Once Upon a Time | Exhibit Digest

August 17, 2020 | Nicole

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Installation image of Once Upon a Time exhibit showing large decal of Little Red Riding Hood walking in the woods

This post reproduces text from our Once Upon a Time exhibit, which was on display in TD Gallery at Toronto Reference Library from November 5, 2016 to January 22, 2017.

The exhibit explores classic fairy tales and traditional stories from around the world through a surprising array of books, toys, games and art held at our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books.

Each one of the exhibit's main panels is found below, word for word.

You can find more items from the exhibit on our Digital Archive.



Once Upon a Time: Fairy Tales from the Osborne Collection

A child wanders from the safe path on a trip through the woods. A boy sells the family cow for some magic beans. A mistreated girl yearns to go to the ball. A youngest son inherits a talking cat. These simple, yet powerful tales are beloved by children and adults alike.

Fairy tales are stories of spells, journeys, tests, riddles, dangers and (usually) happy endings. They speak to our innermost hopes, dreams and fears. Endlessly re-imagined in literature, film, television, and performance, fairy tales continue to have a profound influence on our culture.

This exhibit explores classic fairy tales and traditional stories from around the world through a surprising array of books, toys, games and art held at the library’s Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. These enchanting items reveal the enduring appeal of the opening phrase "Once upon a time…."

Porcelain plate with silhouette illustrations of classic fairy tales around the border. A boy sits on his uncle's lap in the centre and text reads "Which tale will you tell me tonight Uncle?"
Fairy tale plate  Scotland: B.P. [Britannia Pottery] Co. ca. 1920–1935.


Where do fairy tales come from?

Fairy tales have deep roots. A Cinderella-type story called Rhodopis was recorded by Greek geographer and historian Strabo in the 1st century BCE. Another Cinderella variant, Yè Xiàn, dates from 9th-century China. Beauty and the Beast can be linked to the 2nd-century Cupid and Psyche by Roman writer Apuleius.

These tales were passed down through both oral tradition and written record. Some became famous after they were included in landmark collections. Among the most noted collectors of “classic” fairy tales are Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) is equally well-known for his original fairy stories, such as The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen.

Charles Perrault, 1628–1703

Charles Perrault was a French civil servant and writer. His Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Past Times) of 1697 included eight tales, among them: Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots.  

Jacob Grimm, 1785-1863 and Wilhelm Grimm, 1786–1859

German scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of their Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) in 1812. This was followed by a second volume in 1815. The Brothers gathered stories through a network of friends, acquaintances and neighbours. Their final edition of 1857 contained over two hundred fairy tales, folktales and legends.

Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, 1711–1780

Born in Rouen, France, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont was a prolific author of fairy tales and other works for women and children. She is best-known for her version of Beauty and the Beast which appeared in her anthology Magasin des enfants (Young Misses Magazine) in 1756.


Little Red Riding Hood

The better to eat you with!

This story of a girl’s encounter with a scheming wolf is one of our best-known tales. In Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood (1697) she is simply eaten – there is no happy ending. In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Little Red Cap (1812), a passing huntsman comes to the rescue. In a related story from China called Grandaunt Tiger, or Grandmother Tiger, the heroine defeats the villain (in this case a fearsome tiger).

Little Red Riding-Hood Picture Book
Little Red Riding-Hood Picture Book London: George Routledge, ca. 1865.



The king’s son had it proclaimed…that he would marry her whose foot this slipper would just fit.

Yè Xiàn in China, Cenerentola in Italy, Rashin Coatie in Scotland—this “rags to riches” tale is known around the world. Most famous is Charles Perrault’s Cinderella of 1697, in which the girl is helped by a fairy godmother, who transforms pumpkin into coach, mice into horses, lizards into footmen, and rat into coachman. Cinderella attends the ball in a dress of “gold and silver, all beset with jewels” and on her feet, a pair of glass slippers, “the prettiest in the whole world.” 

