Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Literature and Collectibles
Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Literature and Collectibles – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – April 2006
By Debby DuBay
Say Peter Rabbit and adults are flooded with childhood memories of waking up on a sunny spring morning, putting on their finest Easter bonnet – all the while anticipating the hunt for colorful Easter eggs – left by the allusive Easter bunny! Peter Rabbit has become an essential part of our childhood. Although commercialized today, children love to wake to their Easter baskets over flowing with candy and that ethereal stuffed bunny rabbit. It was Beatrix Potter who on September 4, 1893 wrote a tale about a rabbit named Peter in the form of an eight-page letter sent to an ill child (five-year old Noel Moore, the oldest child of her favorite former governess, Annie Carter) who is responsible for our love of Peter Rabbit. Little did Beatrix Potter imagine that over a century later her The Tale of Peter Rabbit would be known as the best-selling children’s classic of all time; with well over forty million copies sold. The Tale of Peter Rabbit has never been out of print and is available in over 35 foreign languages, in Braille, record, compact disc and digital videodisc formats.
Seven years after Beatrix sent off her famous letter, she borrowed the letter back from young Noel and attempted to have it published into a little book. In 1901 after sending it to six publishers (including Frederick Warne & Company) and receiving six rejection letters, she decided to publish it privately. Publishing 250 editions, her book measured five inches by four inches and a sketch appeared every time a page was turned. She gave away her books to friends and relatives, and in two weeks had 200 more published. A long time family friend, Mr. Hardwicke Rawnsley, who in 1895 became one of the original founders of the National Trust, believed in the little book and encouraged Beatrix to try again to get it published. Beatrix agreed and allowed Mr. Rawnsley to once again submit it to Frederick Warne & Company. It was after this second try that Frederick Warne & Company agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1902 the Tale of Peter Rabbit, an engaging story about a naughty rabbit that disobeys his mother’s orders and runs into the garden of farmer Mr. McGregor, was released.
In this first Tale, Beatrix Potter bases her story on her childhood friend a beloved pet Belgium rabbit that she would have tea parties with and allow to sleep in her bedroom in front of the fireplace wrapped in an old quilt made of blue flannel cloth. In The Tail of Peter Rabbit Beatrix introduces Peter, Mrs. Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, Mr. McGregor and Peter’s cousin Benjamin Bunny. The Tail of Peter Rabbit was the prototype for her 23 other Tales and these initial characters became reoccurring characters in: The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies and The Tale of Mr. Tod.
An entrepreneur ahead of her times, Beatrix saw that products closely associated with her storybook characters were appearing on the market in London and decided to take commercializing matters into her own hands. In 1903 she patented her own Peter Rabbit doll. Today – unless licensed by Frederick Warne and Company – copies of the characters in her Tales are considered pirated.
In 1905, Steiff produced a Peter Rabbit toy emulated from Beatrix Potters Tales. This rabbit wears a felt jacket and slippers and was marketed by Steiff, not as Peter Rabbit but as a “rabbit with a blue jacket.” Today these very rare rabbits, if found, have a price tag of over $5,000. After the first Steiff production of this rabbit with a blue jacket, came the production of millions of stuffed rabbits and rabbit memorabilia (both pirated and licensed) all being branded as “Peter Rabbit.”
Around 1908 Beatrix Potter began modeling porcelain characters from her Tales and self-described them as “life like” and “comical.” Smitten by Beatrix’s characters, friend Katherine Smallfield, a director at the Royal Doulton, Lambeth Studio, England, recommended that she contact Joseph Mott the art director to determine if Royal Doulton would like to produce her beautiful tiny clay figures. Mr. Mott was excited to do so, but the project was muddled by a contract Royal Doulton had with a German firm who was contracted to make a range of nursery ware. Beatrix was very disappointed with the first Doulton characters and described them as “ugly” and urged her publishing company to get rid of the contracts so she could offer her characters to other firms.
It wasn’t until 1917, when Beatrix received another unacceptable model this time of Jemima Puddle-duck from her book The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck produced by Elsie Grimwade (the daughter of Leonard Grimwade, a pottery manufacturer in Stoke-on-Trent, England) that she again began making her own models. In 1918, Beatrix Potter corresponded with the Grimwades Company about the production of her molded clay figurines. She sent them to Grimwades but unfortunately most of them were broken during the shipping process. Beatrix waited through World War I and the delay in the production of china for her pieces of pottery. Finally in 1922, Grimwades began manufacturing her pieces of nursery ware, but we find no further documentation of the production of her figurines. Beatrix acted as a consultant for the illustrations on these nursery ware pieces and they were a huge success during that period. Illustrations and subjects recorded on the nursery ware were from the Tale of Peter Rabbit (along with The Tale of Tom Kitten, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.) Today, Grimwades have become very valuable and desired by Beatrix Potter collectors and run into the several hundreds of dollars for a single piece.
Prior to 1973, here in the United States of America, available licensed Beatrix Potter merchandise was restricted to books published by Frederick Warne. Also, Beswick figurines and Wedgwood china were imported from England. That all changed when in 1973 The Eden Toy Company of New York was granted a license from Frederick Warne to create a line of Beatrix Potter stuffed characters in plush. Four years later in 1977 the Schmid Brothers of Randolph, Massachusetts, obtained licensing rights to distribute Beatrix Potter merchandise in many forms such as ceramic music boxes and ornaments. Gift stores soon had their own sections of Beatrix Potter items and more American companies were given licensing rights to produce quality character collectibles. With so many new items to collect, soon various mail order and museum catalogs filled their pages with Beatrix Potter.
