Delightful Treasures at the Osborne Collection

May 16, 2019 | TPL Staff

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We invite you to visit the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, where there's something to enchant the child in everyone!

This research collection of English-language children's books and book-related material began in 1949 with approximately 2,000 books, but has grown to over 90,000 items in four areas of concentration:

Planning Your Visit

While we have events and exhibits throughout the year, you can also register with us to view other materials not currently on display. We'll just ask you to look over some material handling guidelines first, which include no food or drink. We also ask that you place your bags and coats in one of our lockers.

We can retrieve items in our collection for you any time we are open (except for the last half hour before closing):

  • Monday - Friday 10-6
  • Saturday 9-5

If you have a long list of items you'd like to view, we advise that you contact us a few days in advance of your visit. This will give us time to retrieve and set aside the items for you.

  • Email:
  • Phone: 416-393-7753

You are free to take non-flash photographs of all of the items except original artwork. 

Children's Literature: A Very Brief History to 1900

The history of children's literature can be summed up as a movement From Instruction to Delight.

From Instruction to Delight 2008


Before the mid-1700's, books for children were extremely limited, and the emphasis was on education and the teaching of morals. Children were thought of as little adults that needed to be filled with facts and other pieces of useful information. Their books consisted primarily of ABCs, primers, courtesy books (instruction in manners or customs of good breeding), and religious instruction.

An example of the latter is this 1711 edition of James Janeway's A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children: to which is added Graces, Fitted for the Use of Children

James Janeway's A Token for Children


Since there is a moral lesson at the end of each fable, Aesop's Fables were some of the earliest literature considered appropriate for children.

Here's an image from the first page of a 14th Century Latin manuscript of the fables, Aesopus Moralisatus. The illumination in the upper left is of Aesop, and the one in the lower right is of a rooster (for the fable The Rooster and the Jewel).

Aesopus moralisatus 1300

Another of Aesop's many fables is The Ants and the Grasshopper. Here's the illustration for this fable from a 1910 edition of The Fables of Aesop.

Ants and the Grasshopper from The Fables of Aesop 1910

Morals were also taught by way of poetry, as can be seen in this 1847 edition of The Two Flies: a Moral Song.

The Two Flies (picture) 1847

The Two Flies (verse)1847


By the 1750's, a few books were published for children with the idea of combining learning and pleasure. However, it was not until the 1800's that books started to be published for children with an emphasis on fun or pleasure.

Since there was a lack of books that could stimulate a child's imagination, publishers initially turned to stories originally written for adults, but adaptable for children.

One such story is seen in this 1864 edition of Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.

Gulliver's Travels 1864

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales also became a source of delight for children during this period, as authors in France, Germany, Denmark and Great Britain wrote them down for the first time. While they had originally been part of an oral tradition, they were now much more accessible in written form.

Here's an image from an 1843 edition of one of the earliest tales, Little Red Riding Hood.

Little Red Riding Hood 1843

Some of the most commonly adapted tales were gathered by the Brothers Grimm in Germany.

Here is a 1937 edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Grimm's Fairy Tales 1937

In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen wrote tales such as The Snow Queen (this edition from 1911).

The Sow Queen 1911

A Golden-Age

By 1850, with the start of the Romantic period, the emphasis on fun and pleasure had truly set in. Childhood was now seen as a time of innocence, imagination, play and pleasure. This view was created in part by the romantic poets, in particular by William Wordsworth and his poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood. As such, the latter half of the 19th Century marks what is often referred to as the Golden-Age of children's literature, a period of beautifully illustrated books.

One of the most well known of the illustrators in this period is Walter Crane (1845-1915).

This 1875 edition of Baby's Own Alphabet is just one of the many books in his toy books series.

Baby's Own Alphabet 1875


Many of our beloved children's classics were published in this golden-age. 

One such book is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which may be regarded as an original ("modern") fairy tale.  

He later adapted it for younger children as The Nursery Alice. Here is the 1895 edition.

The Nursery Alice 1890

Here's a image from it's precursor, an 1886 edition of Alice's Adventures Under Ground.

Alice's Adventures Under Ground

Not long after this, Andrew Lang's Fairy Books (1889-1913) were published, the most celebrated of which are the 12 "coloured" fairy books. It begins with The Blue Fairy Book (1889) and ends with The Lilac Fairy Book (1910).

You can purchase this greeting card showing a selection of them.

The Coloured Fairy Books 189201910

A New Century

The stage was now set for the numerous children's authors of the twentieth century, authors that continue to enchant us to this day. 

One such author is L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) who began this new century with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and it's 13 sequels. Like Alice in Wonderland, it may also be regarded as an original ("modern") fairy tale.

A testament to it's popularity, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A commemorative Pop-Up was published in 2000.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - a Commemorative Pop-Up

There's no place like home.

We hope to see you soon at the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Library's "home" of early children's books!

Griffin - Stubbs