Sunday, January 31, 2010

Talking guns

New England Homestead, November 13 1897

Thornton Burgess loved to go hunting when he was young. He admits as much in his autobiography. What he doesn't say is that his interest in hunting persisted well into his adult years. Nevertheless, one can already see him distancing himself from the activity in his early writing.

In 1897, we see this column of advice for "young sportsmen" (AKA hunters). It begins with the following striking assertion: "Every boy over fifteen should be taught the use of a gun, and how to care for it." (If you click on the image below you should be able to read the whole article). For rural kids in the late 1800s, hunting could be taken for granted, thus gun safety was paramount.

At the same time, it is clear that Burgess is a knowledgeable authority, with some very specific safety tips, including:
Never get into a wagon with a loaded gun.
Never drag a loaded gun by the muzzle through thick underbrush.
It is also clear that Burgess sees hunting as something governed by regulations: "Never shoot quail on the ground. Obey all game laws to the letter." And is guided by a conservation sensibility: "Never hunt for market; that is what is making game scarce." This last one was one of Hornaday's chief issues.

Burgess did, however, write two published essays that essentially romanticized hunting. These appeared in the "sportsman" magazine, Recreation. (One of the essays was published in the same issue as "When the Scoters Fly").

The first, from 1898, features Burgess and a companion hunting yellow-legs and plover in a Cape Cod marsh.

The second, from 1899, features Burgess and a companion ("the taxidermist") hunting ducks outside of Springfield.

Both of them tell essentially the same story in similar ways. In both, Burgess seems more interested in describing the natural scene than actually shooting anything. And in both, his companion shows an uncanny ability to communicate with waterfowl, only to let the guns have the final word.

Here's the scene from the Cape Cod story. His companion has set up some decoys and is now going to outwit the yellow-legs by mimicking their communication patterns:
Faint, from far up the marsh, sounds the whistle of a yellow-leg. In an instant George is alert and the little tin whistle that hangs about his neck is brought into play. Call for call he gives and now there are several…More and more plaintive and seductive grow his calls….

Burgess goes as far to represent what the birds believe his companion is "saying."
Then the little tin whistle begins to talk to itself in an indescribably contented undertone. Such a breakfast, and so much of it! There is not a place on the marsh like this! What fools they are not to come.
Finally, the seduction is achieved.
Past they swing back of us and then catching sight of the decoys, suddenly turn and with shrill whistles that fill all the air, set their wings and drop down. As well bunched they drop their long legs and the tips of the long wings meet overhead, the two guns speak and speak again.

Burgess uses the same language in the second story
From out the intense blackness in mid-river comes a subdued, inquiring, “quack.” “Quack,” responds the taxidermist, decidedly. Again comes the query; again the decided answer…The taxidermist’s gun speaks, and with a whistle of wings, the ducks above us leave the rice, while a still, black form drifts to our feet.
Even guns can be included in Burgess's communication system.

At the same time, there are hints that Burgess is looking for justifications. In the Cape Cod story, he makes it clear that the shooting victims are for eating (that this is not shooting simply for the sake of sport).
With regret we finally gather up the decoys and plod homeward while the day is still young, the charm of the early morning weaving a spell that the promise of a royal dinner of broiled plover alone can break.
In the Springfield story, he suggests that the shooting part is peripheral to the actual experience of hunting:
Was it not enough just to be tramping away from human habitation and sound of human life, along with dear old Mother Nature, breathing her gloriously pure air, basking in her sunshine, listening to the lap of water and the twitter of sparrows in the hedge. Was not this, after all, the real charm of hunting?
Indeed, you don't even need to shoot something for "hunting" to be a success:
Many a night have we returned empty-handed, but the hunts were none the less enjoyable. Indeed, I am inclined to think the pleasure was the greater, in that the shy black fellows had outwitted us, and we knew that next time we must be still more alert.
[UPDATE: "Sportsman" was a very important category for Burgess, to be distinguished from "hunter." This will be discussed in a future post.]
Tomorrow: Burgess shoots a moose, with a camera

Saturday, January 30, 2010

New England Homestead Table Talk

Some of Burgess's first published work can be found in the pages of the New England Homestead, a weekly Phelps publication targeted at Eastern U.S. farmers. While he would also contribute short stories, verse, puzzles and the like, during his first year of contribution (1896) Burgess (as "Waldo") was an active participant in a correspondence feature titled, "The Children's Table." Here is a letter from May 16. Burgess is responding to a letter written by a Children's Table favorite, "Hoot Owl."

Hoot Owl responds.

The blue jay vs. house sparrow debate would continue for a few more exchanges. Here Burgess responds to another writer but can't help getting in another dig at the house sparrow.

I think it is significant that this early in his writing career (he was 22 at the time), Burgess chose to focus on wildlife topics, particularly bird conservation. (The house sparrow, like the house cat, would be a chief villain in the eyes of Bird-Lore, and Burgess would name him "Bully" in his bedtime stories). And he can already speak with authority on the behavior of blue jays and the nesting habits of purple martins (as well as associated anthropology--"Even the Indians and the negroes of the south..."). And he is encouraging readers to work together on a project--the construction of a bird list (as far as I can tell, this project was never completed).

The context for this writing is also interesting. The Children's Table was a correspondence club not a "letters to the editor" section. Farm children were encouraged to send names and addresses to a central location and these would be shared among members--correspondence could flow publicly to the pages of the Homestead or privately between members (a kind of letters-based social medium). A wide range of topics were discussed and many children, following the lead of "Hoot Owl," would adopt pen names, such as "Screech Owl" and "Mermaid."

