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Laura Wasowicz

Of Beggars, Ballad Singers, and Sailors: Errant Children in the Picture Books of William Charles

William Charles (1776-1820) was a prolific metal engraver and publisher of both political cartoons and children’s picture books.  His visual images drawn for children display a vitality and power largely unequaled by his American contemporaries.  Emigrating to the young American republic from his native Scotland in 1801, Charles published his books first in New York, before settling in Philadelphia, where he spent most of his American career.  After his death in 1820, many of his metal-engraved children’s books were re-issued by the Philadelphia firm of Morgan & Yeager (ca. 1824-1825).  My presentation will focus on a series of four picture books engraved by Charles, namely, The History and Adventures of Little Eliza, The History and Adventures of Little William, The History of Little Fanny, and The History and Adventures of Little Henry.  Through mishap or mischief, Eliza, William, Fanny, and Henry are each separated from their families and forced to carve out a living for themselves by various occupations including fortune telling, begging, and even ballad singing.  These stories have English antecedents, and Charles’ visuals subtly adapt the images for the eyes of American children.  Underlying these tales of adventure and travail are cultural concepts of parental authority, prescribed gender roles, and juvenile innocence permeating the Atlantic World of the early nineteenth century.  These tales, at once both humorous and sobering, give us a valuable glimpse into prevailing ideas on juvenile independence and responsibility.

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