Cinderella Display Case in Once upon a time_TDGallery
A small selection of the many, many versions of Cinderella found in the Osborne collection. They range in formats and style: illustrated books, toys, games, wallpaper, advertising, modest chapbooks to deluxe illustrated gift books, pop-ups and spoofs. Look closely and you will also spot one of Cinderella's glass slippers. The slipper was loaned from the Bata Shoe Museum


The Master Cat, or, Puss in Boots

There was a miller whose only inheritance to his three sons was his mill, his donkey, and his cat… The eldest took the mill, the second the donkey, and the youngest nothing but the cat.

Perrault’s tale of a clever cat is one of many stories to feature an animal who helps the hero or heroine succeed. Puss convinces a king and princess that his penniless master is the aristocratic Marquis of Carabas. He makes the young man rich by stealing an ogre’s lands and castle.

In a similar story, Constantino Fortunato by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, published in 1553, the cat is a fairy in disguise.

Glass display case featuring versions of Puss in Boots including a marrionette
Version of Puss in Boots with marionette.

Jack and the Bean Stalk

Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman…

The first appearance of this traditional English tale was titled “Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” in Round about Our Coal-fire: or Christmas Entertainments (1734).

In an 1807 retelling published by Benjamin Tabart, Jack meets a fairy who tells him that the giant had robbed and killed Jack’s father. This wicked deed justifies Jack’s theft of the giant’s magic objects.

When folklorist Joseph Jacobs put together his anthology English Fairy Tales (1890), he discarded Tabart’s moral gloss, relying instead on the story he remembered from childhood.

Jack and the Bean-stalk puzzle 1869
Jack and the Bean-stalk puzzle, London: George Routledge and Sons, ca. 1869.


Snow White

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?

This thrilling tale was the subject of the first animated feature film produced by Walt Disney: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). In the film, the prince awakens Snow White with a kiss. In the original Brothers Grimm tale, the bearers of her coffin stumble, accidentally jolting the piece of poisoned apple from her throat.

Snow White sits at a table with 7 bearded dwarfs dressed in grey
Snow-White and the Dwarfs from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Edited by Edric Vredenburg, b. 1860. Illustrated by E.J. Andrews and S. Jacobs. London: Raphael Tuck & Sons, 1902.


The Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs

Here are two English nursery classics, from the earliest written and printed examples to twentieth century retellings. Both tales involve talking animals and the favoured number “three.”

Somebody has been eating my porridge!

Somebody has been sitting in my chair!

Somebody has been lying in my bed!

Three bears grab an older woman. Text at bottom reads "And drag forth the dame, half expiring with fear."
The Story of the Three Bears: Metrically Related: With Illustrations locating it at Cecil Lodge in September 1831, Eleanor Mure, 1798 or 1799-1885, England, ca. 1831. Eleanor Mure created this handmade book as a gift for her four-year-old nephew. In Mure's version, it is a curious old woman who enters the bears' home uninvited. In later retellings, the old woman character becomes a little girl, named Silver Hair, Silver-Locks, Golden Hair or Goldilocks. 


Beauty & the Beast

Beast was disappeared and she saw, at her feet, one of the loveliest princes that eye ever beheld…

A merchant is lost in the forest. He arrives at a Beast’s castle, where he plucks a single rose. The enraged Beast offers to spare the merchant in exchange for one of his daughters.

The familiar version of this tale was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780), a French writer who worked as a governess in England. It was intended as a moral lesson for her pupils, stressing the virtues of self-sacrifice and the importance of good character over appearance.

Beauty rushes to the garden where a wolf-like Beast lies close to death. Text at bottom reads "The absence of Beauty lamented.".
Beauty and the Beast, or, A Rough Outside with a Gentle Heart: A Poetical Version of an Ancient Tale. Attributed to Charles Lamb, 1775-1834 and Mary Lamb, 1764-1847. London: M.J. Godwin, ca. 1811.


The Coloured Fairy Books

Folklorist Andrew Lang published twelve volumes in his Coloured Fairy Book series from 1889 to 1910. The first books contained European tales and stories from The Arabian Nights; later titles added tales from Japan, Turkey, India, Africa, North America and other regions. 

Colourful embossed spines of 8 books
From left: The Olive Fairy Book, The Lilac Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Violet Fairy Book, The Brown Fairy Book, and The Pink Fairy Book. Edited by Andrew Lang, 1844-1912. Illustrated by Henry Justice Ford, 1860-1941. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., [various dates: 1892-1910].