Some of these discussions revolved around conservation, such as this letter from "a Prairie Girl" calling for girl readers to form a society against the plume trade (the first lasting Audubon society had been established in Massachusetts earlier that year.)

More common were stories of hunting such as this pair of particularly blood-thirsty tales, reflecting the kinds of attitudes that Burgess would later confront (though note that even Burgess at this time urged violence against the house sparrows).


Tomorrow: Talking guns

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Chickadee break

From Good Housekeeping (1901).

Seen any good bird poetry in Good Housekeeping lately?

Probably not.

Here's a companion piece, titled "Tom and Phebe" from the following year that appeared in the New England Homestead.
There are some little friends of mine with whom I wish everyone would become acquainted. I write "would" instead of "could" because almost anyone with the inclination can if they will make the first advances. These little friends of mine are very social and will meet you halfway. They are demure little people in black and gray, with grayish white vests, and wear black caps. Learned men of science have a funny way of saddling the smallest creatures with the longest names, as if to make amends for their lack of stature. So to science then these little people are known as Parus Atricapillus, but I, being familiar with them, know them as Tom and Phebe, while you probably know them as blackcapped titmouse or chickadee.

Now it is out, and doubtless you are saying, "Pooh! I know the chickadees!" Do you? Very likely some of you do, but I think that I am safe in asserting that more do not. Have you ever conversed with them? Have you ever talked with them or let them talk to you?

Of all the feathered folk who spend the winter in the north, these little roly-poly downy gymnasts are the happiest, brightest and most social. Always busy, they are always merry. Every twig and branch must be thoroughly inspected by those tiny, bright, beadlike eyes for the minute eggs and larvae which help to constitute their diet.

How rapidly they flit now in the weeds and now hanging head downward and taking a sip of water from the drop on the tip of the tiny icicle pendent from a twig! And all the time their cheerful "chicadee-dee-dee-dee" greets you. Now they are too busy to more than chirp, and anon one stops long enough to catch his breath and chirrup just the suggestion of a lay, a little throaty apology for a song which somehow always seems to me like the bubbling over of joyousness from a full heart. But if you would know more of Tom Titmouse, whistle softly two notes high pitched, with the first note rising: "Phebe" or "pee-wee." Instantly Tom will reply and if it be toward the mating season he will become so much in earnest that you will not be able to keep up with him and he will come so close that you can almost put your hand on him. By calling him regularly every day and putting out a few cracked nuts or a bit of suet or a bone with a little meat left on, he will soon admit you to good fellowship and will unhesitatingly feed from your hand.

Of all the birds who gladden our long winters there is none of so cheery a disposition as the chickadee. No matter how cold the day, he will come out to greet you as you walk and chase away the bugbear of depression. I am never lonely when one of these feathered sprites is within calling distance.
Note the persistent Burgess themes of "knowing"/making familiars of wild animals, communicating with them, naming them. Since Emerson, the cheerfulness of the chickadee in the most hostile environments has been a common topic of poetry; here Burgess is simply voicing a familiar refrain. At a personal level, though, I find interesting Burgess's reference to depression and loneliness (and how communion with chickadees is a remedy).

Tomorrow: New England Homestead Table talk

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Burgess and "The Cat Question"

In the editorial section of the April 1906 issue of Good Housekeeping, the editors alert the readers to an article that they are sure will be controversial. Titled, "Our friend the cat," the editorial acknowledges the role of the cat as a "missionary from the four-footed world" but urges the reader to keep an open mind about the issues that will be raised in the article.

The article was by Thornton Burgess (under one of his many pseudonyms), titled "The Case Against the House Cat." In the piece, Burgess lays out a number of arguments against the unrestrained and unregulated ownership of cats, from their role as a chief enemy of songbirds to the diseases they can bring into the home.

This article provided an opportunity for him to interact with some of the leading naturalists and ornithologists of the day. On the bird front: John Burroughs the American naturalist; Frank Chapman, publisher of Bird-Lore, with whom Burgess had worked on a project for Country Life in America a few years earlier; William Dutcher, the president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, leader of the fight against the plume trade; and Edward Forbush, who would publish the chief treatise on this issue in 1916 (embedded below).

The chief source for the article, however, was Clifton Hodge, a professor at Clark University who had been building a reputation as a proponent of nature study in the elementary classroom. I've embedded his nature study book below.

A quick glance might suggest how these kinds of ideas would inform the approach of Burgess in years to come.

Some background about the "cat question." This problem seems to have been discussed first in the context of animal welfare. See this article in the M[Massachusetts]SPCA publication, Our Dumb Animals (1876):

There were too many stray cats and this was leading to unnecessary suffering. Some regulation was required.

The association of this topic with the problem of dwindling bird populations can be seen in first in British circles. See this chapter in William Hudson's 1898 book about the birds of London.

Hudson is careful not to appear to be anti-cat, but to urge restraints for their own benefit.

Bird-Lore (1902) would pick up this issue and use its forum to urge legislation to require cat licensing. Their "Cat Question" position basically is this: house cats should be spayed and neutered; feral cats should be collected and put to sleep; ownership of cats should be taxed.

This position, predictably, was controversial and sensationalized in the press as a war against cats in general. It should be noted that some bird lovers during this time felt justified shooting cats (sometimes their neighbors' pets) who happened to stray onto their properties to hunt birds. The National Association of Audubon Societies risked alienating large numbers of potential advocates. Here is a 1905 response to such criticisms in Bird-Lore.

