On February 24, 1827, in Boston, Samuel Griswold Goodrich published Tales of Peter Parley About America and introduced one of the most popular characters in 19th-century American children’s books. Before the end of the century, Peter Parley would be mentioned in the titles of almost 200 books and chapbooks, edit two-and-a-half children’s periodicals, and outlive his creator by 30 years. Parley was “hurrahed” by Emily Dickinson and inspired an incident in Ben Hur; his portrait was colored by six-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson and pored over by Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Parley’s fame didn’t last long into the 20th century, but the books made a major impact on American life and culture, including publishing. What Goodrich did—consciously or not—was to create probably the earliest brand name in American culture and to pave the way for later brands in children’s literature.
The Parley books weren’t Goodrich’s first books for children; and Peter Parley wouldn’t be the only brand he created. Born in 1793, by 1827 Goodrich had been an unhappy store clerk, a busy publisher and bookseller, and a remarkably mediocre poet. As a publisher in Hartford, Connecticut, Goodrich had written a handful of tiny chapbooks and two arithmetics for children; now, as a publisher in Boston, Goodrich followed an inclination to write factual books for children that would also entertain. Tales of Peter Parley About America was followed by Tales of Peter Parley About Europe (1828), Tales of Peter Parley About Africa (1830), Tales of Peter Parley About Asia (1830), Peter Parley’s Tales about the Islands in the Pacific Ocean (1831), and Peter Parley’s Tales of the Sea (1831)—heavily illustrated mixes of history, geography, and adventure narrated by Parley, a retired sailor with gout. Other works followed, including Parley’s Magazine in 1833.
In 1839, Peter Parley died, and Robert Merry was born. Peter Parley’s Farewell (1840) was just that: a farewell. A long discussion of Christian metaphysics, the book allowed Goodrich to ease the old man out of the spotlight. Goodrich had started a new brand: Robert Merry. Inadvertently choosing the name of an early playwright, Goodrich created yet another “old man” (of fifty-one) who’d traveled many places, had many adventures, and loved to tell stories to children. And, like Parley, Merry was lame: he lost his left leg below the knee during the War of 1812. Merry became a brand name immediately: neither Robert Merry’s Miscellany (1839) nor Robert Merry’s Annual (1840)—which were the first works to bear his name—mention Samuel Goodrich, though much of the Miscellany was written by him, and Robert Merry’s childhood, described in the Miscellany, is clearly based on Goodrich’s. Whether Merry was the idea of his first publisher—Samuel Colman—or of Goodrich is uncertain, but he definitely became Goodrich’s creation in the pages of Robert Merry’s Museum, which began in 1841.
To call Peter Parley and Robert Merry “brands” may seem an exaggeration; but the names were used in many of the ways we associate with brand names: they were licensed and appeared—legally or not—in and on works not created by Samuel Goodrich. And they were used for the reasons we use brand names today: they sold things.
“The power of a brand,” Al Ries points out in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, “lies in its ability to influence purchasing behavior.” (5-6) So did Parley’s name. In 1856, Goodrich estimated that he’d written or edited 116 Parley books. What he didn’t include were about 45 titles attributed to Parley that were published without Goodrich’s permission in England, Canada, and the United States before that date, or the 40 more that would be published before 1900. The word “Parley’s” was put on just about any kind of printed text, from almanacs and textbooks, to chapbooks, periodicals, biographies, annuals, and collections of fiction for adults. And, I really do mean “word”: Parley’s name was all that was “Parley” about the annuals that Darton & Company published in London from 1841 to 1889. Even Goodrich found that multi-volume works could bear the golden name: he put together two collections of works on various subjects as “Parley’s Cabinet Library” and “Peter Parley’s Little Library.”
