The Golden Treasury‘s Author (1): Bertha Parker’s Early Years

the closest thing to a first-person singular pronoun in Bertha Morris Parker's 'Golden Treasury of Natural History'

[See the previous entry in this series here]

Bertha Morris Parker was born in a small town named Rochester, Illinois — a few miles east of the state capital at Springfield — on February 7, 1890. Her father owned a drugstore in “the village” which, as near as I can determine, was at the corner of Main Street and John Street. The Twist Building, Rochester, Il (early 20th century)Here’s a photo of the store, at right (click to enlarge). The photo comes from an historical memoir of early Rochester, As I Saw It, by an author named Justin Taft with family ties to the area. The two-story building on the left was called the Twist Building — you can see the word “TWIST” on the facade, at the top — after a private telephone company which occupied the top floor. The H.D. Parker drugstore took up half the floor below it, just to the right of the stairway and the left of the bank.

Rochester, Il, historic bank building (Google Street View screen capture)The Twist Building itself burned “to the ground” in 1930, although the bank building survives (photo at left, courtesy of Google Street View).

I know little about the home where Bertha Parker grew up, except what she recorded in a collection of “autobiographical notes” in 1979*: “My family… lived in a big house surrounded by an acre of ground dotted with walnut and maple trees.” (I did find a report of Parker’s father having bought a house in 1904, but I don’t know if this was the house she grew up in.)

The drugstore sold lots of stuff besides drugs, of course. A history of Sangamon County, Illinois (published in 1881) says that Parker, with his partner at the time, “are engaged in selling drugs, groceries, hardware, queensware, etc., and have a large and lucrative business. In politics he is a Republican.” (Love that last bit.)

An elderly area resident recalled, in a 2004 interview, that the store included a soda fountain, and that out front — hence the cars at the curb in that old photo — stood the first gasoline pump in Rochester. It also “stocked tires, tubes, and those things that people needed for their cars,” cosmetics, and Victrolas (!). She added, with what I imagine to be a little touch of small-town insider’s whispered rumor:

I’m not even sure if he was a registered pharmacist, because there probably was very little prescription medicine at that time. Most everything was just sold over the counter. Medicines that were [sold] probably, the doctors told people what to buy and they’d go to the drugstore and buy it.

For schooling, Rochester offered but a single four-room building, with one teacher per room. Bertha Parker recalled that the seventh- and eighth-grade teacher did double (or rather, treble) duty as the school’s principal. Yet “the teaching staff was of higher caliber than one might expect,” thanks to the presence of a teachers’ college in nearby Springfield which supplied the outlying areas with a steady stream of well-educated, ambitious educators. Still:

…the curriculum was chiefly reading and writing and arithmetic. It offered no challenges. No child was ever asked to express an opinion of his or her own. No problems were presented without a pattern for solving them. There was always time for studying while other groups were reciting. Nothing was provided for those who did not need so much study time.

Most damning, perhaps, in Bertha Parker’s later memories — yet maybe the most important single fact in her professional life to come:

It apparently hadn’t occurred to the teachers in our school that interesting plants and animals were common in the vicinity of the school and could have been used to give children an excellent introduction to nature study.

As we can infer from between-the-lines evidence in the preceding paragraphs, Bertha Parker must have been a star student in her little hometown school. While she may have chafed at the limited resources there, she was lucky to live close to Springfield, where Rochester’s elementary-school graduates moved on to high school. There at Springfield she apparently continued to shine… but not in the way of an academic comet, blazing through the syllabus on an accelerated schedule. Rather, she took longer than she had to: “After graduation I chose to spend an extra year in high school; there were some courses I wanted to take that I hadn’t been able to find time for.”

Edit to add: This sounds rather like Hermione Granger, in the Harry Potter books. Those of you who’ve read the books or seen the films may recall that Professor Snape once called Hermione an “insufferable know-it-all.” Heh.

I tried to find out more about the high school Parker attended. This was apparently called Central High School, built in 1897 but (says Wikipedia) “already overcrowded by 1915.” Because the newer school which replaced Central was and remains a pretty functional-looking place, I’m guessing these two views of a more Gothic “Springfield High School” are of Central:

Central High School (?), Springfield IL - view 1 Central High School (?), Springfield IL - view 2

(Neither view reveals, to me, a place in the Midwest likely to be overcrowded with high school students in 1915 — but I’m no expert, the gods know.)

When she finally left high school for good, she spent a year at Oberlin, and a summer at Columbia, before coming home to Illinois more or less for good: settling, in 1912, at the University of Chicago. Two of her four sisters had already gone there; like them, she elected a teaching career.