The Burgess article in Good Housekeeping was indeed controversial, leading to a rebuttal in the May 1906 issue, titled "In defense of pussy." (You might need to scroll down a little).
While the writer comes off a little like an early 20th century "cat lady," she does raise some factual objections to Hodge's cat disease claims. In the same issue, a more sympathetic story about a cat with kittens, with the bemused titled, "Motherkins: The Story of a Wild Animal."

Note that this story typifies the problem. A stray cat has kittens, to the joy of everyone.

The debate would rage for decades, largely unresolved. The cat question remains a serious problem in bird conservation, but the problem of stray cats is not nearly as severe in most areas of US as it had been 100 years ago, thanks to the efforts of organizations like the ASPCA.

Burgess under the pen-name, Arthur Chapouille, would return to this theme in a 1911 Good Housekeeping article, "A plea for Puss and her victims" (unfortunately not available in Google Books full view).

Tomorrow: A chickadee break

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Some early Burgess nature stories

Burgess began working for Phelps Publishing Co. in 1895 as an office boy and janitor. As soon as 1896, Burgess was a part-time writer/reporter for the Phelps publication,New England Homestead (which shared some content with the Springfield Homestead). A glance at Michael W. Dowhan's extraordinarily helpful bibliography indicates that Burgess's first contribution was a March 14 letter titled, "Birds and their nests." He would follow that with a letter in May titled "With the Birds." So from the very beginning, Burgess was focused on nature topics (though he would write a range of articles for the Homestead). Unfortunately, the New England Homestead is not available online so I am going to have to do some serious library work to bring it to this site [UPDATE: see later posts].

Restricting today's options to what is available on line, we can start with some of his very earliest contributions to Good Housekeeping--a series of articles about dogs, cats, and birds, respectively.

Burgess was no stranger to writing about dogs (you'll remember the "Tale of the Dog" booklet from his advertising days). His article (1900), "Dogs for the Home," is a straight forward piece about choosing appropriate dogs for the home. Readers are urged to avoid large dogs (better off on a farm) and dogs with long hair (hard to maintain). His dog of choice--the bull terrier.

With his second two articles, however, he gets more personal."Some Cats I Have Known" (1901) introduces us to his childhood cats as well of some cats of more recent acquaintance. He used to sleep with his cat, Clover (his mother disapproved), a cat that he was convinced could "understand the English language quite as fully as the discordant vernacular of his own tribe."

"Birds I Have Known" (1901) is a long chronological account of the many varieties of birds Burgess kept as pets, from canaries to a red-tailed hawk (this was before legal prohibitions on the caging of wild birds).

Here again he is struck by their intelligence and human-like qualities. About his pet crow, "Imp," he writes:
At first his wings were clipped, but later they were allowed to grow, for it was plainly evident that he considered himself one of the most important members of the family, and on no account would desert it.

One gets a fuller sense in the latter two articles of Burgess's true feelings about the human-animal connection--that it was closer to Long's position than Burroughs's, and that Burgess truly had to restrain himself in his animal bedtime stories. These are animals he has "known," not owned.

I'm also reminded that the convention of giving names to animals really flows from attempts to personalize household pets. In this sense, wild animals like Johnny Chuck and Jimmy Skunk are at least partially domesticated ("known," not owned). I find it interesting that Burgess's pet name for his wife Fannie was "Lady," which has the opposite effect--making the person more generic!

Tomorrow: Burgess and the "Cat Question"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Burgess and Nature-Faking

Thornton Burgess was continually worried that he would be labeled a "nature faker." In his autobiography he stresses how he strives in his writing "not to allow imagination to overstep the exacting bounds of truth and fact." (p. 302) and few things gave him a greater thrill than being honored by "authorities in the field of natural science." But as a self-proclaimed "amateur naturalist" he always felt vulnerable to the charge.

Ralph J. Lutts in his book, The Nature Fakers, provides a detailed account of this line of critique. The following account is based on his narrative. The opening salvo was a piece by esteemed naturalist John Burroughs in the Atlantic Monthly titled "Real and Sham Natural History."

In the essay Burroughs praises authors who avoid mixing fact with fiction in their nature stories and is critical of those who stretch the truth within their tales of putative natural history. The popular Ernest Thompson Seton, for example, tells a tall tale when he has a fox ride on the back of a sheep in order to avoid hounds in pursuit.

Burroughs is especially critical of those who go out of their way to claim such stories are true.
This is the old trick of the romancer: he swears his tale is true, because he knows his reader want this assurance; it makes the thing taste better.
Beyond outlandish descriptions of the behavior of animals, Burroughs rejects the notion that animals' thought patterns are at all similar to humans--particularly when it comes to the depiction of an inner life and the making of rational decisions. Here he is particularly critical of William J. Long, whom he ends up dismissing:
Mr. Long's book reads like that of a man who has really never been to the woods, but who sits in his study and cooks up these yarns from things he has read in Forest and Stream or in other sporting journals.
The term "nature faker" was popularized as a label for these writers in a series of articles in Everybody's Magazine, beginning with Edward B. Clark's interview with Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 (where the term is introduced as "nature fakir")

and continuing with a critical essay by Roosevelt himself.

Roosevelt, while more agnostic than Burroughs in respect to the thought-processes of animals, makes a distinction between animal stories that are "fables" (he approves of The Jungle Book, for example) and animal stories that represent themselves as true. He is particularly worried about the widespread use of fake nature stories as supplementary texts in elementary schools. Here's his theory about their negative impact:
The preservation of the useful and beautiful animal and bird life of the country depends largely upon the creating in the young an interest in the life of the woods and fields. If the child mind is fed with stories that are false to nature, the children will go to the haunts of the animal only to meet with disappointment. The result will be disbelief, and the death of interest.
This would effectively become the core of Burgess's mission (Burgess was particularly proud of a positive letter he once received from Roosevelt).