It is probably safe to assume that the majority of American’s own at least one licensed Eden Peter Rabbit stuffed plush toy or one of the many other Beatrix Potter characters. By spring 1973 plush toys of Peter Rabbit, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, and Jemima Puddle-duck were introduced to upscale department and toy stores, and by the fall of 1973, Tom Kitten, Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland, Hunca Munca, and Benjamin Bunny became available. These wonderful plush toys became so popular with adults and children alike that as the years went by more and more favorite characters were created. Along with the storybook plush characters, Eden become famous for quality musical toys, crib mobiles, infant toys, numerous nursery gifts, and a line of wooden room decor items such as light switch plates, tissue boxes, and foot stools.
It is also probably safe to assume that today’s Beatrix Potter collector has a numerous assortment of character items created by the Schmid Company of Randolph, Massachusetts and Toronto, Canada. In fact an individual that collects only Schmid Peter Rabbit items will own an incredibly large and varied collection. Schmid & Co., was a family owned importing enterprise that started in a basement and was a collaborative effort of Paul A. Schmid and his three sons. They were one of the first companies to introduce moderately priced music boxes in the United States. (In 1935 they were also responsible for introducing Hummel figurines from Germany to retailers in the United States.) In 1977, Schmid & Co., briefly known as Schmid Brothers, Inc., was granted licensing rights to Beatrix Potter and continued to be a major distributor of quality Potter products until it closed its doors on December 1995. During those 18 years, Schmid created hundreds of colorful Peter Rabbit and other Potter character music boxes, along with various ceramic three dimensional and glass bulb Christmas ornaments, clocks, plagues, resin magnets, tins, flowerpots, nursery ware, pewter items, various types of nightlights, bells, frames, lamps, banks, candleholders, and even a little ceramic village representing various homes of favorite Potter characters.
Many collectors of Beatrix Potter collectibles have in their collections round tins that feature a colorful illustration of Peter Rabbit with the words “Huntley & Palmers Biscuits” etched on the rim. These tins originated as a specific need to keep bakery goods fresh for bakery shops in England. A young baker, Joseph Huntley started his small bakery shop on London Street, Reading, England in 1822. In 1841, George Palmer became his partner and in just a few years the factory grew large enough to be thought of as a town, soon to be known the world over as “Biscuit Town.”
In 1832, Joseph Huntley’s son, Joseph, began making tin boxes in his ironmonger’s shop specifically for his father’s biscuits. These tins provided a major advantage to Huntley & Palmer over other food exporters; they made sure the biscuits inside stayed airtight, oven-fresh, and unbroken for years as they traveled with sailors to distant customers around the world. Soon, the tins with different shapes, sizes, and logos became as highly prized as the biscuits inside. By 1900 Huntley & Palmer was the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world, employing 5,000 men and woman in factories that covered 24 acres of land. They produced over 400 different biscuit varieties along with cakes and other treats. Huntley & Palmer remained an active bakery for 150 years until 1982 when Nabisco purchased the company.
Today, the company no longer exists but the Museum of Reading is home to over 300 Huntley & Palmers’ biscuit tins beginning with its first printed creation in 1868. Beatrix Potter collectors will be interested in knowing that there were several character tins created by Huntley & Palmers that featured colorful Beatrix Potter character illustrations on their lids. These rare antique biscuit tins are highly sought after and range from $400 dollars and up.
Collecting items from our childhood can be a delightful pastime, bringing back wonderful memories and becoming financially rewarding. Collecting Peter Rabbit can be fun as there is such a wide diversity of collectibles; books, manuscripts, rare drawings, Grimwades, Beswick, Royal Doulton, Royal Albert and Wedgwood porcelain characters, enamel boxes, Eden plush toys, Schmid music boxes and ornaments, Huntley & Palmer Tins, etc. Arm yourself with information and collecting 1970s, 80s and 90s Peter Rabbit memorabilia can take you back to an era without Blackberries, I-pods, DVD’s and digital cameras; while collecting historical Beatrix Potter can be extremely inspirational and take you on journeys through the enchanted English countryside where simple animals come to life!
Debby DuBay, Ret, USAF, USPAP Appraiser, member of the Appraisers Association of America, Beatrix Potter Society, Haviland Collectors Club, etc., is a passionate collector specializing in European and American porcelain best known as the author of the trilogy on collecting Limoges; Living With Limoges, Antique Limoges at Home, and Collecting Hand Painted Limoges Porcelain – Boxes to Vases. A mentor to collectors, Debby DuBay believes in sharing her passion for art, knowledge for porcelain, and love of collecting. She travels extensively lecturing and sharing her knowledge of antiques and on Turning Your Passion into a Profession/Profits. Debby DuBay could not allow Kara Sewall’s huge personal collection of Beatrix Potter to go undocumented. Kara has been an avid collector of Beatrix Potter for the last three decades. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1981, Kara was determined to share her love for Beatrix Potter. In 1987 Kara established the Beatrix Potter Potter Gram that she retired in 2003 due to the lack of licensed Beatrix Potter merchandise available in the United States. Member of the Beatrix Potter Society, Kara contributes to their newsletter and is the liaison to American Potter Collectors. Both DuBay and Sewall are authors of the newly released book, Beatrix Potter Collectibles – The Peter Rabbit Story Characters, the first price guide for Potter collectibles and memorabilia.