The publishers of The Century Magazine, in 1872, had given Mary Mapes Dodge a golden opportunity — a “blank check,” as we would say today. She was determined to make the most of it.
They wanted her to create a magazine for children, and they were convinced that Dodge was the right person for the job. She had been the home and juvenile editor of Hearth and Home magazine, and during her tenure there, the publication’s circulation had grown, and the department she edited had contained some impressive new features.
In addition, Dodge had written a best-selling novel for children, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates — a novel that would eventually become a class of children’s literature — and her first book of short stories for children, The Irvington Stories, had been so popular that her publishers had asked for another one.
When the offer first came from the publishers, however, Dodge hesitated. She had already turned down a similar offer from a different source. Plus, she had wanted to concentrate on her own writing.
But one of her sons was in college and had worked himself into a state of exhaustion. He needed a break. And Dodge had always wanted to tour Europe. Taking him there would accomplish two purposes.
The publishers told her she could start in the spring but wouldn’t have to have the first edition out until early the next year. That would give her time to travel, develop an overall plan for the magazine, and put together the first number. It all made sense, so she accepted.
It was a good investment for all concerned.
Dodge got her time and her travel, and Scribner’s (the publisher) got an editor who was creative and innovative and whose work defined children’s publications for generations.
Dodge had learned that young people needed to be respected as people. She was determined to infuse that idea into her magazine. She wanted to avoid didacticism — that is, anything that might be considered preachy or teach. Her magazine would be something that her young readers could enjoy and, eventually, participate in.
“In fact, it needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the other (magazines,” she wrote. “Most children…attend school. Their heads are strained and taxed with the day’s lessons. They do not want to be bothered nor amused nor petted. They just want to have their own way over their own magazine.”
Dodge returned from her European travels with a plan, a set of ideas, and a renewed enthusiasm about what she was about to undertake. The first issue of St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys appeared in November 1873. She had overseen every part of the publication including choosing the name. For the next eight years, until 1881, Dodge would take meticulous care of every part of St. Nicholas.
That would include
— beautiful illustrations and cleanly printed pages that showed respect for juvenile readers
— innovative features that not only entertained but challenged young people; for example, the illustration here is a primal acrostic (see below).
— writing of the highest quality from some of the nation’s best and well-known authors
Writing included works from Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, and many others. Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad and Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Alcott’s Eight Cousins all appeared as serializations in St. Nicholas. American readers got their first look at Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories on the pages of St. Nicholas. These authors contributed to the magazine often because of a personal relationship with Dodge and because of their confidence in her editorship.
The magazine grew from 48 to 96 pages and had a circulation of 70,000 subscribes.
In 1881, the magazine changed publishers. Also in that year, Dodge suffered the death of her older son, Harry. Dodge turned over the day-to-day editorial responsibility to William Fayal Clarke, but she remained active with the publication until her death in 1905.
Illustration: In this 1873 published primal acrostic the words are pictured instead of described. When the seven objects have been rightly guessed and written one below another, the initial letters will spell the surname of a famous man (Jackson)
Mary Mapes Dodge, the Silver Skates, and St. Nicholas magazine (part 1)
The writing of Hans Brinker and more about Mary Mapes Dodge as author (part 3)
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