Vintage Children’s Books

By Clinton J. Holloway


I recently discovered an oilcloth children’s book belonging to my grandmother and her siblings a hundred years ago. This caused me to consider a field of collecting that is wide open and permits nearly limitless possibilities – that of vintage children’s books.


Literature targeted specifically to children dates as far back as the first parent sharing a story with their child in the prehistoric era. Like other ancient cultures that passed down stories in oral tradition, Greeks and Romans taught their children stories from Aesop. A book of poems and riddles in Urdu, one of the languages of India, appeared roughly 800 years ago.


Perhaps the earliest books in the Western world specifically targeted to children appeared in the 1400s. The nineteenth century saw the market for children’s books explode as printing became widely available and affordable and as literacy soared.


A fascination with the printed page developed in the twentieth century like no other time in history. But today a cultural shift is taking place as electronic devices are growing in appeal. While books are not dead, clearly the traditional book printing industry is becoming outmoded. 


The realm of collecting vintage children’s books is a vast arena of nearly limitless possibilities, feasible on any budget. As a bonus, collectibles provide a delightful decorating medium. Nothing invites interest in a home such as a shelf of colorful and appealing children’s books. Like advertising collectibles, much of the illustrations in children’s literature are suitable for framing.


Confined not just to the nursery or children’s room, book plates from children’s books can fill any space in the home where you want bright, attractive, eye-catching art.   


There are several advantages of vintage children’s literature for use in framing and decoration. Many vintage children’s books can be had for a small price, often for than a dollar (though many first editions or rare works can run into hundreds of dollars). Classic children’s books that have seen multiple editions can readily be found, so a decorator need not feel guilty if a book is cut apart for framing.


Many times these used books also have developed a wonderful patina after years in the hands of their intended audience. A pile of well-worn vintage children’s books creates a nostalgic feel.


A basket full of vintage books is also a magnet for visitors young and old. Vintage children’s books also make wonderful gifts – just tell the recipient why a particular book was selected for them. 


The genres of vintage children’s literature guarantee that any collector can find appeal within the range of collecting, but also in the crossover from other collectibles. Teachers love alphabet books, for example, while a train enthusiast might enjoy again the whimsy of Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could or Thomas the Tank Engine.  Some possible fields of collecting include:


By favorite author (Dr. Seuss, Margaret and H.A. Rey, The Reverend W. Awdry)

By publisher, such as Golden Books or Fredrick Warne (Beatrix Potter)

By illustrator/artist

First editions, rare, autographed, classics with dust jackets

Pop-up or other “movement” books

Religious or Bible stories

Christmas both religious and secular (Santa)

By era (books from your own childhood, that of your parents, grandparents, children)

Boy/girl heroes (Hardy Boys, Horatio Alger, Nancy Drew)

Theme: animals, ghost stories, anthologies, alphabet books, picture books

International (Great Britain has produced some of the finest children’s books in English)

Regional (James Whitcomb Riley in Indiana, Tom Tichenor or Roxie Gibson in Nashville)

Characters (Madeline, Curious George, Clifford)


The possibility for a vintage children’s book collection is limited only by your imagination. Chances are, if you were ever a child, you already know a thing or two about what you like in children’s literature. 


–Clinton J. Holloway, historian and minister and author of the book Lest We Forget: Meditations at the Meal of Remembrance



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