Long vociferously defended himself. Not only were his stories true (told to him by reliable observers), it was Burroughs who had a closed-minded view of what animals could do and think. Roosevelt in turn was a cruel hunter who regarded animals as objects. Long's collected "Peter Rabbit" essays (mentioned last post) were largely a response to critics who refused to see the commonalities between humans and their fellow mammals. (Of course, even in that book Long persisted in repeating outlandish nature "facts," such as the enslavement of young otters by beavers.)

Burgess was a great admirer of Seton and a reader of Long (basing a series of stories around Long's "school of the woods" premise). Indeed, they were very popular authors in general during this period, which Lutts argues was uniquely receptive to their "humanistic" approach.) But Burgess took great pains to differentiate their approach from his, acknowledging the strategic need for some "personalization" while sticking to the basic facts of animal behavior. Here's his statement (from an account of a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History):
I met men whose names I had long revered, and whose criticism I feared because my animal characters talked and wore clothes. But it is generally recognized that animals do have some means of communication. As for the coats, skirts, aprons, hats and bonnets, these were merely personality badges and as such were acceptable as long as the characteristics, habits, and surroundings were kept in strict accord with known facts, the truth. That is why Reddy Fox never drives an automobile and Polly Chuck never sits in a rocking chair knitting. (p.303)
Note how he also differentiates his approach from the "fables" of Kenneth Grahame and Beatrix Potter.

Burgess's approach to "character," thus, was two-fold. On the one hand, he adopted the fable convention of talking and thinking animals, distinguished as characters through their names and their illustrations (the clothing convention can be traced back to Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus books). On the other hand, the core of each characterization was firmly linked with the actual character (expressed through behavior) of the animal in the wild. This would ultimately limit the variety of stories that could be told, which is why Burgess is perhaps better known for his characters and settings than for his plots--with the possible exception of his more fable-like Mother West Wind tales.

Tomorrow: Some early Burgess nature stories.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Burgess names the animals

Burgess's third Bedtime Story book, culled from his newspaper stories, is titled The Adventures of Peter Cottontail (1914). This has caused a great deal of confusion over the years, as the character's name in Burgess's stories is actually "Peter Rabbit." The first three chapters of the book attempt to explain the title.

Here is the complete story as excerpted in a 1920 reader.

Peter Rabbit believes his current name is "too common" and desires one that is "fine sounding." Peter decides on "Cottontail" (suggested by Ol' Mistah Buzzard) and refuses to acknowledge anyone who hails him with his old name. The animal community finds a great deal of humor in Peter's foolishness and teaches him a lesson by withholding important information (Reddy Fox is nearby) until he responds to his old name. And thus, after a total of two stories as "Peter Cottontail" he returns to "Peter Rabbit."

I am almost certain that this temporary name switch was due to publication considerations. The majority of the stories collected in The Adventures of Peter Cottontail were originally run in 1912. The first three "Cottontail" chapters were written in 1913, around the same time that the first book in the series, The Adventures of Reddy Fox was being published. And the point of possible confusion should be very clear--Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, first published in 1902. (Potter's pet rabbit, the basis for the tale, was named "Peter Piper," after the tongue-twister).

In his autobiography, Burgess publicly recognizes his debt to Beatrix Potter but offers a curious explanation. "When I began writing stories for my own small boy, a rabbit was already Peter and there was no changing the name." (p. 120) This, of course, this is not strictly true. Plenty of other children's authors have managed to create rabbit characters not named "Peter." On the other hand, thanks to Potter, the name "Peter Rabbit" had particular cultural currency.

In some cases, this led to egregious pirating. A good example is the Wee Folks Peter Rabbit series.

A quick glimpse at When Peter Rabbit went to School reveals a bounty of swipes, from character names (Mr. McGregor, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail) to traces of the original Beatrix Potter art.

Potter reportedly did pursue copyright infringement cases against this series, but only after it flooded the British market during WWII.

Of additional interest, a 1906 (pre-Burgess) book by "Peter Rabbit" titled "Brier-patch Philosophy."

This book by William J. Long strongly exerts the claim that animals can think. (These kinds of claims caused Long to be labeled a "nature faker" earlier in the century. Note that Theodore Roosevelt, Long's adversary, owned a pet rabbit named Peter.)

Burgess defends himself against the charge of swiping: "I like to think that Miss Potter gave Peter a name known the world over, while I with Mr. Cady's help perhaps made him a character." (p. 120) And in fact, Burgess's Peter Rabbit is the only Peter Rabbit who has chosen to be called "Peter Rabbit," perhaps echoing William J. Long's ideas. (We'll discuss the crucial role of Harrison Cady, Burgess's illustrator, in future posts as well as Cady's own comic strip version of Peter Rabbit).

Burgess's names themselves entered the common culture, sometimes "borrowed" by other authors. Here's a particularly striking case: Harvey J. Sconce's The Romance of Everifarm, a 1922 book that populates its world using many of Burgess's animals' names. See excerpt below.

The name, "Peter Cottontail," of course, was itself put to use in the secularized 1940 Easter song, "Here comes Peter Cottontail." (For other commercial Easter uses of Burgess, see this report of a particularly elaborate retail display.)

