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Palmer Cox’s Birthday Transcript
This week we celebrate the birthday of Palmer Cox, one of the most popular American writers for children in the last two decades of the 19th century. Do you know what he is famous for? His elfin creatures once decorated pins, pencil boxes, rulers, stationery, and handkerchiefs. His contribution to children’s literature was 13 books based on a large social band of mischievous, boisterous brownies who were busy, busy, busy. Yes, Palmer Cox was the creator of The Brownies.
In 1883, Cox was searching for something special; some original subject around which he could make a series of sketches and verses. From his childhood, he remembered hearing legends about Brownies that the Scotch immigrants had brought over to his native Canada. He began to read everything he could find on Brownies and then drew “what seemed to him most like the idea of the fun loving, good natured elves: round, wide-mouthed smiling faces, no necks, large ears, pop eyes, round fat paunches, spindly legs, and long tapering feet.”(1)
At the beginning of each book, Cox explains that “Brownies are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never, never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.” The stories, in rhymed couplets, depicted Brownie adventures which were often based on recent events and discoveries. Brownies were among the first to ride bicycles, drive automobiles and fly airplanes.(2) The accompanying illustrations are energetic, funny, “and beautifully clear in spite of the intricate detail.”(3)
Cox’s stroke of genius, though, was the individualization he imparted to each Brownie. “The first Brownies were just ordinary Brownies but soon he began to put in special Brownies,” the Policeman Brownie, the Sailor, the Dude, and many others.(4) Each character was unmistakably drawn, easily recognizable and always consistent in behavior. Children had a favorite Brownie and loved to search the pictures for him, proof that Cox was wise in the ways of children.(5) One of the very last Brownies created was the Cowboy Brownie which Cox put in at the suggestion of President Theodore Roosevelt.(6)
Having “helped establish the legitimate role of fantasy in American children’s literature for future writers like Dr. Seuss,” Palmer Cox retired to Canada, where he built “a medieval-style castle. A special window for Brownies was featured at the foot of one staircase and a Brownie flag flew from the battlements of a four story octagonal tower.”(7)
(1)Junior Book of Authors, p. 97.
(2) Spivack, Charlotte. “Palmer Cox,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, p. 135.
(3) Ibid, p. 138.
(4) Junior Book of Authors, p. 97.
(5) A Critical History of Children’s Literature, p. 371
(6) Junior Book of Authors, p. 97 7 Spivack, p. 137
The Junior Book of Authors, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1940.
Meigs, Cornelia, et. al., A Critical History of Children’s Literature. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969.
Spivack, Charlotte. “Palmer Cox,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 42, American Writers for Children Before 1900. Detroit: Gale Research mCompany, 1985.