"Newbery is an extraordinary man, for I know not whether he has read or written most books."1
John Newbery was born in 1713 in Waltham, Berkshire, England. The son of a farmer, he was largely self-educated, and his early love of books was a deciding factor in his choice of careers. By the time he was 16, he had taught himself accounting and apprenticed himself to William Carnan, a printer.
Carnan owned and edited the Reading Mercury and Oxford Gazette, one of the earliest provincial newspapers, and also ran a shop where he sold medicines and miscellaneous goods. Carnan died in 1737, leaving his business to his brother and to Newbery. Newbery eventually married Carnan’s widow, taking responsibility for her three children; together they had three more.
Newbery was as interested in business as he was in books, and it was his sale of patent medicines, including Greenough’s Tincture for the Teeth and Daffy’s Elixir, that was to provide the bulk of his livelihood. His most widely known and best selling remedy, Dr. James’s Fever Powder,2 was so popular it was even prescribed for King George III.
In 1745 Newbery and his family moved to London, and he opened the Bible and Sun publishing company at St. Paul’s Churchyard. Altogether, Newbery and his family published approximately 2,400 new books or editions between 1740 and 1815; four hundred of these were titles intended for children. Newbery was known as a friend to authors, and he was an associate of a number of English writers, including Christopher Smart, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith, whom he commissioned to write for him in his various publications. Newbery was also the founder of several magazines and newspapers, including The Christian Magazine, the Universal Chronicle or Weekly Gazette, and the Public Ledger. In 1751, he published the first children’s periodical, The Lilliputian Magazine.
At that time, writing for children consisted mostly of schoolbooks or dour, dry, didactic pamphlets filled with moral lessons and the ABC’s “which were meant for children but were not story and were in no way intended to amuse.” 3 The idea that books for children could give pleasure as well as educate was not original to John Newbery; in 1693, John Locke had suggested in his Treatise upon Education that children could be “cozened into a knowledge of their letters, be taught to read, without perceiving it to be anything but a sport, and play themselves into that which others are whipped for.” 4 Books specifically for juveniles—pleasant, attractive, interesting books—had existed on a small scale before Newbery. It was John Newbery, however, who produced and distributed this new class of book—books meant to both instruct and amuse children—on such a scale that they became an important, and permanent, part of the publishing trade. Attitudes about children were changing during the eighteenth century, and Newbery was in the right place at the right time to cater to the new societal trends, laying the foundation for the thriving business in children’s books that continues to this day.
The authorship of many of the titles published by Newbery is unclear; books published during that time often did not list an author, or were attributed to obvious nom de guerres such as Abraham Aesop or Tom Telescope. Similarities among the books exist, however, both stylistically in the writing and in the way that they were marketed and advertised; “even if he did not write the books, or all of them, himself, there is no doubt that his was the originating and the guiding spirit” behind them.5
Notable Newbery publications:
- A Pretty Pocket Book, 1744. An illustrated catalog of children’s games based on the alphabet. This book was illustrated with copperplate engravings and the front cover and page edges were gilded. The frontispiece contained the Latin motto, Delectando monemus, Instruction with delight.
- The Newtonian System of Philosophy, 1761. Aka The Philosophy of Tops and Balls, authored by one “Tom Telescope” and containing an introduction to basic astronomy, physics, geography, natural history and philosophy; by 1800, thirty thousand copies of this book had been printed.
- The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, 1766. Intended to demonstrate that one can prosper through learning and wisdom, this book serves as an early example of product placement; Goody Two-Shoes’ father “died miserably” after being “seized with a violent fever in a place where Dr. James’s Powder was not to be had.” With typical Newbery humor, this book is dedicated “to all Young Gentlemen and Ladies who are good or intend to be good.”6
Newbery was an indulgent father and provided well for his extended family. He characterized himself as a kindly uncle to his young readers, “their old friend in St Paul’s Churchyard” 7), and was paternal toward the writers he kept in his employ. He was described by contemporaries as energetic, optimistic, honest, possessing good sense and a benevolent disposition, known for his probity, and terminally bustling and busy:
. . .whose business keeps him in perpetual motion, and whose motion always eludes his business; who is always to do what he never does, who cannot stand still because he is wanted in another place, and who is wanted in many places because he stays in none. . . [ His ] trade is extensive, and he has many dealers; his conversation in sprightly, and he has many companions; his disposition is kind, and he has many friends. 8
Newbery was also known as “a master of the art of the puff”9, and was certainly a skillful advertiser; his publications frequently made reference to his books and medicines, and (as can be seen with Little Goody Two-Shoes, above), his medicines were even mentioned in his books for children.
There is very little record of the private thoughts of this industrious businessman, and there is no known contemporary portrait of him, leading one biographer to assume that “Newbery was too busy and insufficiently vain to sit for a portrait.”10 John Newbery died on December 22, 1767 at the age of 54. One hundred and fifty-five years after his death, the American Library Association established the Newbery Award for children’s literature to honor “his pioneering work in presenting the first materials specifically designed for the amusement and entertainment of children.”11 The award is given annually “to the most distinguished children’s book of the year written by an American.”12
1Dr. Samuel Johnson, quoted in John Row Townsend’s’ John Newbery and His Books: Trade and Plumb-Cake for Ever, Huzza!, Colt Books Ltd., 1994, page 51.
2 Dr. James’s Fever Powder is thought to have consisted of phosphate of lime and oxide of antimony. Townsend, page 22.
3, 4 ibid., page 2.
5 ibid., page 19.
6, 7 ibid., page 8.
8 Samuel Johnson, Jack Whirler, quoted in John Newbery and His Books, page 26.
9 Townsend, page 4.
10 ibid., page xiv.
11 Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Gale Research, 1998. Obtained from the Virginia Public Libraries Biography Resource Center, 9/12/02.