The most intriguing aspect of the Burgess names is the way they connected with the real world. Generations of Burgess readers would apply these names in the field. Skunks became "Jimmy," woodchucks became "Johnny," muskrats became "Jerry." (When obviously female, "Mrs." was attached--we'll discuss his outmoded social ideas in a future post.) Thus Burgess's names permeated the culture, mediating the public's relationship with animals themselves. This naming was an important ingredient in the socio-emotional connection Burgess was trying to make between his readers and the natural world; it's hard to shoot a squirrel named "Happy Jack". This also contributes to the anthropomorphization of animals, a charge against Burgess that would contribute to the decline of his books in the 1970s.

Tomorrow: Burgess and nature-faking.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Ancient and Supreme Order of Quaddies

Here is a story in a 1919 issue of Little Folks: The children's magazine.

Peter Rabbit has convinced his fellow quadrupeds to join a society--the Ancient and Supreme Order of Quaddies. The basis for the society: a mutual security pact--each member promises to alert the others to any signs of danger. (WWI looms large here).

Please notice something on page 113, however.

On the left side, an ad for a "Quaddy" playset (really a premium offer for Little Folks subscribers). On the right side, a full list of Burgess storybooks, under the trademarked name, "Burgess Quaddies." A coincidence? Of course not. A nice example of story-based brand value, in a magazine full of kid-oriented advertising. (Of local interest: Little Folks was published in Salem, MA, by S.E. Cassino, who lived in a prominent house on Lafayette Street.)

The Quaddy stories actually date from 1915 (reprinted in Little Folks apparently as means to reinvigorate the brand). Burgess trademarked "Quaddy" as a way of promoting his full line of books but also used it as an entrance into the lucrative business of character licensing. (Curiously, he fails to discuss his "Quaddy" venture at all in his autobiography).

A story in Publishers Weekly in 1916 provides some relevant details.
"Quaddy," meaning little quadruped, came before the public first as the name of a series of bedtime stories for children syndicated through the press and in book form, but so popular did the little "beasties" prove that it is now used on some half dozen different articles of child ware and the Quaddy Playthings Manufacturing Co., of Kansas City, Mo., manufacturers of "Quaddy" toys, games, etc., have just announced an extensive "Quaddy" advertising campaign to be carried on throughout the balance of the year in the newspapers of some thirty cities. In addition to the Kansas City firm, and, of course, Little, Brown & Co., publishers of the "Quaddy" books, the name is also used on jewelry manufactured by the Paye & Baker Company of North Attleboro, Mass.; children's comforters and piece goods for children's bed clothing made by French & Ward of New York City; juvenile stationery put out by the Whiting Company, of New York City; animal crackers manufactured by the Loose-Wilese Biscuit Company, and Little Stories for Bedtime, to be told in the author's own voice on records to be prepared by the Columbia Phonography Company.

Of particular interest, an early social media tactic. Burgess character postcards were printed inviting children to join the Quaddy club. An example below--Sammy Jay.

On the back, the following text: "This card entitles ____ to membership in the Quaddy Club the newest and best club for the love and protection of the Little Children of the Forest." SAMMY JAY says: If you'd be a real, true QUADDY, Send a card to everybody." Children could not only play out the animals' induction ceremony on a papercraft playset, but could themselves "join" by entering into the society's mutual security pact. And buy more postcards and Quaddy goods.

While many of Burgess's books are still in print, the Quaddy enterprise did not prove to be an "evergreen" property and Quaddy goods eventually faded from the marketplace. Today Quaddy goods are highly desired by collectors. Indeed, they are one of Burgess's most visible legacies on the internet. I've provided a collage of some of the many items below.

And here's a hand-made quaddy (Bobby Coon) from my childhood, a Christmas present from the 1970s--thanks, Mom!)

Burgess was not a pioneer in the area of character licensing (Palmer Cox probably deserves that honor) but he does provide a pre-Disney model of this practice in the American child-oriented marketplace.

Tomorrow: Burgess names the animals.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Burgess the Copywriter

According to his autobiography, Burgess's first account was the Miles Standish Spring Water Company. This was, at the time, a world famous brand of spring water. It was associated with the Myles Standish Hotel in Duxbury, a popular resort. Embedded below are ads (not Burgess's) for the hotel and a brand of ginger ale bottled with the spring water. (Taken from an 1898 Cape Cod/South Shore guidebook.)

Burgess's assignment: write a booklet that paraphrases Longfellow's poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and "incidentally introduce the discovery of a spring, the spring, by Miles Standish."(p. 52)

Burgess provides some sample verses of this advertising epic in his autobiography. Here's an excerpt:
Kneeling there beside the water
Long he quaffs the laughing rill;
Feels with each refreshing swallow
Strange new life within him thrill.

'Til, all weariness forgotten
Home he quickly wends his way,
Thinking of the maid Priscilla
And the message sent that day. (p. 54)
Burgess would later celebrate the "power of the story" in his conservation work, but it is important to understand that he first employed this power in the service of advertising. While the Miles Standish connection with the spring water was not completely arbitrary--Standish did live in that area of Duxbury and must have drunk from that spring--the Miles Standish worth associating with, the one that provides the brand value, is the fictional one, from Longfellow's tale. Of course, Burgess clearly saw this as a parody, while it is not clear that the client did.

Burgess also mentions booklet work ("A Tale of Dog") for an unnamed dog food company. This was Austin's Dog Bread, manufactured in Chelsea. The parent company was Austin & Graves (later Austin & Young), cracker makers. Below is an 1894 ad, which would put it during Burgess's advertising era. The focus on naturalists in the ad is in keeping with his interests; the use of a word like "farinaceous" doesn't seem like his style...

