- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Aurora Historical Society Board President Mary Clark Ormond and AHS Executive Director John Jaros. All photos are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
What is it about Aurora that fosters literary women who want to educate children? Over the years, we have had more than one, but let us now consider Olive Beaupre Miller, scion of two illustrious Aurora families, who in the 1920s through the ’60s created a wildly successful publishing house and gave us all peerless anthologies of stories, fables, folktales and poems from her own pen and from all over the world.
Olive Kennon Beaupre (later Miller), was born in Aurora in 1883 to William S. and Julia Brady Beaupre. Her grandfather was L. D. Brady, a founder of the CB and Q Railroad. Brady Elementary School in Aurora is named for him.
Her father was William S. Beaupre, president of the Aurora National Bank, Aurora city treasurer and longtime member of the East Aurora School Board. Beaupre Elementary School in Aurora is named for him.
She was, shall we say, abundantly prepared for her intellectual and business life.
She grew up comfortably on South Lincoln Avenue in Aurora and graduated from East Aurora High School in 1900. After graduating from elite Smith College, she returned home briefly to teach English at East High, then in 1907 married Harry Edward Miller.
At first the couple followed Harry’s career in publishing, moving to Streator (where they joined the Christian Science Church), but returning to Aurora around 1910 to live across the street from the house where Olive grew up and where her parents, older sister and brother-in-law still lived.
No doubt the 1912 arrival of the Millers’ daughter, Virginia, at what is now 322 S. Lincoln Ave. inspired them to consider the role literature could play in early childhood education. Rhymes and stories for little Virginia poured from Olive’s pen and she began to formulate a larger plan.
By 1919, the family was living in Winnetka, and Harry had quit his brokerage job to establish, with Olive, the My Book House for Children Publishing Company.
Olive’s genius, fed by a good education and a passion for literature, was a thorough understanding of child development, which she intended to put to use offering *thinking parents* a large, carefully curated collection of world literature that met her elevated standards.
She expressed her guiding principles this way:
“First, — To be well equipped for life, to have ideas and the ability to express them, the child needs a broad background of familiarity with the best in literature.
“Second, — His stories and rhymes must be selected with care that he may absorb no distorted view of life and its actual values, but may grow up to be mentally clear about values and emotionally impelled to seek what is truly desirable and worthwhile in human living.
“Third, — The stories and rhymes selected must be graded to the child’s understanding at different periods of his growth, graded as to vocabulary, as to subject matter and as to complexity of structure and plot.”
Her products were admirable. The vocabulary and content of the books were graded to suit the age of the child, the illustrations were by some of the most talented artists of the day and the parent guidebook, In Your Hands, contained a massive amount of guidance on how to best foster a child’s intellectual, moral and social growth.
The business flourished, and the family acquired a country place, Green Meadow Farm in Barrington, as well as domestic help that included maids and chauffeurs.
The Millers, often including young Virginia, became world travelers as they scoured Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America to collect tales that would engage even the youngest child while opening up an older child’s mind to the wider world. Ships’ records show Olive returning from abroad on at least nine occasions.
Some of their editorial decisions have not stood the test of time, such as the inclusion of the now-controversial stories Little Black Sambo and The Tar Baby.
In 1934. the New York Times Review of Books praised Olive’s newest effort, Engines and Brass Bands – Waubonsie Tales, for being chock-full of the details of life in a Midwestern town in the 1890s and for having “perfect” illustrations, but then said, “It seems a pity that Mrs. Miller did not use her material to make two books … No child … could possibly read so long and so complicated a narrative while the adult who is ready to enjoy a reminiscent picture of childhood 35 or 40 years ago will long to dispense with the, to him, not very interesting plot.”
Interestingly, another Aurora author, Mabel O’Donnell, created similarly detailed stories of early American times as the capstones of her Alice and Jerry graded readers. Her Singing Wheels and Engine Whistles books from the 1940s were based on Aurora history.
Here is how the Book House company described their first release of six volumes. (Later editions split the material up into 12 volumes so that small hands and little bodies could get closer to the stories, and there would be less wear and tear on the spines and paper. Olive wanted the books to last through several generations.)
The titles envision a child growing up in a Book House, from the sunshine of the Nursery, climbing up one pair of stairs to Folk Tales and though the hall of Fairy Tales, pausing to explore a Treasure Chest of legends and ascending to the Tower Window, where the whole of literature lies spread out.
“Far stretches all the world away
and naught shuts out the sky;
And knights, and maids and all of life
Go marching, marching by.”
In the final volume, Latch-Key, the children take the key and enter in, for me are all its glories.”
No mother or father, it seemed, need ever worry that by investing in these books they weren’t going to get the world on a plate – the very best of writing, ethics, character and culture. In addition, the stories their children would read or hear would prepare them to outshine their classmates in school and to become successes in business and life in general.
That must have been catnip to many American parents with high aspirations but average educations themselves.
Perhaps the piece de resistance of My Book House marketing was an actual book house, a smartly designed 21.5 inch-high wooden box, available “for a slight additional cost” according to a promotional brochure which also offered a page of 30 circles into which children could press their dimes in a *savings game*.
Adding coins “Every time you earn a dime for helping mother or father, or for running on errands or for taking care of the baby …” would add up to $3.00, which, it turns out, would have been just enough for a down payment on a set of books, no house included, but as a customer you were engaged and motivated. And ultimately well-rewarded because truly the books were good.
Olive Beaupre Miller was also a woman ahead of her time. She helped to promote sex education in the Winnetka public schools and edited the book How Life Begins. She ran an all-female business, exclusively hiring women as door-to-door salespeople and also as managers for her operations which spread across the U.S.
Today the books are not just charming bits of vintage Americana but also beloved by the homeschooling community because parents and teachers can use the excellent indices to research and plan on a variety of themes, including virtue, strong character, heroes, famous myths and so on. It’s almost like having a librarian in the family.
Harry left the company after their divorce in 1935 and Olive, living then on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, served
She died in 1968 in Tucson, Arizona where she was living with Virginia and her family, and is buried in Spring Lake Cemetery in Aurora. Virginia Miller Read died in 2008 and is buried along with her father in Barrington.
Olive’s papers are housed at Smith College.
The books are relatively widely available both online and through simple serendipity at garage sales, with prices ranging from the ridiculously low to the sublimely high for full sets in mint condition. You can access some of the volumes by clicking this link or hear recordings of some stories at Librivox.
About The Aurora Historical Society
Giving the past a future! In continuous operation since 1906, the Aurora Historical Society is one of the oldest institutions in the Chicagoland area. Come tour the 1857 Tanner House, visit our changing exhibits at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center or make an appointment to do research at our History Center.
Enjoy our special events such as lectures, cocktail parties for exhibit openings, July 4th Ringing of the Bells, and Holiday Open Houses at the Tanner House Museum. Shop in our gift shop. Enjoy history. We’ll be happy to see you.
Read The Kane County History Series!
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