This July marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of renowned children’s author, illustrator, and conservationist, Beatrix Potter. Her tales played an important role in the shift that took place for children’s literature in the 20th century. Publishers recognized the importance of children as an audience and the need for higher quality in their offerings. Potter’s first and perhaps most famous tale is The Tale of Peter Rabbit published in 1902. In celebration of the sesquicentennial, here are some interesting facts about Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit.
1. Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny were based on real rabbits.
Growing up a privileged Victorian in London, Potter spent most of her childhood in the nursery with only a nanny to keep her company until the age of 6 when her brother, Bertram, was born. To keep her company, Potter had several pets. She had lizards, frogs, mice, rabbits, hedgehogs, and even a bat! A favorite amongst the rabbits was named Benjamin H. Bounce, also called “Bounce” and “Mr. Benjamin Bunny”. His tame demeanor and personality brought great joy to both Potter and her family. Bounce often accompanied Potter on trips and holidays. Potter once wrote that Benjamin “was a very handsome tame Belgian rabbit…extremely fond of hot buttered toast, he used to hurry into the drawing room when he heard the tea bell!” (1)
Potter was a keen scientific observer and with the help of her pets, made many illustrations and paintings that found their way into her little books.
2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was created to cheer up a friend’s sick child.
Originally, the tale was sent in September of 1893 to Noel Moore – the five-year-old son of a friend and former governess – who at the time was sick. Potter was on holiday in Eastwood, Scotland and couldn’t think of what to write him and thus wrote him a story with added illustrations, known as her “picture letters.” Potter also visited the Moore family. Her visits were quite the occasion as Potter often brought along a pet or two for the children to meet. She would let them run loose in the drawing-room to their great delight. Potter attributed the success of her stories to her relationship with children:
“It is much more satisfactory to address a real life child; I often think that that was the secret success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child – not made to order.” (2)
The Moore family cherished her visits and letters, and soon had quite a collection; Noel had roughly 12-13 in total. In fact, the day after Potter sent Noel’s letter another was sent to Noel’s brother Eric about a frog named Jeremy Fisher. Many other tales would originate in letters to children.
3. A friend of Potter’s rewrote the original manuscript into rhyming verses in hopes that it would interest publishers.
Through the encouragement of family and friends, Potter sent copies of the story to various publishers in London and all declined – including Frederick Warne & Co. Discouraged by their responses, Potter sought to publish the tale herself. Canon Rawnsley, a friend, author, and founding member of The National Trust, continued to appeal to publishers on Potter’s behalf. In September of 1901, he decided to approach Frederick Warne & Co a second time. Many children’s books at this time were written in verse and concluded with a moral. Rawnsley adjusted the manuscript to fit this format – still crediting Potter as the creator and illustrator. This version of the tale begins:
There were four little bunnies
–no bunnies were sweeter
Mopsy and Cotton-tail,
Flopsy and Peter.
They lived in a sand-bank
as here you may see
At the foot of a fir
–a magnificent tree. (3)
Warne & Co. preferred the original script submitted by Potter and after a second review decided to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
4. Peter Rabbit inspired many unauthorized and pirated editions in America.
Peter Rabbit was a triumph not only in Britain, but in other countries as well. Unfortunately, Warne & Co. failed to register the copyrights and pirated editions began to appear in the United States around 1904. Much to the dismay of Potter and Warne & Co. many of these pirated versions reproduced the tale in its entirety – pictures and text. Soon many other American publishers were printing knock-offs. These pirated copies are quite collectible today and Boston Children’s Museum has a few in their collections, including Peter Rabbit and His Pa, The Story of Ferdinand Flop, The Story of Peter Rabbit done in Poster Stamps, and Funny Bunny.
Funny Bunny was published in 1909 by The Saalfield Publishing Co. It is a simplified version of Peter Rabbit, having only a few lines of text:
FUNNY BUNNY SICK TO-DAY
MORNING BETTER, RUNS AWAY
INTO MISCHIEF, ANGRY MAN
TRIES TO CATCH HIM IF HE CAN.
STOMACH FULL, TROUSERS TIGHT
SLEEPING SOUNDLY, SO GOOD NIGHT. (4)
The illustrations in this edition are identical to those of Potters with few differences. For example, in chase scenes with Mr. McGregor, Saalfield added red pants to Peter’s ensemble. These pirated editions have become quite a testament to the popularity of Peter Rabbit.
5. Fans of Potters tales can find many places commemorating her life and work.
Since its publication in 1902, Peter Rabbit has received great recognition worldwide. Today, fans of Potter’s work can discover more by visiting museums and historic sites. Potter’s residence in the Lake District, Hill Top Farm, is open for visitors as is The House of the Tailor of Gloucester that inspired The Tailor of Gloucester. Looking for somewhere to bring younger kids? Think about visiting The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction in Cumbria. The Birnam Arts in Dunkeld also has an exhibit and garden open all year round.
Additionally, many museums are celebrating with exhibitions displaying rarely seen objects and collectibles, including:
- Beatrix Potter: Image and Reality at The Armitt Museum Gallery Library in Cumbria, England
- Beatrix Potter Rare Book Exhibition at Free Library of Philadelphia in Philadelphia, USA
- Beatrix Potter’s Inspiring Legacy at the Kendal Museum in Kendal, England
- British & Rose Fair in Kansai, Japan
- Realism & Romance: Beatrix Potter’s life inspired by nature at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, England
- The Tale of Beatrix Potter and Ernest Aris at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England
- Two Bad Mice: Mischief in Beatrix Potter’s Tales at Wordsworth House and Garden in Swindon, England
Join us at Boston Children’s Museum for Storytime on Thursday, July 28 to hear a tale by Beatrix Potter or stop by our Countdown to Kindergarten exhibit any time to explore the power of stories in creating a life-long love for reading.
- Camilla Hallinan, The Ultimate Peter Rabbit: A Visual Guide to the World of Beatrix Potter (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2002), 47.
- Leslie Linder, The History of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (London: Frederick Warne, 1976), 10.
- Beatrix Potter and Canon Hardwick Rawnsley, Peter Rabbit’s Other Tale (London: The Beatrix Potter Society, 2003), 6-8.
- Funny Bunny (Akron, Ohio: The Saalfield Publ. Co., 1909), 1-6.
Hallinan, Camilla. The Ultimate Peter Rabbit: A Visual Guide to the World of Beatrix Potter. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2002.
Linder, Leslie. The History of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. London: Frederick Warne, 1976.
Kiefer, Barbara. Charlotte Huck’s Children’s Literature. McGraw-Hill Global Education Holdings, LLC, Date. Accessed 30 June, 2016. http://highered.mheducation.com/sites/0073378569/information_ center_view0/index.html
Potter, Beatrix. The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881-1897. Translated by Leslie Linder. London: Frederick Warne (Publishers) Ltd, 1979.
Potter, Beatrix and Canon Hardwick Rawnsley. Peter Rabbit’s Other Tale. London: The Beatrix Potter Society, 2003.
Taylor, Judy. That Naughty Rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. England: F. Warne & Co., 1987.