The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., and the Grolier Club in New York City unveil a new children’s exhibition this fall: “Radiant with Color and Art: McLoughlin Brothers and the Business of Picture Books.” The exhibition, which runs until February 3, is focused on the prolific New York publisher, which was active between 1858 and 1920.

The exhibition is curated by Lauren B. Hewes and Laura E. Wasowicz of the AAS, who spoke with PW about their research process, the McLoughlin Brothers company, and their hopes for what visitors may take away from the exhibition.

While curating any exhibition comes with its challenges, Hewes and Wasowicz came up against some particular difficulties when beginning their research into McLoughlin Brothers back in 2013. “Most of the nonprofit foundations that we approached were not interested in the project… it was not a display of fine art, nor was it [a collection of] modern picture books that most people now living would remember,” Wasowicz said. The curators ultimately relied on the support of the American Antiquarian Society and its annual Adopt a Book event for funding to proceed with their work.

Another challenge had to do with the fact that there was little existing historical documentation of McLoughlin Brothers on record. Although the publisher specialized in children’s books, most existing records concern its “pirated” editions of British titles. Hewes and Wasowicz’s primary resource was the company’s business library, which is distributed throughout several different archival collections. “I used these excavated findings to construct the mosaic of what we now know about the McLoughlin firm,” Wasowicz said. She noted that she also relied on PW’s online database for news about the firm, which includes a 1905 obituary for its cofounder John McLoughlin Jr. and a full-page advertisement marking a milestone for the publisher in 1918.

Mining for the company’s original children’s books was a true treasure hunt. “My research ranged from the quiet reading rooms of university special collections to the gritty microfilm machines of city archives,” Wasowicz said. Because there wasn’t much in the way of concrete records, she added, “I dug into the books and I let them tell me their history.”

An American Story

McLoughlin Brothers was exceptional in its devotion to children’s titles; this specialization allowed the company the opportunity to, through trial and error, create books that young readers truly embraced. “Brightly colored pictures, linen and board formats, and stories pulled from contemporary life all were part of McLoughlin Brothers catalogs because they knew those books sold well and were enjoyed by their customers—children!” Hewes said.

Between the years of 1860 and 1890, the firm published more than 1,000 children’s titles; in addition to contemporary stories, it offered a range of fairy tales, folk tales, animal stories, primers, and adventure stories like Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. They also published games, toys, paper dolls, and other ephemera. McLoughlin Brothers was particularly innovative in its reissuing and packaging of material, cross-utilizing content across its many series and creating a recognizable brand in the process.

The exhibition features an in-depth look at the range of products that McLoughlin Brothers created, as well as an exploration of the business behind the books. The firm’s first offices were located in lower Manhattan’s printing district, but they relocated several times between 1886 and 1899; they also opened a color printing factory in Brooklyn. The company enjoyed a long tenure as an independent publisher due in no small part to its business savvy and awareness of the audience it was serving. McLoughlin Brothers focused on creating content that reached readers of different ability levels, while also introducing a wide range of price points (from one cent to $2). Their use of cutting-edge color print technologies enabled them to affordably achieve vibrant results.

Wasowicz was surprised to learn that McLoughlin Brothers had collaborated with a company that was, for all intents and purposes, their competition. In a move that far expanded the firm’s reach, “McLoughlin partnered with D. Appleton & Company to manufacture Spanish-language picture books using illustrations developed and produced by McLoughlin under the Appleton imprint for export to Mexico, Cuba, and South America—an arrangement that lasted into the early 20th century,” said Wasowicz.

Bringing McLoughlin Brothers to Light

The firm’s cognizance of consumers’ needs and desires is made clear in display pieces like its wordless edition of Cinderella. In the exhibition catalog, Wasowicz describes the significance of the wordless format: “The entire story unfolds text-free, deftly addressing segments of the McLoughlin consumer base challenged by limited literacy, including young children and newly arrived immigrants.”

In addition to the many finished books on display are early drafts of illustrations and projects that were never published. For Hewes, “It was interesting to see the rough and ready nature of the mock-up and layout process in the mid-19th century.” She pointed to an edition of Robinson Crusoe, illustrated by Thomas Nast. “AAS holds several, multi-paged, preparatory volumes that were obviously used by the design team at McLoughlin Brothers during the creative process. These include glued-down, hand-written scraps and cut up illustrations. It suggests how much autonomy might have been allowed on the press floor when first proofs were being created,” Hewes said.

Both Hewes and Wasowicz have a few favorite pieces in the exhibition. Hewes particularly likes a mock-up created by illustrator William Bruton, called “The Great Serpent and his Tricks” (1881). Bruton’s graphite sketches depict events in the life of a giant serpent that takes on the roles of a firehose and a tightrope. “Bruton just suggests the text with squiggles, but the drawings themselves are very lively and fun,” Hewes said.

Wasowicz’s favorite piece is a drawing by Sarah Noble Ives, created for The Story of Teddy Bear. Ives was one of many female artists commissioned by McLoughlin for their books. “The works of fine art created by these artists might not be readily accessible in an art museum, but their work is preserved on the increasingly fragile pages of these turn-of-the-century books,” she said.

Wasowicz hopes that “visitors enjoy the striking beauty of these books and games for children, but also come away with the realization that the odyssey of McLoughlin Brothers is an essentially American story of innovation, competition—often ruthless—and risk,” she said. She added that the exhibition aims to show viewers how McLoughlin Brothers were instrumental in heralding in the color-filled production that is now a mainstay of picture book illustration.

“I would love visitors to come away with a sense of the importance of literacy,” Hewes stated. “American children were very lucky that education was given priority over work, at least up to a certain age, and that all children, no matter their background, were given the opportunity to learn to read.” She added that she and Wasowicz tried to emphasize literacy throughout the exhibition, providing information about literacy rates and including an image of a child reading or being read to in each section.

As Hewes and Wasowicz devoted years of research to the exhibition, life certainly didn’t slow down. Between the two of them, Hewes and Wasowicz underwent Lyme disease, shingles, sending children off to college and high school, a mother’s cancer and surgery, and the snowiest Massachusetts winter on record. But through it all, “we made time for the McLoughlin Brothers,” Wasowicz said.

The Radiant with Color & Art exhibition is currently on view at the Grolier Club, located at 47 East 60th Street in Manhattan. Open hours are Monday – Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. Book photos courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.