requires that the population of the United States be counted every ten years; the results determine how many representatives each state will send to Congress, and funding levels for many federal programs. All residents are required to be counted, regardless of citizenship status, and the information gathered is to remain confidential. Nations have devised ways to count their population for at least three millenia; Andrew Whitby explores the history of census-taking in The Sum of the People.

July 30, 1890

Casey Stengel was born. In the 1910s and 1920s, Stengel was a moderately successful baseball player; after his playing career ended, he found greater success as a manager. Between 1949 and 1953, Stengel led the New York Yankees to five straight World Series titles, a feat no other manager or team has duplicated. He ended his career as the first manager of the New York Mets. Marty Appel’s biography is called >Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character.

July 30, 1920

Marie Tharp was born. Tharp was a geologist and cartographer who, with her colleague Bruce Heezen, spent thirty years mapping the ocean floor. Tharp’s work provided strong support for the idea of continental drift, which was still a controversial theory in the 1950s. In the early years of their collaboration, Heezen received most of the credit, but by the time that their World Ocean Floor map was published in 1977, Tharp’s contribution to their work was recognized. Hali Felt’s Soundings tells the story of Tharp’s life and work.

July 30, 1970

Christopher Nolan was born. Nolan is a screenwriter and director who quickly progressed from small, independent films to big-budget studio movies. He has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture nominations for Inception and Dunkirk. His breakthrough film was Memento, an intricate story of a man searching for his wife’s killer, a task made more difficult by the fact that he can only remember new information for a few minutes.