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'

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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.

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From the Outside In: the Golden Treasury‘s Endpapers

[See the previous entry in this series here.]

Adult readers know unambiguously what it means to “read a book.” They have an image of someone — most often themselves? — sitting somewhere in a comfortable chair, on a commuter train or in an airport terminal, good lighting from over the shoulder… The book lies open in their hands or lap, somewhere in the middle, with a sheaf of pages pinned in place behind each thumb. Because, y’know, whether the book in question is a potboiler or a metaphysical treatise, that’s where all the action is — in the middle. It’s the heart of the book.

But just inside the front and back covers? Those “pages,” the endpapers, serve a purely physical function; they’re where the dynamic stresses are greatest, where the tension between spine and glued contents would most likely result in tearing and/or separation. In a book, they’re the analogue of a painting’s picture frame: they physically hold it all together, hence are important, but they have no real point otherwise. They’re to be gotten through.

But kids harbor fewer clearcut preconceptions. From their perspective, the very first spread of paper and the very last might well be places to expect the most drama, the most meaning. And in a book or elsewhere, when faced with a large two-page spread of blank paper, few kids could resist the temptation to scribble, to color, to fill. Leaving them empty would be such a waste, no?

I don’t know, but can guess, that artists and illustrators love having the freedom to fill whole tabloid-sized sheets of whitespace, too, free from the constraints of story and the rigid geography of text on the page. Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, hated the tedium of the daily strip format: day after day, year after year, working within the same narrow rectangle. (It especially had to frustrate him as the creator of such an undisciplined protagonist.) If I remember correctly, he stipulated in his contracts that if you wanted the daily strip, you had to give him a half-page on Sunday, to fill with whatever layout he wanted. His Sunday strips dazzled, even before you’d read any of the text in the speech balloons.

The publishers of kids’ books, especially illustrated ones, know all this. And the publishers of great kids’ books pull out all the stops.

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Gobsmacked by Natural History

Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker

[Image: Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker. Colors tinkered with a little to match its present look as closely as possible.]

A holiday, a small bedroom in a small house, The Boy, The Book

I don’t know what triggered the recent obsession, but something must have. Not that I’ve ever really forgotten its object; years ago, I started referring to it this way: possibly the best book anyone ever gave me. I’m not kidding myself, or you: it may not be the best-written, the book I most wish I myself had written, even my favorite book. My original copy got swallowed up into Book Heaven long ago, and I had not (until recently) laid eyes on another copy for maybe forty or more years. But for its long-term impact on me — its staying power in my head — nothing else comes close.

It came to me as a Christmas present when I must have been, oh, maybe nine or ten years old. (It certainly feels like I’ve known it that long.) Dad had always held blue-collar jobs, and Mom — when she eventually went to work (as opposed to, haha, the sheer non-working pleasure of raising four kids) — held secretarial and clerical positions. So we never had anything you could call superficially “privileged.” But at Christmas, they annually went overboard. We got so much stuff.

In retrospect, I wonder if at that time of year they might have been just throwing things at the walls of our minds to see what would stick. I know they loved us — never once doubted it, even — but they’d had little if anything like training or orientation as parents. We were like four aliens deposited in their household: total strangers, maybe even only nominally of the same species. How could they entertain us? Would we like music, maybe? (Get them an LP!) Would we want to become homemakers, or mechanics? (Get them a toy oven, or a garage — made of finger-slashing tin in case they want to become surgeons!) Artists? (A Play-Do factory! a watercolor paints set! colored pencils! crayons and coloring books! heck, throw in a jigsaw puzzle! All in the same year!)

So this one year — again, I think somewhere between third and fifth grade — I found (among the rubble of childhood avarice) two books for me: both non-fiction, both about science. One was a large-format hardcover book, maybe 9″ x 12″, maybe fifty pages long,, entirely about astronomy. I don’t remember many specifics about that book — certainly not the title. It had no paper dust cover. The front, spine, and back were of some ultra-high-gloss material; the predominant color was deep navy blue, scattered with stars. Of all the sciences, astronomy has held my attention the most, and I think to that book must belong a great deal of the credit.

But the other book: ah, the other book. That was the unforgettable one.

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