Historical children’s books – Elsie Dinsmore

Learning to read? Reading to learn? Same today as it’s ever been; though, Mother Goose may honk at being put aside for a guy named Captain Underpants. No matter what you make of that, children reading is a good thing. With colorful illustrations and simple and poignant messages, kid’s books make an impression on us that we remember long after we’ve outgrown them.

The Library of Congress has curated a digital collection of classic children’s books. These are all in the public domain and completely downloadable. They are fun to browse or read in depth. The collection is available online here. 

I was excited to see that one of the books in the collection is by Indiana author, Martha Finley. Finley grew up in South Bend, Indiana and resided there until her 20s. She lived much of her adult life in Maryland, where she died on Jan. 30, 1909 at the age of 80. The Library of Congress selected the first edition of the first book in the Elsie Dinsmore character series. According to their notes, the copy in the Library of Congress came to them in a 1939 donation from auctioneer Arthur Swann. “Superb copy, and extremely rare … first edition.”

The Indiana State Library has a few editions of Elsie Dinsmore, but not a first edition. The character first appeared in 1867. The earliest edition we have is 1896. In one edition, the publisher has noted they used a new set of type for the 25th anniversary edition, as the original type settings had worn away from the repeated demand for re-printing.

The character is a religiously devout young girl who was raised on a southern plantation with family, and now lives with her father, a well-traveled and more practical-minded military man. The two clash as the characters develop, with Elsie’s Christian faith playing a most crucial role. The character must have appealed to many readers, although modern readers should be weary of Finley’s portrayal of slave life and speaking dialect given to those characters. The popularity of Elsie Dinsmore led Martha Finley to write a total of 28 books in the series. The character was revised in an updated series called, “Life of Faith: Elsie Dinsmore,” in 1999.

This post was written by Indiana Collection Supervisor Monique Howell

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