Over the past several weeks, I explored the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Design Museum Library’s collection of illustrated children’s books as part of the Arts Intern program through Studio in a School. During my time in the Library, I have discovered seemingly endless treasures in the children’s book collection, including a vast range of illustrative styles, fascinating content, and extraordinarily rare titles—non-withstanding an unequaled collection of pop-up and movable books.
Though children’s books might seem somewhat of an oddity in a library dedicated to design and decorative arts, they were an integral part of the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum Library from its beginning. The Library’s founders, the Hewitt sisters, envisioned the children’s book collection as a complement to other design resources. Emphasis on design was seminal in collecting and using these titles. Eleanor Hewitt noted in 1919 that a librarian from the Boston Public Library “was astonished at the large number of illustrated children’s books of every age and country, and at the fact of their being constantly consulted for costume and for decorative and color schemes.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the earliest children’s books in the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection were acquired largely through donations from the Hewitts themselves. The Library's acquisition records reveal that both recent and older illustrated children’s publications have been actively collected throughout its history. In the past two funds in particular, the Mary Stuart Book Fund and the J.P. Morgan Book Fund, expanded this collection significantly, along with generous donations from individuals that continue to this day.
The Library’s collection of children’s books is comprised of roughly 2,000 titles, of which over 1,200 are pop-up and movable books. Titles range in date from the 18th century to the present, primarily originating from Britain, the United States, France and Spain. Interesting examples of German, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, and even Soviet-era Russian books can be found as well. The children’s collection represents an incredibly wide array of content, including fairy tales, alphabet books, nursery rhymes, and songbooks. Large numbers of first and early editions illustrated by celebrated artists such as Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, and Beatrix Potter can be found along with other, lesser-known artists of equal aesthetic value. Selections from the Cooper-Hewitt’s children’s literature collection have been showcased in many museum exhibitions, underscoring the integral relationship between illustration and design. These exhibitions include Nine Lives (1949), American Drawings (1954), Fantastic Illustration and Design in Britain, 1850-1930 (1979), An Odyssey in Print (2002), Picturing Words (2007), Wall Stories (2009), and a current exhibition at the National Museum of American History: Paper Engineering: Fold, Pop, and Turn (2010).
While the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library recognizes the value of this collection for designers, artists, and educators, many of the materials are very fragile and handling must be kept to a minimum. The Library hopes to digitize titles free of copyright restrictions, pre-1923, in effort to make these children’s books accessible online to all who might enjoy them. In the meantime, many wonderful examples can be seen here.
Stay tuned for future blog posts highlighting specific aspects of this wonderful collection.
—Elise Chevalier, Arts Intern, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library