Katharine Pyle was one of Delaware's most prolific authors, having had a part in the creation of more than 50 children's books, yet little information has been published about her life. For anyone who would dare the rarified air of children's book collecting, her works would be a challenging and rewarding target.
Pyle was born in Wilmington November 22, 1863, the youngest of four children. Her parents, William Pyle and Margaret Churchman Painter Pyle, were of old Wilmington Quaker families. The home atmosphere has been described as warm and conducive to learning and creating. Katharine spent her entire life in the Wilmington area except for four years in New York in the 1890s.
William's business interests included leather making. He suffered occasional financial reverses, and after her parents' deaths Katharine was largely responsible for her own support.
In 1879, while a 16-year-old student at Wilmington's Misses Hebb's School, her poem "The Piping Shepherd" was published in Atlantic Monthly. Her illustrator brother Howard (1953-1911) asked her to contribute verses and drawings for his The Wonder Clock, published by Harper in 1888. She studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women with classmates such as Bertha Corson Day and at Drexel Institute in her brother's illustration class. Two of her works from that class were exhibited in 1897 at Drexel.
She illustrated books as early as 1895 and is said to have had a play published in 1898 by Ladies' Home Journal, but her real success as a writer and artist began in the same year with the publication of The Counterpane Fairy by Dutton. This book, which she both wrote and illustrated, enjoyed popularity for the next 40 years and is still known today.
Katharine published more than a book a year from 1898 to 1934. Some she wrote and illustrated. Others she only wrote, edited, or illustrated. A few she carefully labeled as "retellings" of classics. Her book Nancy Rutledge, 1906, is said to have been based on her own childhood.
She authored two works of Delaware history. Once Upon a Time in Delaware, 1911, edited by Emily P. Bissell and illustrated by Ethel Pennewill Brown, was a somewhat fictionalized account for children of certain events in Delaware history and was described extensively in Collecting Delaware Books volume 4 number 3. "The Story of Delaware, A New and Careful History of Our State" was serialized in 1924 in the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star.
She is known to have painted formal portraits of a number of local people. Her portrait of Dr. Albert Robin hung in Wilmington General Hospital. Originals of her illustrations come on the market occasionally and bring good prices.
Katharine was generous with her time and money and active in the Swedenborgian Church to which she converted. She used her own energy and her many friends in Wilmington society to press for social reform, especially in the field of juvenile justice.
Ellen Pyle Lawrence, daughter of Katharine's brother Walter and a successful artist herself, describes Katharine in a one-page typescript biography in the library of the Delaware Art Museum. In part she says, "She was a champion of the underdog and immediately responsive to anyone in need, not always wisely and often at her own expense. Like most crusaders, she had her difficulties and she was constantly challenging both friend and foe but she was a brilliant and vital individual and a woman well ahead of her time."
Photographs of her exist. An early one shows the short hair and trim shirtwaist of a turn-of-the-century working woman. A later one shows strong features, hair in a bun, and lacy clothing. The first has been reproduced in the Delaware Art Museum's A Small School of Art: The Students of Howard Pyle, 1980. The second appears in Delaware Women Remembered, 1977, edited by Mary Sam Ward.
Katharine Pyle died February 19, 1938 at her residence at 804 North Franklin St., Wilmington.
There is an opportunity for further research about this interesting woman who is almost unmentioned in local histories. The library of the Delaware Art Museum has extensive holdings, including some of her personal correspondence, story manuscripts, and illustrations from books. (The library staff was most helpful to me in preparing this article.) The Special Collections of the University of Delaware Morris Library and the collections of the Historical Society of Delaware contain similar material. Microfilm copies of Wilmington newspapers at the Wilmington Institute Library should also repay careful search, though they are poorly indexed.
Researchers are cautioned that Pyle's first name is often misspelled "Katherine." This fools computer searches unless both spellings are tried.
Let's hope someone takes on this research. The editor of Collecting Delaware Books would be glad to act as a clearing house for any researcher looking for information or any person wanting to provide information to a researcher.
A complete listing of Katharine Pyle's works has yet to be compiled. Every time one goes looking, another title pops up. Here, however, is a pretty good starter list. It comes from many sources and probably contains a few errors.
The Counterpane Fairy, Dutton, 1898, 1902, 1910, 1914, 1928.
Prose and Verse for Children, American Book Co., 1899.
The Christmas Angel, Little, Brown, 1900.
As the Goose Flies, Little, Brown, 1901, 1929.
Stories of Humble Friends, American BookCo., 1902.
In the Green Forest, Little, Brown, 1902, 1912.
The Black-eyed Puppy, Dutton, 1902, 1923.
Nancy Rutledge, Little, Brown, 1906.
Fairy Tales from Many Lands, Dutton, 1911.
Six Little Ducklings, Dodd, 1915, 1926.
Wonder Tales Retold, Little, Brown, 1916, 1917.
Two Little Mice, and Others, Dodd, 1917.
Mother's Nursery Tales, Dutton, 1918.
Tales of Folk and Fairies, Little, Brown, 1919.
Tales of Wonder and Magic, Little, Brown, 1920.
