The Tale of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit

October 14, 2022 | Myrna

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First commercially released in 1902, October 2022 marks the 120th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This classic children's story has sold more than 45 million copies and been adapted into everything from jigsaw puzzles to a Gap fashion line. Yet, the success of Beatrix Potter and her most famous character was not always assured. 

Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books has a number of items, which trace Peter Rabbit’s journey from troublesome bunny to worldwide phenomena.

Two illustrations of Peter Rabbit  first illustration a black line drawing and second illustration in full colour
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was originally self-published in 1901 (left) before Potter found a publisher in 1902 (right).

The Picture Letter

The Tale of Peter Rabbit started life as a "picture letter" sent in 1893 to a little boy named Noel Moore. Noel was the son of Potter’s friend and former governess, Annie Moore. Potter's letter introduced the mischievous Peter Rabbit and his encounter with the cruel Mr. McGregor. Throughout the 1890s, Potter sent many picture letters to Annie Moore and her eight children. Later in life Potter speculated that this contributed to the story’s success. She wrote “[i]t 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.”

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London holds the original picture letter. A full reproduction of the picture letter can be enjoyed in The History of The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Leslie Linder.

Potter had many young correspondents. TPL's Osborne Collection holds 57 letters sent by Potter [PDF] to Ontario mother and daughter Ivy and June Steel. Her letters to the Steel family are filled with charming illustrations and include a cameo by Peter Rabbit himself!

Handwritten letter with illustrations of rabbits
Beatrix Potter's "picture letter" to Noel Moore (1893). Courtesy of The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Illustration of rabbit labelled Peter and guniea pig labelled Tuppenny
Potter wrote letters to Ivy and June Steel from 1924 until her death in 1943. This letter features illustrations of her characters Peter Rabbit and Tuppenny the guinea pig blowing kisses. Part of Osborne Collection's Beatrix Potter Letters collection.

Rejection and Self-Publishing Success

Potter began to revise the story and illustrations, and initially titled the manuscript The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor’s Garden. In 1900, she submitted the manuscript to six publishers, but none agreed to publish the book. Some publishers never responded at all, and others disagreed with Potter about the book’s proposed price and size. Potter wanted Peter Rabbit to be cheaply priced. She explained, “little rabbits cannot afford to spend six shillings on one book.” Potter's preferences went beyond whimsy. She had observed "a vogue for small books," and believed a small cheap book would sell better. 

Undeterred by rejection, Potter dug into her personal savings to self-publish Peter Rabbit. In December 1901, the first privately printed edition of 250 copies was produced by Strangeway & Sons, a London printing house. This print run sold out rapidly, and a second private printing of 200 copies was completed in February 1902. These editions were done in black and white and included some illustrations which were later cut from the commercial publication. 

Black and white illustration of older woman holding a pie and colour illustration of younger woman holding a pie
In the self-published edition of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. McGregor is portrayed as an older woman, but commercial first edition's colour illustrations depict a younger woman. In later commercial editions, the illustration of Mrs. McGregor serving Peter Rabbit's father as a pie is removed entirely. 

Commercial Publication at Last

Days before Potter released the self-published edition in December 1901, she received a letter from a publishing house. Fredrick Warne & Co. had previously passed on Peter Rabbit but now showed renewed interest. The publisher wished to release the book in full colour. This was a significant change from the mainly black and white self-published edition. 

Throughout 1902, Potter discussed the terms of her contract, edits to Peter Rabbit, and the creation of colour engraving plates with Warne. Some of the letters from Warne are signed NDW (Norman Dalziel Warne). Potter and Norman Warne would eventually become engaged in 1905. But, tragically Norman died of leukemia before the couple could marry. The pair's business letters reveal their evolving relationship. Potter begins mentioning more personal details and Norman's greeting changes from “Dear Madame" to “Dear Miss Potter."

Upon publication in October 1902, the Warne edition of Peter Rabbit proved to be a massive success. By the end of 1902, 28,000 copies of Peter Rabbit were in print,  and within one year that number doubled to more than 56,000 copies. 

Cover of The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

The Rogue American Editions 

Readers around the world quickly fell in love with Peter Rabbit, but Fredrick Warne & Co. made one error when exporting Peter Rabbit. Warne's New York City office did not register Peter Rabbit with the United States Copyright Office. Under US law, this meant Peter Rabbit was in the public domain. Unauthorized versions of Peter Rabbit were soon released. Some versions featured different illustrations, others imagined additional adventures for Peter Rabbit. New stories like Peter Rabbit and the Fairies (1921) and How Peter Rabbit Went to Sea (1917) further capitalized on the character's popularity. 

Cover of The Tale of Peter Rabbit with Puzzle Pictures
The unauthorized The Tale of Peter Rabbit with Puzzle Pictures (1907) uses Potter's original text but features new illustrations by an uncredited artist.
Cover of Peter Rabbit and the Fairies
Peter Rabbit's public domain status meant publishers were free to create unauthorized sequels like Peter Rabbit and the Fairies (1921) by Alma Hudson.

A Merchandising Innovator

Control of Peter Rabbit in the United States might have alluded to Potter, but she took careful steps to control merchandise related to her characters. Today, tie-in merchandise for popular children's book characters is very common. But, in the early 1900s character merchandise was a relatively new concept. Potter was closely involved with the design and manufacturing of Peter Rabbit merchandise. In 1903, she designed and patented a Peter Rabbit doll. The production of Peter Rabbit board games, tea sets and wallpaper soon followed. Up until her death in 1943, Potter continued to be closely involved with the growing merchandise empire. 

Box of Peter Rabbit's Race Game
Board games liked Peter Rabbit's Race Game (approximately 1930) were among the merchandise created.

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