Social History as seen through children’s picture books

Social history as seen through children’s picture books

Ladybrid Book, The Road Makers

The Road Makers (Ladybird Books, 1970s) showing how the UK roads were being improved by the nice men at the Ministry of Transport.

Delve into children’s picture books from the last eighty years or so and you will find some unique insights into the social history of Britain. Without realising it, the publishers of children’s books have managed to capture aspects of our social history that are not so easily found elsewhere.

A good example are the Ladybird books for children. Published almost continually since 1914, these plain and simple books started by telling much loved children’s stories. As time went on Ladybird books began to cover educational subjects. They became more informative with the aim of giving children straight-forward insight into the world around them. The books began to show how we lived, how our roads were built, how our farms were managed, what we did on our holidays, life in our countryside, villages and towns – and how we went shopping with mother.

Illustrated with great care to be interesting and instructive, these books showed something of how the British lived. It is a rather nice and cosy view but this is what gives Ladybird books their charm.

Many other illustrated books show social change. In the UK, the cartoonist Giles produced a body of work that shows life in Britain from the 1940s until the 1980s. His famous family of characters lived through post-war rationing, the 1960s and the Beatles, the increase in road traffic, how we dealt with change, and the comic side of life in Britain. Dip into a Giles annual from the early 1950s and you will see how Britain recovered from the war.

Giles, Album 36, 1981-82

High Street, Eric RaviliousOther books, such as High Street, famously illustrated by Eric Ravillious, are highly regarded for capturing a unique view of England’s shops in the 1930s. High Street was published by Country Life, London.

Green Tide, Richard Church

Green Tide with 40 woodcut illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe.

Country Life also published other books such as Green Tide which gives a fascinating insight into English life during the Second World War. Green Tide was published in 1945. It is a propaganda book, illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe , about a Londoner’s relationship between town and countryside. It talks about London and the German bombs, England’s countryside, hedgerows and the winding lanes of Kent; England’s front door during the Battle of Britain. It’s aim was to raise morale, but it now stands as an insight into British history and the attitudes at that difficult time.

In the 1950s the publisher Macmillan produced a range of ‘Macmillan’s Picture Books’ covering subjects such as At Home, Our Food, Our Clothes, Travelling, Pets, Holidays, Transport and many more. These delightful picture books showed a peaceful, post-war world in which children played in the garden while mother sat in the shade of a tree and father tended the garden.

These fascinating picture books can make an great collection for anyone interested in social history. The illustrations have period charm and many of the books are beautiful to own.

Macmillan's Picture Books from the 1950s

Macmillan’s Picture Book from the 1950s illustrated by D L Mays.

Macmillan's Picture Books published in the 1950s

Macmillan's Picture Books

Macmillan’s Picture Book illustrated by Cicely Steed.

Below, The Road Makers (Ladybird Books) shows an empty newly built motorway in the 1970s, a Giles annual from the 1980s and the Ladybird Book of London.

Ladybird books, The Road Makers
Ladybird Books, The Road Makers
Giles, Album 36, 1981-82
The Ladybird Book of London

Article by Christopher Sharville © 2016. If you spot any inaccuracies please get in touch. We are always willing to learn more.