Fairy Tales from Far and Near, Little, Brown, 1922.
Wonder Tales from Many Lands, Harrap, 1923, 1928
(Compiler) The Katharine Pyle Book of Fairy Tales, Dutton, 1925.
(Reteller) Tales from Greek Mythology, Lippincott, 1928.
(Reteller) Tales from Norse Mythology, Lippincott, 1930.
Charlemagne and His Knights, Lippincott,1932.
(Reteller) Heroic Tales from Greek Mythology, Lippincott, 1934.
(Reteller) Heroic Tales from Norse Mythology, Lippincott, 1934.
Head of a Hundred by Maud W. Goodwin, Little, Brown, 1892.
When Molly was Six by Eliza Orne White, Houghton, Mifflin, 1894, 1898.
Borrowed Sister by Eliza Orne White, Houghton, Mifflin, 1905.
In Sunshine Land by Edith M. Thomas, Houghton, 1895.
White Aprons by Maud W. Goodwin, Little, Brown, 1897.
Twixt You and Me by Grace LeBaron, Little, Brown, 1898.
Island Impossible by Harriet Morgan, Little, Brown, 1899.
Little Candle Bearer Verses by Harriet Putnam, pamphlet, no date.
Giant's Ruby by Mabel F. Blodgett, Little, Brown, 1903.
An Only Child by Eliza Orne White, Houghton, Mifflin, 1905.
Amy in Acadia by Helen L. Reed, Little, Brown, 1905.
(Editor and Illustrator) Fairy Tales From India by Mary Eliza Isabella Frere, Lippincott, 1916.
Granny's Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne, Dutton, 1916.
Beyond the Mountain by Sarah Stokes Halkett, Dutton, 1917.
Blue Aunt by Eliza Orne White, Houghton, Mifflin, 1918.
Fairy Tales of Weir by Anna M. Sholl, Dutton, 1923.
Black Beauty, His Groom and Companions by Anna Sewell, Dodd, 1923.
Elf King's Flowers by Sarah Stokes Halkett, Dutton, 1924.
All Summer Long, Murphy, 1926.
The Rabbit Witch, and Other Tales, Dutton, 1895.
(Reteller) Where the Wind Blows, illus. by Bertha Corson Day and R.H. Russell, Dutton, 1902, 1910.
Careless Jane, and Other Tales, Dutton, 1902, 1904, 1941.
Childhood Poems, illus. by Sarah S. Sitwell, Dutton 1904.
(with Laura Spencer Portor) Theodora, illus. by William A. McCollough, Little, Brown, 1907.
Once Upon a Time in Delaware, edited by Emily P. Bissell, illus. by Ethel Pennewill Brown, Mercantile, 1911, 1912, 1927.
Tales of Two Bunnies, Dutton, 1913, 1919.
Once Upon a Time in Rhode Island, illus. by Helen B. Mason, Doubleday, Page, 1914.
Three Little Kittens, illus. by William A. McCullough, Dodd, 1920, 1926.
Lazy Matilda, and Other Tales, Dutton, 1921, 1935.
(contributed some verse and drawings) The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle, Harper 1888, Dover 1965.
Dolls, An Anthology compiled by Julia A. Robinson, Whitman, 1938.
Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls collected by William Cole, World Publishing Co., 1964.
Poems for the Children's Hour compiled by Josephine Bouton, Platt & Monk.
St. Nicholas Magazine.
One of the favorite Delaware collectibles is Once Upon a Time in Delaware by Katharine Pyle, first published in 1911, which tells Delaware history in language for children.
The book is actually the production of three women. Besides the author Pyle, the title page credits Emily P. Bissell as editor and Ethel Pennewill Brown for the many drawings. The three are quintessential Delawareans.
Wilmingtonian Katharine Pyle (1863 - 1938) was a student of her brother Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911) and collaborated with him on a several books. She later both wrote and illustrated books on her own, including the popular Counterpane Fairy.
Pyle's oil paintings bring good prices when they come on the market. Most of these are illustrations for her books, but she also did portraits.
Emily P. Bissell (1861 - 1948) was also from Wilmington. She was involved with literally dozens of charitable and public service causes over the years. Her earliest interest was in settlement house work and helping Italian immigrants adapt to America. A youth group organizer and lobbyist, she was instrumental in seeing Delaware's child labor laws strengthened.
Bissell is best known for the Christmas Stamp. Carefully developing an idea used in Denmark, she got the American Red Cross to sponsor the sale of Christmas seals (which were not legal for postage) for the support of the Delaware Anti-Tuberculosis Society in 1907. The program soon became nationwide.
Bissell is also known for her opposition to women's suffrage. She felt women should remain above politics. Her pamphlet and personal lobbying were a factor in Delaware's rejection of the 19th Amendment.
Ethel Pennewill Brown (1878 - 1960) was a native of Frederica. She too was a student of Howard Pyle. In 1910, Pyle decided on an extended tour of Italy. He mortgaged his studio building to finance the trip, then rented space to students. His own studio was rented to Brown and Olive Rush, who were to live in it and be caretakers. It is possible some of the drawings for Once Upon a Time in Delaware were done here. Pyle died the following year without returning to the U.S. Hearing of his death, Brown painted her famous view of his studio.