The final specific example from the autobiography is a bit of work for Shredded Wheat (then based in Worcester). The way Burgess tells it, he took what he felt to be an inferior flier for the cereal, made some improvements, and then tried to sell the company on his version. They chose some parts they liked, paid him five dollars, and then proceeded to insert his version in every box of Shredded Wheat for years. This is particularly remarkable because Shredded Wheat was a notoriously heavy advertiser and must have been employing many more experienced copywriters. Embedded below is a profile in Printers' Ink which details its advertising methods.

In Burgess's 1960 profile in Life, he provides the opening lines of his version.
Origin of Shredded Wheat
Some years before this present age
Great Jove one day in towering rage
Induced by indigestion..."
Clever work, once again employing a close parody of a certain kind of literary discourse. Burgess, as we'll see later in his magazine work, was a skilled parodist in addition to being a good rhymer. I would argue that Burgess's sometimes criticized storybook style was not evidence of his limits as a writer but rather a strategic decision geared at adjusting to the needs of his audience.

After he lost his job at Phelps, Burgess returned to advertising for a short time as a copywriter at a Boston agency (unnamed) and then went to work in the advertising department of J.H. McFarland Co. in Harrisburg, PA. (The autobiography says "McFraland"--this is a typo). J.H. McFarland was a publisher of horticultural material (and curiously enough, a vocal critic of billboard advertising). Burgess spent a few months there doing "catalogues, magazine, and mail order copy." (p. 112) He was also sent to Florida for a month to do research in preparation for ad copy. By now, of course, he was an experienced communications professional (looking for an escape from corporate life).

This would be the end of his career in advertising. He would soon commit to his daily newspaper story. While his writing style can probably be linked to his decade of work in the magazine world, his approach to his own career and his various causes was thoroughly informed by an advertising perspective (this will be considered at greater length in future posts). Of particular interest, the aggressive licensing of his Bedtime Story characters.

Tomorrow: The Ancient and Supreme Order of Quaddies.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Burgess the Ad Man

Before he landed a more enduring job with Phelps Publishing in Springfield in 1895, Burgess worked in advertising, primarily as a copywriter. When he lost his Springfield job in 1911, he would return to advertising for a short while to make ends meet.

Burgess isn't completely forthcoming about his work in advertising in his autobiography but does provide enough information to get us started.

Sometime in the early 1890s, Burgess placed a job-wanted ad in an weekly advertising magazine titled, Brains:
Save Time, Labor, and Trouble
"Get a good man
That can wield a good pen;
Let him advertise for you,
Tho' it cost you a ten!"
And in that way you will save all three. Try my work, and if not satisfactory, just return it. Ads in rhyme a specialty.
Note: He includes his address in Somerville at the time, which is right here.

This is a early sign of Burgess's entrepreneurial spirit, motivated by a desire to make a living "with his pen" and not in book-keeping , which was his current soul-numbing job.

A little bit about Brains. During this era, Brains ran a regular ad in Printers' Ink. I've embedded an ad from 1896 below.

While I have not yet seen a copy, Brains appears to have been a magazine of advertising commentary--reproducing excerpts from retail advertising around the country with critical suggestions about copy and design and also ad media strategy. Later, Brains Publishing Co., based in Manhattan and later Bingingham, NY, would publish a series of books. Some of these are available online. Of particular interest, How to Advertise a Retail Store--4th edition from 1913 embedded below.

Advertising was a young industry at this time. Agencies were still primarily space brokers, armed with authoritative lists of local and national publications, but had by now begun to offer copy, layout, and business research help as well. For a taste of what the world of advertising looked like, I've embedded a volume of Printers' Ink from 1896 below. It is a remarkable read, a look at Advertising just starting to figure itself out.

Burgess immediately got work from an advertising agency in Boston. He doesn't name the agency. The agency business in Boston had entered its second generation; original founders were beginning to die, retire, or move to greener pastures. Some prominent agencies in Boston at that time included: Pettingill & Co.,the "oldest Newspaper advertising agency in the United States"; Horace Dodd, the old partner of George P. Rowell; S.R. Niles, successor to Volney Palmer (the Boston advertising pioneer), and T.C. Evans. It isn't clear who Burgess wrote for.

Tomorrow: Burgess the copywriter

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When the Scoters Fly

Burgess did not regard himself as a poet but he did like to write in verse and considered himself quite good at it. This would give him the confidence to explore advertising copywriting (even though copy in verse was pretty much outmoded by this time). He had some early publication success. In his autobiography he lists a poem to "a four-pond trout that I had yet to catch" in Forest and Stream [UPDATE: Featured in a later post], as well as an 1899 piece in Recreation titled, "When the Scoters Fly."
Credited to "Waldo" it is embedded below.

Despite his upbringing in Cape Cod, Burgess rarely explored the seashore habitat in his Bedtime Stories. Here it is on display. The seaduck--the scoter--rising and falling on the waves, and finally shot down by hunters when it flies. You can also glimpse a kind of ambivalence (not condemnation) of hunting here. Note, his poem was deemed good enough for an illustration, though you'll need to look sideways to see it below, and I'm not sure these are great representations of the real bird (black scoter, probably).

Tomorrow: Burgess the ad man.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Burgess meets William T. Hornaday

Burgess tended to idolize people he regarded as true naturalists. Among these were William T. Hornaday of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo). Hornaday became a friend and would give Burgess his "greatest honor"--a gold medal for distinguished service to wild life from the Wild Life Protection Fund.

Hornaday's famous take-no-prisoners approach to game law reform in this country is best documented in his memoir, Thirty Years War for Wild Life. A good sample of his rhetoric can be found in his 1913 book, Our Vanishing Wildlife, embedded below

To be clear, Hornaday was not anti-hunting. He required the killing of animals for his famous taxidermy exhibits. Rather he believed that bag limits were far too liberal and under-enforced, that open seasons were poorly defined, and that certain hunting tactics such as the use of live decoys were unfair. Thus sport hunting would necessarily lead to the extermination of a wide range of species unless dramatic reforms were put in place.

