“The Children’s ‘Robert Merry’ and the Late John N. Stearns,” by William Hoyt Coleman (from The Evangelist, May 16, 1895; p. 19)
The news papers, recording the death of the late John N. Stearns of Brooklyn, N.Y., at the age of sixty-seven, have spoken of his life-long work in the Sunday-school and Temperance causes, especially as the wheelhorse of the National Temperance and Publication Society since 1865, but have not, so far as I have seen, referred to his career as editor and publisher of the leading children’s magazine of its time—“Robert Merry’s Museum.”
This monthly was started in 1841, in Boston, by Samuel G. Goodrich, the original “Peter Parley,” who now became “Robert Merry” of the Museum, an old wooden-legged lover of children, who delighted to gather them round his knees and tell them stories and useful things, with “pictures to match,” when they were to be had. After a year or two the publication was removed to New York, which became its home for the next twenty-five years. It passed through the hands of various publishers, Mr. Goodrich continuing its editor until 1850, when his appointment as consul at Paris took him to France, and the Rev. S.T. Allen became the editor, as he had for some years been its publisher. I think Mr. Stearns was associated with Mr. Allen some years before his name appeared, and became “Robert Merry” soon after Mr. Goodrich’s departure. At all events, in 1855 the title page bears the words, “I. C. and J. N. Stearns, Publishers and Proprietors,” and Mr. Goodrich, in his “Recollections,” states that his connection with the Museum ceased in 1854. The name of J. N. Stearns appears alone the following year, and so continued until 1865, when he entered upon the larger work of the newly founded National Temperance Society in whose service he ended his days.
It was during those years, between 1855 and 1860, that, as a boy reader and enthusiastic admirer of the Museum, I made the personal acquaintance of Mr. Stearns at 116 Nassau Street, where for the greater part of the time the Museum was published. A leading feature of the monthly had always been “Merry’s Monthly Chat with His Friends,” introducing letters from his young readers with comments on the same. In Mr. Goodrich’s time these had been of a quiet, decorous nature, descriptive rather than personal, but in later years the writers became more chatty and personal in their remarks and felt themselves members of a large and real family. One inciting cause tending to break up stiffness and promote sociability was the introduction of an algebraic problem by a certain “Black Eyes,” which seemed simple but was really difficult to demonstrate. Over this the writer and several others stumbled and fell, and there ensued a “Merry War,” which resulted in an era of good fellowship. Under the judicious guidance of Mr. Merry, and later that of his assistant, “Hiram Hatchet” (W. C. Cutter, a man of dry and keen wit), we had jolly times together, while unconsciously taking in many a bit of wisdom. It was also to some a first exercise in the art of writing for the press and the formation of a habit not easy to break. Some of these writers have since become more widely known in science and in letters.
Some pleasant friendships, aided by exchange of photographs, was the outgrowth of “the Chat,” and in one case there was a marriage of two of the chatters which took place at Robert Merry’s home. As time went on there would be occasional letters from married boys and girls still interested in the circle. Before this, however, the Civil War had cast its shadow over us. Some of the Merrys marched to the field, others served on gun-boats or in hospitals, and their letters, coming at long intervals, dealt with the grim realities of the times.
In December, 1866, a convention of Merrys was held in Brooklyn, which brought many heretofore unknown friends face to face. Some time before a Merry badge or pin was designed and executed in gold and silver, and Mr. Stearns opened a photographic album for the portraits of the Merry boys and girls. All this, it must be remembered, was long before the time of Young People’s Conventions, Christian Endeavors, and King’s Daughters’ pins, etc., and was the forerunner of many things of this kind. Other magazines have printed young people’s letters, but none ever developed anything like “Merry’s Chat.” The nearest approach to it has been the “Round Table” of Harper’s Young People, organized on somewhat broader lines, but in the same spirit. How much of Mr. Stearns’s time, thought, and Yankee wit went into all this work we did not realize, but looking back we can see how he loved his boys and girls, and how much he did to make them happy and start them toward a better manhood and womanhood—all this apart from his life long work as a Sunday-school teacher and superintendent, and in temperance, to which he was devoted from childhood, and to which he gave the best years of his life. How faithfully and unreservedly he gave himself, Dr. Cuyler has well told in The Evangelist. After Museum days I saw him only at long intervals, but first and last he was always the same whole-hearted, earnest, busy man, making every moment tell in usefulness.
After Mr. Stearns left the Museum in 1865 it was published by a young man connected with the office, for a year or two, and then removed to Boston, its birthplace, where an effort was made to recast it on the lines of the newer magazines then coming to the front, but the effort failed, and it was finally merged with one of them, I think Our Young Folks, about 1870.
My thirty slender volumes, more or less, of Merry’s Museum, in sober black, dingy and worn with time and use, make a poor show beside the richly-bound St. Nicholas in red and gold. In their contents the contrast is still more striking. The children of to-day laugh at the queer, rude pictures, and find the stories rather tame. But I wish I could feel over any book a little of the intensity of interest excited by the first bound volume of Merry’s Museum which came to me as a Christmas present! Not Harper, or Scribner, or the Century stir the soul centers as did the monthly coming of that little journal with its cream-tinted cover. There is something that goes with youth and never returns. Perhaps in another life we shall regain this freshness of feeling. Now that the men who made Merry’s Museum are gone, let us put on record that they served their generation well and gave the best in art and literature that their limited means would afford.* The men and women of advancing years whose youth was brightened by their labors may well give them some moments of grateful remembrance.
Albany, N. Y.
* The Museum absorbed “Parley’s Magazine,” the “School Fellow,” and “[Woodworth’s] “Youth’s Cabinet,” the editor of the latter, “Uncle Frank,” having a department in The Museum till interrupted by death. In the later years of Mr. Stearns’s editorship steel portraits were given of the original “Robert Merry,” of his successor, of “Hiram Hatchet,” “Uncle Frank,” and “Aunt Sue,” four of these being editorially engaged together.