Unlike them, though, she did not opt to go on to teach college-level courses:

I elected to work with intermediate-grade children. They were young enough to be enthusiastic about anything new and at the same time they could read, follow instructions, and manipulate materials effectively. Remembering my own uninspiring middle-grade days, I thought this level would offer me my best chance to make a real contribution.

Thanks, apparently, to a combination of early interest in “nature study,” and her practice teaching assignment to a mentor with responsibility for elementary and high-school science curricula, she was able to specialize in science rather than the humanities. After getting her BS degree, she taught in the Springfield school system for a year.

…and then she returned to the school where she’d done that practice teaching, there to remain well into mid-century: the University of Chicago Laboratory (or plain-old Lab) Schools.

[Coming in a later part: Bertha Morris Parker and the University Lab Schools]


* These autobiographical notes are included in full and verbatim as an appendix to an article, “Pioneers in Elementary-School Science: VI. Bertha Morris Parker,” by Audrey B. Champagne and Leopold E. Klopfer. This appeared in the journal called Science Education (Volume 64, Issue 5, pages 615-636) in October 1980. It seems to be the most complete and definitive source of information on Parker published anywhere, anytime.

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  1. Looking forward to more parts of this remarkable woman’s story. Do you have any photographs of her? Morris Parker is highly neglected as an author who sold 60 million volumes of an encyclopedia. Interesting to read about her disappointment with the teaching she received while in grade school. She spent the rest of her life correcting that position, most notably with The Golden Book Encyclopedia.

  2. I am Bertha Morris Parker’s second cousin. I have pictures of her.

    • Hi Nancy

      Is it possible to access images from your photographs of Bertha? It would be greatly appreciated. I have a lot of admiration for her contribution to a generation of young people between the late 1950’s-60’s. She was such a clear and concise writer. As mentioned in my first comment I consider Morris Parker a significant writer/influence in the U.S and many other parts of the western world.

      • Hello, Mark —

        I’ve received a reply to your comment from Nancy, off the board. I’m seeking her permission to share it publicly here (my preference) — or at least to email it to you.

        In the meantime, you might have missed her additional comment on another installment of this series on the Golden Treasury. It provides a few more details about Nancy’s cousin, and you can see it here.

        The only (clear) photograph I have of Bertha Morris Parker was taken at the time she retired from the Lab Schools. It’s dated 1955, which would have made her 65 at the time — I don’t know if that’s accurate — but here’s what it looks like:

        (Click the photo to enlarge it.)

        I also have three photos, taken in the 1930s, of several of her science classes there. She herself isn’t shown, but I hope to use these photos in a follow-up installment of this series.

        Thanks to both of you for your help with and interest in this series!

      • …and here’s a more formal photo, taken (supposedly) in 1950, from the archives of the Lab Schools:

        Bertha Morris Parker, c. 1950 (?)

        • Nancy Davis -Gabl says:

          I found four pictures of Bertha’s history and would like to send. I have them scanned. I am not sure if I can copy and paste.They date back to the 1960’s. They also show my grandmother, Marie L . Hobson, her first cousin, as well as her second cousin, Marie L. Hobson-Davis (my mother). It was my grandmother’s son, Charles Hobson who lived in the home in Rochester, Illinois for while with his wife and two children. We visited there several times. I know Bertha and her sister’s lived there as well because their wheel chairs were there at one point in time. I absolutely loved that house. You could feel the history there.

          • Hello, Nancy — so good to see you here again!

            You can email me the scanned photos, addressed to runningaftermyhat AT johnesimpson DOT com. I’d love to at least see them for my own curiosity! If you wouldn’t mind my posting them here at the site, though, let me know and I’ll put together a post which includes them and any related memories you’d care to share.

            Thank you again!

  3. Thanks for posting these photos of Bertha. Also the link to Nancy’s recall of her childhood memories of Morris Parker which I enjoyed very much. Knowing she lived across from the Science Museum was quite an eye opener. If possible I would be very interested to read of any other comments from Nancy. Looking forward to the next installment. I am convinced millions of children from the 1960’s (in the US alone) owe their success in life in someway to the impact that Morris Parkers’ books had on their early quest for knowledge. Her writing style opened doors to the imagination. It was a silent revolution in many ways. Seems her contribution to a culture has gone under the radar as well.