Burgess was drawn into Hornaday's project, encouraged to put his children's stories to use in this fight. So, in what might be his only overt work of propaganda [UPDATE: not nearly true], Burgess wrote a series of tales about "Poor Mrs. Quack," later collected in a book (here's a link to the Gutenberg text).

A bit from chapter 11, titled, "The Terrible, Terrible Guns."
"Bang! Bang! Bang! Not a feather spare!
Kill! Kill! Kill! Wound and rip and tear.
That is what the terrible guns roar from morning to night at Mrs. Quack and her friends as they fly on their long journey to their home in the far North. I don't wonder that she was terribly uneasy and nervous as she sat in the Smiling Pool talking to Peter Rabbit; do you?

Here Burgess dramatizes the use of live decoys. Mrs. Quack tells her story to Peter Rabbit:
"If you saw a lot of Rabbits playing together on the Green Meadows, you would feel perfectly safe in joining them, wouldn't you?"
Peter nodded, "I certainly would," said he. "If it was safe for them it certainly would be safe for me."
"Well, that is just the way we felt when we saw a lot of Ducks swimming about on the edge of one of those feeding-places. We were tired, for we had flown a long distance, and we were hungry. It was still and peaceful there and not a thing to be seen that looked the least bit like danger. So we went straight in to join those Ducks, and then, just as we set our wings to drop down on the water among them, there was a terrible bang, bang, bang, bang! My heart almost stopped beating. Then how we did fly!When we were far out over the water where we could see that nothing was near us we stopped to rest, and there we found only half as many in our flock as there had been."

A harrowing first person account through the eyes of the victim. Leveraging a point of connection between humans and birds--enduring mate relationships--Burgess then raises the emotional level:
"Where were the others?" asked Peter, although he guessed.
"Killed or hurt by those terrible guns," replied Mrs. Quack sadly. "And that wasn't the worst of it. I told you that when we started each of us had a mate. Now we found that of those who had escaped, four had lost their mates. They were heartbroken. When it came time for us to move on, they wouldn't go...They thought they might not have been killed, but just hurt, and might be able to get away from those hunters. So they left us and swam back towards that terrible place, calling for their lost mates, and it was the saddest sound..."

Mrs. Quack has grown to hate the "two-legged creature" whose lust for killing is seen as unnatural.
It wouldn't be so bad if a hunter would be satisfied to kill just one Duck, just as Reddy Fox is, but he seems to want to kill EVERY Duck...If they hunted us as
Reddy Fox does, tried to catch us themselves, it would be different. But their terrible guns kill when we are a long way off, and there isn't any way for us to know of the danger. And then, when one of them does kill a Duck, he isn't satisfied, but keeps on killing and killing and killing. I'm sure one would make him a dinner, if that is what he wants...And they often simply break the wings or otherwise terribly hurt the ones they shoot at, and then leave them to suffer, unable to take care of themselves.

The young reader is implicitly encouraged to resist this depiction of him/herself, to earn Mrs. Quack's trust. In this the reader is given the model of Farmer Brown's boy, now reformed, having given up his gun to become an observer (and feeder) of living wild life.

The book ends happily. The animal community joins together to search for the missing Mr. Quack (who had been shot and injured) and a safe place is found for the ducks to raise a family. Burgess could refer to tragedy but would not allow it to happen to his characters.

Burgess writes that his efforts to assist Hornaday caused him personal troubles. He had been named to Hornaday's loyal "Committee of One Hundred" but was "bitterly assailed for so doing. Men whom I had long looked up to, and whose regard and good opinion I cherished, turned against me."(p 132). Hornaday's efforts split conservationists (the National Association of Audubon Societies was on the wrong side, from his point of view). Burgess, though, truly believed that Hornaday was was right and remained loyal, no matter the personal costs.

A curious, unexplored note in respect to Burgess and propaganda. In his autobiography, Burgess claims that he wrote slogans and propaganda during WWI but doesn't provide any specifics. [UPDATE: This mystery is solved in later posts]

Tomorrow: When the scoters fly

Monday, January 18, 2010

Burgess shoots a chickadee

As a youth Thornton Burgess was an enthusiastic hunter and fisher. His interest in hunting would wane as he got older, though he remained an avid fisherman to the end. In his autobiography, he notes that his first-hand knowledge of nature was largely obtained while hunting--you need to know your prey in order to "outwit it and kill it."

Here's the turning point, dramatized. He had just received a "long-wanted bow gun."
Proudly I sallied forth to hunt. I shot a chickadee. Poor little Tommy Tit! I still see him held out in a grimy hand for Mother to look at, the mighty hunter flushed with pride at this proof of his markmanship, while tears slowly welled from his eyes because Tommy's bright little eyes were dimmed forever, his cheery voice still, and his busy little wings quiet. (p. 16)

He reflects
I think even then I loved the chickadee and that is why tears washed away pride. Today I love this little bird above all others. Through the years I have sought to expiate that tragic shot of long ago by striving to teach children to love and protect our feathered friends and those in fur. The living thing is a source of constant pleasure and interest. Both end with the death of the subject (p.16).