In later years, the now Ethel P. B. Leach, returned to southern Delaware. In 1929 she formed the Village Improvement Association in Rehoboth and staged art exhibits. She was named honorary president of the Rehoboth Art League when it was founded in 1938. This organization, of course, still thrives.
In examining copies of Once Upon a Time in Delaware, it is well to check the front paste down. When signing copies, Brown sometimes did a quick pen-and-ink drawing there. The Henlopen lighthouse was one subject. Such a drawing adds to the charm and value of the book.
The book has its unusual points. To begin with, on the back of the title page it bears the text, "To be Copyrighted by the Delaware Society of the Colonial Dames of America 1911."
Next comes a page headed "To All Delaware Children" and signed "The Delaware Society of the Colonial Dames of America." It states "These true stories are written just for you." It goes on to hope that all Delaware children will be as patriotic and brave as the men and women in the stories.
On the page following is the Editor's Preface, presumably written by Bissell. The second paragraph is a disclaimer quoted here.
Many historical points in these stories are more or less disputed. The original sources do not always agree. In preparing these stories of Delaware for children's reading, it has been thought best to use anecdotes and interesting traditions whenever they could be found. The result is a substantially true set of stories, which do not, however, undertake to settle the facts in any disputed case, but are designed to leave in a child's mind the broad outlines of Delaware history.
We can not know why such a cautious disclaimer was felt necessary. It is certainly addressed to adults, not children.
There are twelve stories, all excellently illustrated. Subjects include the Dutch settlement at Zwannendael, the Swedes, Peter Stuyvesant, William Penn, Caesar Rodney's ride, the British vessel "Roebuck" off Lewes in 1776, Haslet's regiment in the Revolution, George Washington in Delaware, Mary Vining, Macdonough's victory in the War of 1812, Lafayette visits Delaware, and the Mason-Dixon line.
The first edition of the book has an errata slip tipped in on the contents page. It states "NOTE On seventh line, page 106, read Christiana instead of White Clay." The are other indications of careless proofreading, however. Commodore Macdonough's name is printed McDonough on the contents page and MacDonough in the text of the story. Scharf (History of Delaware), most other sources, and current usage agree on the first of these three spellings, including the small "d.".
The story of Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain is a rip-roaring one, equal in violence to today's television for children.
Early in the battle, a game cock got loose on Macdonough's flagship and perched in the rigging crowing. The crew took this "blue hen" as an omen of victory.
The British and American fleets were well matched, with about 100 cannons on each side. They blasted away at close range, and soon every vessel was dismasted. The Americans won because they were quicker at turning their heavy disabled vessels by hauling on anchor cables and the use of oars. They wheeled and fired broadsides until the British ships were burning and sinking.
Macdonough, though commander of the fleet, directed the fire of his "favorite gun." At one point, a spar fell on him. The crew thought he was dead, but he sprang up. Next, a sailor's head was blown off by enemy fire, and the severed head hit Macdonough with such force he was knocked across the ship. He jumped up again and returned to his gun.
Macdonough refused the swords of the surrendering British officers, and personally visited the wounded on ships of both sides.
The details of this story, including the gore, agree with Scharf. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Scharf says the blue hen perched on a gun.
Pyle's narration ends with a tribute to the battleship "Delaware," which she tells us is "the largest in the present American navy."
The story of Mary Vining is as gentle and sad as Macdonough's victory is violent and glorious. The story of her love for Mad Anthony Wayne, his death, and her descent into poverty after her brother squandered her fortune are told in simple terms.
The chapter on Caesar Rodney's ride is the most fanciful. Indeed, the chapter notes state that even his point of departure, Dover or Lewes, can not be known. "After much thought and trouble, the Colonial Dames have decided to choose the most detailed tradition as being possibly also the most accurate." This may be a clue that the "editor's" disclaimer originated with the Colonial Dames, not Bissell.
Despite its few problems, Once Upon a Time in Delaware is a grand local book and fits into any Delaware collection. There were a number of editions over the years. Like so many books published at the turn of the century, the paper in the first edition has become very fragile. They simply did not know about the destructive acids in pulp paper in those days. Therefore, later editions are often in better condition.
Records of sales of Katharine Pyle books are scarce. Readers are cautioned not to take the following prices too seriously.
These prices for her books were found recently on an electronic book search network. Fairy Tales from India, near fine condition, $85 Once Upon a Time in Rhode Island, very good condition, dj, $12.50 Once Upon a Time in Rhode Island, good, no dj, $12 The Katharine Pyle Book of Fairy Stories, very good, $65 Theodora, very good, $45.
These prices were found in book dealer's price guides, which report auction sales or catalog offerings. Lazy Matilda, 1935 5th printing, $10 Tales of Folk and Fairies, 1919, $40 Giant's Ruby, 1903, $25 Fairy Tales from India, $21 Charlemagne and His Knights, $20, Once Upon a Time in Rhode Island, $30.
Once Upon a Time in Delaware was found in local sales records, on the electronic network, and in price guides for $17, $20, $22, $32, $37, $40, and $60.