Sepia Saturday: Idiomatic Architecture in Vintage Children's Books

I'm a voracious and omnivorous reader, and I got my start as a wee lad. My parents read to me and filled my room with books. My favorites were Little Golden Books. Some of these classic books have been reprinted, but not enough of them. I have in recent years prowled used book stores to restore my childhood collection and have added a few titles that I didn't actually have at the time.

One of the most endearing qualities these book had for me (and for perhaps everyone, parents included) was the combination of charming anthropomorphism and wild visual invention, which I find most intriguing in the dwellings that are illustrated in these mostly contemporary tales.

My favorite Tibor Gergely title is The Merry Shipwreck (George Duplaix, 1942), in which an ark full of colorful beasts goes astray ("little mice were sharpening their teeth on the rope that held the barge fast to the pier"). They become shipwrecked, to be rescued by the New York fireboat. In addition to his typical quaint scenes of American life (there are still horses, carts, and jolly colored folks servicing Manhattan) Gergely's attention to both animal details and the allure of living aboard is very appealing -- even in a serious storm. This is one of the books that hooked me on the life aquatic.

Regular readers will enjoy a glimpse of Uncle Wiggily as drawn by Mel Crawford (written by Howard R. Garis). This is from the series from which my father named his automobiles. In this 1953 episode the rabbit gentleman is vexed by rambunctious dog-boys and the Skillery-Skallery Alligator ("'With my rough nutmeg-grater tail I'll saw down the tree...' snarled the bad chap." This was in the days when people actually used (and grated) nutmeg. Wiggily escapes thanks to a timely application of red paint, but never does finish remodeling his bungalow. I love the notion of a stump with rooms inside. As a kid I drew maps and blueprints featuring such abodes, as well as caves and tunnels with food -- and rayguns. Oddly, I only recently discovered a rabbit actually living in a stump near my office...I always thought rabbits simply lived in burrows.

Gustaf Tenggren tended to illustrate classic folk tales like this Grimm Brothers one, The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs (1955). He has a distinct style which I always found rather offputting, but it's evocative of dark woods and distant times. Here our plucky hero stumbles onto a "den of thieves" in the woods. My wife and I spent our honeymoon night in a cabin unfortunately reminiscent of this shack. The thieves turn out to be practical jokers and manage to cause the boy to be married to the princess.

F. Rojankovsky seems to have studied at the same school of stump architecture as Mel Crawford, though he's added a few appropriate traditional German touches in the window shutters to the de rigeur thatch roof. The three bears in this 1948 edition terrified me because of their tiny, intense eyes.

Richard Scarry managed to prolong his career well into the present. He revels in miniscule details, including meticulous, period interior decoration. This book, The Party Pig, (Kathryn and Byron Jackson) was one of my least favorites as a child because it was so sad (happy ending and all that, but getting there was tough). Little Pig barely avoids canceling his birthday. Here we see the rustic exterior of his house. Eventually Scarry's books took place in the world of cars, planes, and TV sets, but in 1954 (my birth year) the focus was still on the early American country life.

The master, however, both in artistic finesse and imaginative originality, was Garth Williams. I'm planning a whole post on him, but here for starters is a romantic cottage from my favorite of his Golden Books, The Sailor Dog (Margaret Wise Brown, 1953). Scuppers gets shipwrecked (a common plight, apparently, amongst boaters) and fashions a cabin Crusoe-style from the wreckage until he can rebuild the boat and go shopping. I love Brown's typical incantatory style: "...he hung his new hat on the hook for his hat and he hung his spyglass on the hook for his spyglass, and his new handkerchief on the hook for his handkerchief, and his pants on the hook for his pants, and his new rope on the hook for his rope, and his new shoes he put under his bunk, and himself he put in his bunk."


  1. Absolutely wonderful! I've ordered three of these titles for our granddaughters, after reading your post. Now eagerly looking forward to the post about Garth Williams.

  2. I do remember the Golden Books. They were a staple of our childhood. Thank you for the walk down memory lane.

  3. I had loads of Golden Books! The one I would dearly love to get my hands on featured a family of kittens and one of them (the badly-behaved one) was called Agamemnon. I have a pretty good memory, but do not recall having seen any of the images from your post before.
    I really enjoyed reading about these fascinating artists. If you had their names in your labels, you would receive many visits, I'm sure. I did a post about Errol LeCain last year and I still get the odd drop-in to it.


  4. Great stuff, Sean. My favorite -- which I still have -- is Two Little Gardeners, although in later years, I did wonder at the relationship of the two apparent children who lived together and raised all their own food.

  5. Oh those wonderful Little Golden Books! Was just looking at some at a flea market yesterday, but having no little ones around and trying to avoid more accumulations, I did not indulge. The older ones are better though...

  6. Thanks, Martin, and happy reading!

    Thanks for the keyword tip, Kat, should have thought of that myself! I'd never heard of that book but sure enough, you can page through it here: http://antinous.tripod.com/kittens/1.html

  7. Interesting post, sEAN, and especially because you focused on the architecture. I remember Little Golden Books but despite not owning any as a child, I still learned to love books. At some point in time the books were considered less than children's literature, but they sure opened the doors to reading for many little ones. My favorite illustrator was Eloise Wilkins whose drawings of children I adore - very unlike the illustrators you featured in this post.

  8. A great introduction to works I was not familiar with. Thanks. And a great take on Sepia Saturday which provides a change from all our pictures of great aunt Clara.