It is sinful to shoot a chickadee. This is an idea that had other adherents in the literary/naturalist world of Burgess's era.
See this excerpt from an 1874 story in St. Nicholas ("The Chickadees" by Harvey Wilder)

The strongest argument against shooting them is that they are "useful birds" (perhaps the MOST useful birds, according to Forbush)

It is generally forgotten that the initial impetus for feeding chickadees was not to "help them" (a silly notion except on the iciest of days) but to attract them to orchards so they could eat insects and insect eggs. (A hunk of fat tied to a tree branch would do).

The "usefulness" of birds in general (a rhetorical tact that I plan to discuss more fully later) is dramatized in this remarkable children's book by Frances Margaret Fox

Farmer Brown shoots a wren and the birds hold a trial. The initial sentence--"peck out his eyes"--is softened to "leave Farmer Brown's farm forever." Without birds to control insects, Farmer Brown's life is effectively ruined.

A second, more common, appeal is simply that shooting a chickadee is like shooting a friend. Here's an excerpt from a 1902 story by William J. Long

Chickadees are a sociable species, with remarkably complex communication behaviors, and will extend their networks to include humans. A common mode of contact is hand-feeding. (See this low res image from Burgess's Stories of Wildlife newspaper feature). Once the chickadee is a friend shooting it is unimaginable.

In the Burgess stories it is Tommy Tit who convinces the other animals that Farmer Brown's Boy is harmless and to be trusted.

Indeed, Burgess's stories became a more general tool in the campaign against non-game hunting (with game hunting, things become much more complex). By personalizing animals he opens the door to imagined socio-emotional relationships with them.

A family story: My mother tells me that when the boys in her northern Wisconsin one-room school began shooting animals with their BB guns, her teacher pulled out the Burgess stories and read them to the class. Apparently they were effective.

Tomorrow: Burgess meets William Hornaday

Aim! Fire!! Bang!!! Stories

Thornton W. Burgess's knowledge about animals came largely from books. (This statement is not meant to be critical. The close relationship between naturalists in general and their books has been widely noted). In his autobiography, Now I Remember, Burgess credits one storybook in particular for his "introduction to the four-footed and feathered folk of the Green Forest." And when he embarked on his 44 year long Bedtime Story series Audubon's Quadrupeds became "his bible." (Life, 1960). More on Quadrupeds in a later post. Today I want to focus on the childhood reading list.

Burgess grew up in the 1880s--during the so-called "golden age" of children's literature. Like many children of this era, he was a reader of youth-oriented magazines. He lists St. Nicholas, Wide Awake, and the Youth's Companion.

Google Books offers full view versions of St. Nicholas up until 1922 (the beginning of modern copyright law). Take a look at a copy from Burgess's early childhood:

You'll see a combination of adventure stories, folk tales, short verse, stories drawn from real life, including nature lore, sewing machine designs, puzzles, etc., all wonderfully illustrated. Particularly striking in this issue, a piece on The Agassiz Association, an early model for Burgess's own nature clubs:

Google Books does not have copies of the Youth's Companion from Burgess's era, but it does carry some issues of Wide Awake, a magazine with a slightly more explicit focus on moral instruction (and less nature lore):

The book that Burgess cites as his introduction to "four-footed and feathered folk" is Aim, Fire, Bang (the actual title is Aim! Fire!! Bang!!! Stories for Young Folks by Julia M. Beecher) Regrettably, Google Books does not provide full view. I was able to find a few reviews, however, and a partial chapter list. Despite its title, it is not about hunting (primarily). Rather it is a collection of 31 very short stories about a variety of topics. Lippincott's says it is:
full of natural and touching pictures of actual child-life. The little people are of the good old fashion, warm and genuine at heart, with loving, spontaneous impulses toward everybody and everything. It is a good book for little girls, and Aunt Katy, who tells the stories, would be a desirable inmate in any house where there is a nursery.
Judging from the chapter titles alone, here are some stories that might have inspired Burgess:
  • Farmer Brown
  • How Uncle True Killed the Bears
  • Poll Parrot
  • Robin-Redbreast
  • Story of the Squirrels

The most interesting piece of commentary about the book, however, from the Literary World, accusing it of "inexact and slovenly English":
"We must protest against the idea which seems nowadays to prevail among certain writers, that the entertainment of a child cannot be secured except by the employment of slang and bad grammar."

This is a topic to be explored at greater length later, but Burgess would later be extremely sensitive about this point. His perspective, shared by professionals in the communications fields, would be communication first, proper English second.

[UPDATE: In his 1960 Life profile, Burgess seems to misremember the nature of this book, referring to it as "true western adventures."]

Tomorrow: Burgess shoots a chickadee.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


This blog is part of my spring 2010 sabbatical project on Thornton W. Burgess. Burgess is best known these days for his children's book series, but I'm more interested in his activities as an all-round nature communicator. He is woefully ignored in the scholarly literature and I thought it might be useful to bring him back into the conversation.

Beyond his specific focus on nature and his importance in 20th century American conservation efforts, Burgess is also a model of a communications professional. He was an advertising copywriter, a working journalist and editor, a shrewd communications strategist, an active figure on the lecture circuit, and an early radio personality.

My starting point, though I'm expecting this to develop over the course of the semester, is Burgess and "community." Burgess created an imaginary community (Peter Rabbit, Johnny Chuck, Jimmy Skunk, and other citizens of the Green Meadow/Green Forest) through his stories but also maintained a variety of mediated clubs and "leagues" in support of conservation goals.

This is obviously relevant to the age of social media. I'm not intending the "league" in the title to be a literal one but if anyone stumbles upon this blog and wants to "join," feel free to comment (I don't have any "Thornton W. Burgess Research League" buttons to distribute--yet).

Burgess became famous for his endurance. He ended up with more than 15,000 daily columns to his credit. The least I can do is a post a day.