The idea of licensing seems to have begun early. The Francis brothers, publishing Parley’s Magazine in 1841, claimed that it wasn’t even a Goodrich creation, having been founded in 1833 by a publisher who’d licensed the name: they explained disingenuously that they were coming forward because “many persons, not subscribers, thinking ‘Peter Parley’ to be the editor, might be deterred from subscribing. We are happy to be enabled to state that the name is legitimate, [and] was bought of its owner at a high price ….” (in Dorothy Dechert. “The Merry Family: A Study of Merry’s Museum, 1841-1872, and of the Various Periodicals that Merged with It.” MA thesis. Columbia University, 1942; p. 147) The editor of Every Youth’s Gazette—founded in 1842—originally intended to title the work Peter Parley’s Youth’s Gazette; and the title change when Goodrich withdrew his permission to use the name seems to have awakened suspicion in the minds of would-be subscribers: “The present journal differs in no respect whatsoever from that which was at first proposed, except in name,” the editor groused in the third issue. “It is edited precisely in the way that it would have been had the name of Peter Parley been used. Readers who are so unreasonable as to object to a mere change of name, should remember the truth couched in the lines of Shakspere: ‘That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.’ ” (1 [26 Feb 1842]: 43)
Unfortunately for the publishers of Every Youth’s Gazette, subscribers may not have agreed that their work was as “sweet” as it would have been with Parley’s name on it: the little newspaper folded after a year. And, after all, subscribers already had Parley’s Magazine. “A successful branding program is based on the concept of singularity,” Al Ries explains. “It creates in the mind of the prospect the perception that there is no product on the market quite like your product.” (Al and Laura Ries. The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. N. p.: HarperBusiness, HarperCollins, 1998; p. 7) Non-subscribers to Every Youth’s Gazette appear to have agreed.
What was it that Goodrich did that inspired such devotion?
From a literary standpoint, he made his brands memorable. For young readers, Peter Parley and Robert Merry were real people, with biographies and quirky personalities. Merry—with his memories of prison and his itchy wooden leg—was so real to his readers that they sent “him” gifts and letters; they dreamed about him and invited him to visit. Parley’s personality was less complex, but he was as beloved. His “small clothes,” his “Quaker hat,” and his gout made him memorable: as an adult, Augustus Gaylord remembered the “long-haired, quaker-hatted venerable old man, crutch at his side, bandaged foot extended on a chair, with the added warning to a group of eager children, ‘Don’t hurt my sore toe or I’ll not tell you another story.’ Tender sympathy for the old gentleman,” he recalled, “ … filled my heart all the way to manhood ….” (in J. C. Derby. “S. G. Goodrich.” In Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers. Hartford, CT: M.A. Winter & Hatch, Publishers, 1884; p. 117.)
Entertainment is key. Like many writers for children, Goodrich wrote for the child he had been. As a boy, he’d been shocked and horror-stricken by fairy tales; now he would “make nursery books reasonable and truthful.” “[A]s we would not give blood and poison as food for the [body],” Goodrich felt, “we should not administer cruelty and violence, terror and impurity, to the [soul].” (Samuel G. Goodrich. Recollections of a Lifetime; or, Men and Things I Have Seen. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856; vol I: 172)
Noble sentiments. Goodrich did manage to keep the Parley books fairly “truthful.” “Reasonable” and non-violent are another matter. Coincidence drives the books: characters left for dead in one chapter often come to Parley’s aid a few chapters later. The world of Parley’s geographies is often nasty and brutish: Leo’s piracy and death are described in vivid detail; Parley is imprisoned, arrested, or almost imprisoned or arrested on every continent he visits; both Wampum and James Jenkins are shot before his eyes (surviving to rescue Parley in a later chapter, of course); and Jenkins, having survived shooting, shipwreck, traveling with Parley, whaling, and being held captive by Native Americans, is killed by a shark in an incident illustrated by a version of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark.
The illustration of Jenkins’s death scene is similar to Copley’s painting, including the nine men in the tiny boat
Adults had a more complex relationship with both Parley and Robert Merry. Especially at the time the works were first published, adults must have appreciated their educational aspects. Many of the Parley books include questions for a teacher to ask students; later geographies include maps. As the century lengthened, readers who’d grown up on the works bought them for their own children. One subscriber who began receiving Robert Merry’s Museum in 1846 assured the editor in 1866 that “I believe I feel even more interest in it than ever, and I see a remembrancer of my own childish interest in its pages, in the eyes of my two little girls who now claim the Museum as theirs.” (February 1866; p. 62) Certainly nostalgia was at least one factor when an illustration of Parley was reprinted on a reward of merit in the 1860s.
From the standpoint of brand creation, Goodrich did a lot of things right. Al Ries points out that naming the product is important; a name should be distinctive and memorable. “Robert Merry” and “Peter Parley” are names both folksy and easy to remember. “Peter Parley” is also alliterative; and “Parley” reminds us of the French word “parler,” “to talk.” Talk is what Parley does: he tells us about his travels; he tells us stories he has heard; he explains to us how the world works. The word “Parley” probably reminded the original audience of Parley the Porter, from Hannah More’s moralistic works—appropriate, since Goodrich credits a visit with More with inspiring him to write the first Parley book.
