Letters of the St. Nicholas League by J. Douglas Johnson

Letters of the St. Nicholas League

When Once 100,000 Children Wrote the Best Magazine That Ever Was

Some years ago, I picked up two color cartoon prints at the Chicago Printer's Row Book Fair; they appeared to have come from an old children's book. In the first of two stills on the first print, a young boy imagines himself as a crazed-looking Kaiser Wilhelm in a Daniel Boone jacket. He waves his Bowie knife in the air as he chases down a frightened grizzly bear who is running for dear life.

In the second still on the same print, a lion and a tiger both stand poised and ready to attack our crazy Kaiser, who shoulders his rifle with point-blank aim at the lion's head. Beneath the second still is the following poem:

If I should meet a grizzly bear,
You'd see him quake and run;
He'd fear my knife, my eagle-eye
And bullets from my gun.

In the second print, the boy imagines himself as a happy sailor on a rowboat in pursuit of a whale:

A roving life's the one for me
Aboard a merry whaler;
I'd dance and sing and have my fling,
I'd be a jolly sailor.

To speak of whaling as a merry life or to instill in a boy's mind a sense of adventure over the threatened slaughter of an innocent and frightened grizzly bear is so offensive and intolerable to the modern mind that I purchased and framed both prints, which have hung in the entryway to my home ever since (at the time, I tried to convince my midshipman nephew to hang the second print on his dorm room wall, but he declined this generous offer).

After carting these treasures home, I did a search on the text of the poems and discovered that the prints had appeared in a 1909 issue of St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, which I soon would come to regard as the greatest magazine ever published. One of the (very) few glories of the internet age is the ability to track down 110-year-old back issues of a children's magazine that you can then purchase for a pittance. That first eBay purchase grew into a small stack of St. Nicholas magazines that I went on to accumulate over the ensuing months.

A Sampling of St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas was in circulation from 1873 to 1940. At its peak, in 1883, it had a circulation of 100,000, although its actual readership was some factor higher because its subscribers never actually threw their issues away, but simply passed them on to the next reader. The magazine featured illustrated serials, poems, drawings, science, history, occasional current events, and, most importantly, reader submissions.

I have the November 1899 issue open on my desk as I write. This issue begins with The Ballad of Charles Martel by William Hurd Hillyer:


J. Douglas Johnson is Executive Editor of Touchstone.

Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

Online
Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to touchstonemag.com—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.


more on culture from the online archives

20.8—October 2007

Aliens in Zion

on Why I Can’t Be Just Another Earthman by Louis Markos

32.6—November/December 2019

Listening Up

Historical Truth, Beguiling Stories & Three Kinds of Hearers by Anthony Esolen

6.1—Winter 1993

Civilization Without Religion?

by Russell Kirk


more from the online archives

32.5—September/October 2019

Must Say No

on When Christians Can't Compromise by Joshua Steely

30.6—Nov/Dec 2017

The Messiah's Beauty

on Benedict XVI on the Fairest of the Sons of Men by Michael Martin De Sapio

11.6—November/December 1998

Rediscovering Advent

by Thomas S. Buchanan

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone

00