Radiant With Color

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Rumplestiltskin watercolorThe American Antiquarian Society, founded in 1812, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a vital research center for the study of all aspects of pre-twentieth century American history and culture. The Society’s collection of children’s literature includes thousands of primers, tracts, school books, and picture books and is ranked by scholars as among the best in the world.

In 2017, two hundred items were drawn from the more than 1,700 McLoughlin Brothers books and games and the portion of the firm’s original art archive that are preserved at the American Antiquarian Society. This exhibition, Radiant With Color & Art was co-curated by Lauren B. Hewes and Laura Wasowicz of the American Antiquarian Society and was exhibited at the Grolier Club, New York, from December 6, 2017, to February 3, 2018.

The McLoughlin Brothers were New York publishers whose company operated from 1858 to 1920. The firm that they founded produced books and games for children for over fifty years, a notable achievement for any business, but an especially important one in the history of picture book publishing.

As one of the first publishers to focus exclusively on products for children, McLoughlin Brothers was able to shape and define the American picture book market. The firm used wholesale and retail channels to distribute its books across the United States and in Latin America and Europe; produced picture-dominated books that significantly escalated consumer's expectations that image-laden books could be had at affordable prices; and created popular content that reflected the modern world of the child reader. The brothers never rested on their success, always striving to use technological innovation to improve their products and keep prices down and profits up. In no small way, McLoughlin Brothers sold the idea of picture books as a cultural necessity of American childhood--a belief still held by parents today.

This exhibition documents the working practice of the firm by associating its products with many of the tools used during the production process, such as printing blocks, designer mock-ups, and watercolor illustration art. These objects tell a story firmly rooted in the discipline of book history, but also hint at nuances of nineteenth century business practices, the advancement of literacy for children, and revelations about cultural norms of the era during which the McLoughlin Brothers thrived.