  4. Nancy Gabl says:

    I just want to send off a quick reply. I do have some photographs and I have family members that are in possession of some items from her father and the pharmacy, I believe. I am trying to contact them as well. Please forgive my sluggish response. I have not forgotten you, I teach at the college level and I am working on some other rather large projects. She was a wonderful woman with a great sense of humor, I think of her often. I would like to have the facts about her life clearly documented. ~ Nancy Davis-Gabl

    • Look forward to revelations of any sort about the life of Bertha Morris Parker. She was an amazingly clear headed writer. I could always sense her humor in many of her encyclopedia entries. Thank you for the update.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this series on The Golden Treasury of Natural History and its author. I, too, received this book as a Christmas gift in the 1960s when I was about 10 years old. For the next couple of years, I read it repeatedly, as it accompanied me on shopping trips with my mother, visits to family, and vacation trips. I attribute much of my future career as a scientist and science teacher to this book, not only because of my interest in its subject matter but also because its author was a woman (I’d always known I’d wanted to be a teacher, but until I obtained this book, I’d had no interest in science due to the lackluster science education I’d received in elementary school). Today the book sits on my desk as inspiration for a blog I’ve recently started, and I mention it in my first post. I am delighted that you are researching Bertha Morris Parker and look forward to your next post regarding her life!

    • A pleasure to meet you, Janice — I’m beginning to think BMP should have her own Facebook fan page!

      [For the record, especially for anyone else who might drop in here later, the first post at Janice’s wonderful “Armchair Naturalist” blog is here.]

  6. The “pingback/trackback” comment among these comments (dated March 20, 2015) links to this page from an Italian-language Web site:

    The page title refers to “first love,” and indeed that’s what the post there is about. (Aside: it’s a different “first love” than the one I’ve been concentrating on here.)

    From the Google translation of the post:

    The first (true) love is never forgotten. Mine is [this]: The Big Book of Nature – author Bertha Morris Parker , Arnoldo Mondadori Editore (tenth reprint March 1981) a sort of manual of natural sciences at your child, such as the introduction explains: ” does not pretend d ‘be exhaustive in various subjects but only to be a guide easy, clear, fun “on the” formation of the Earth, the many animal and plant organisms that populated it in the remote ages and still living in our day, topics that attract the ‘ infantile interest: the book was born from the need to satisfy the natural curiosity advancing our understanding . ” In fact, it is a useful guide for adults but for a seven year old girl, who has a head full of “why?”, Is not a simple manual, is a whole world to browse, a revolution is made ??of words, is a kind of shock. Because the books are so small electric shock that, in a more or less conscious, with shorter or longer time, change our lives, the first direct to places unknown, the transform. That is why I am convinced that the books have a critical role in our “imprinting” of two-legged animals, in our training, in our growth as human beings. And I think those first words read have the same value, the same strength of the first reproaches of the first kind words, the falls, the games. Help us to become what we are, and, at times, help us to understand what we want. At all ages.

    A “small electric shock”: oh, yes!

  7. Thank you for the link and for the traslation: it’s another small electric shock for me :-D p.s. sorry for my english, I’m working on improving it!

  8. Suzanne A Hammond says:

    Hello – While cleaning out several generations of boxes of books, I found 8 of Mrs. Parker’s Science series books. As a retired teacher myself, I loved looking through them. They are stamped “Book Mart, Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago”, but since my family are all 4-5th generation Texans, I have no idea how my grandmother came to have these, except that we are a family of teachers and book lovers. Also, they have the name “Mrs. Parker” written on the front in what looks like blue ink. I don’t recognize the handwriting and wonder if the author could have signed them. It’s not likely, but if so, I thought maybe her family members would like to have the books back. We’re trying to clean out, but appreciate family heirlooms!

    • That’s a very generous offer, Ms. Hammond — thank you!

      I’ll attempt to contact the family member who commented above (Nancy Gabl) to see if she or anyone in the family is interested; if so, is it all right to share your contact information? (I have the email address you used to post the comment.)

    • Nancy Gabl says:

      Dear Ms. Hammond,

      Thank you for your thoughtful note regarding family heirlooms. If it would be possible to know what books you have, that would be fantastic. You can send photos or just list. If you have a better idea, let me know. I do currently have several books that are signed that is why I am asking for the list. I do hope this is not an inconvenience.

    • Suzanne, Nancy — I’ve emailed you both each other’s address. Good luck, and thanks for using RAMH as a go-between… This must be how Mark Zuckerberg felt when the first few posts of what became Facebook scrolled across his screen. :)


  1. […] Coming up next: what I’ve been able to uncover about Bertha Morris Parker, starting with this post. […]

  2. […] primo (vero) amore non si scorda mai. Il mio è lui: Il grande libro della Natura – autrice Bertha Morris Parker, Arnoldo Mondadori editore (decima ristampa marzo 1981) una sorta di manuale di scienze naturali a […]

  3. […] libro della Natura  – Bertha Morris Parker, il mio primo amore, ne ho scritto qualche tempo fa,  è un libro sulla natura, sugli animali, […]

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