A brand also, Al Ries points out, should be focused, be perceived as the leading brand in some category, should “own” a word. In the minds of his readers, Goodrich “owned” the word “education.” The books were read at home and in school. Goodrich offered education in wide variety: by the end of Parley’s career, his name had appeared on books about etiquette, arithmetic, history, morality, government, spelling, geography, natural history, science, poetry, and religion.
And Goodrich did more, pursuing familiar archetypes. Both Parley and Merry take archetypal journeys, discovering themselves as they discover the world around them. Merry travels through New England in search of his fortune and finds out how to survive in the world; Parley travels the world as a seaman and learns by example how he should and shouldn’t live. Through them, the reader experiences the exotic. Merry emphasizes the romantic quaintness of his rustic Connecticut town, with its “butternut doctor” and clever-witted rubes. Parley brings to us the world: the bustle of a Chinese city; the “red hot stones” shooting from Mount Etna “with a whizzing sound” (Africa n. p.); the Himalayas shining in the sun “like magnificent cities of gold and silver.” (Asia 45)
The two are archetypal Sages, old men guiding the young to knowledge. Their portraits reinforce this: both are often shown surrounded by children. “I love to tell stories to children,” Parley admits in Tales About America, “and very often they come to my house, and they get around me, and I tell them stories of what I have seen, and of what I have heard.” (9) “I have told you of this earth,” he reminds readers at the end of Parley’s Farewell. “ … I have told you the story of the great human family; and I have not failed occasionally to direct your thoughts to that good and great Being who rules over all things.” (323) In the first issue of Merry’s Museum, Merry asks readers to “allow me the privilege of coming to you once a month, with a basket of such fruits and flowers as an old fellow may gather while limping up and down the highways and by-ways of life.” (1 [Feb 1841]: 1) More than one reader came to him with questions; writing to Merry in 1850 for an explanation of weather, James assured him, “Whenever I’m puzzled to understand anything I find in my school books, I always think of you as the best person to help me out of my difficulty.” (Robert Merry’s Museum. Nov 1850; p. 159)
As he used the images of Explorer and Sage, Goodrich also tapped into nostalgia—his own and, perhaps, the nation’s. Writing of Parley telling stories of history and adventure, Goodrich was invoking his own childhood. He’d had the archetypal experience himself, listening, enthralled, to stories of the Revolution told by those who’d lived it. “On every hand there were corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and colonels,” Goodrich recalled of his village, “—no strutting fops in militia buckram, … all fuss and feathers—but soldiers, men who had seen service …. Every old man, every old woman had stories to tell, radiant with the vivid realities of personal observation or experience.” (Samuel G. Goodrich. Recollections of a Lifetime; or, Men and Things I Have Seen. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856; vol I, p. 22) Goodrich’s grandmother described for him George Washington, “whom she had seen,” and the French officers—including Lafayette—who’d visited her home; Lieutenant Smith, outside Keeler’s Tavern, “discoursed upon the discovery of America by Columbus,” Goodrich remembered, “ … and the old French war—the latter a real epic, embellished with romantic episodes of Indian massacres and captivities.” (Samuel G. Goodrich. Recollections of a Lifetime; or, Men and Things I Have Seen. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856; vol I, pp. 23, 89)
These storytellers inspired the character of Peter Parley, who was of their generation, a former colonial soldier who describes the battle of Bunker Hill with the kind of details that captivated Goodrich as a boy: “It was a bright day, and their guns glittered in the sun,” Parley says of the British soldiers. “We felt their heavy tread shake the little mound behind which we lay.” (America 113, 114)
Parley’s clothes may have helped to make him the iconic brand that he became. Certainly they made him memorable: almost every reference to Peter Parley mentions his cane, his “cocked hat,” or his “coat with big lapels.” (Donald G. Mitchell. “Peter Parley.” In American Lands & Letters. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897; p. 330) But they also may have reminded the books’ purchasers of that generation which essentially created America. The first book was published a year after the Revolution’s 50th anniversary; and Parley probably benefitted from a renewed nostalgia for that earlier era. In his work on “cultural branding,” Douglas Holt points out that brands can become iconic because they “address the collective anxieties and desires of a nation.” (How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004; p. 6) The years in which the Parley books were most popular were also those in which the United States was expanding its borders and its influence, and entangling itself in complex questions of nationhood. As the generation that fought the Revolution was dying, perhaps a longing developed for what was perceived as a simpler time of purer patriotism. Allowing Parley to educate their children, parents may have felt that they were somehow connecting with what was being lost. Impossible to know for certain.
What is known is that Parley died basically because he was such a successful brand. Goodrich killed the old soldier not just because the interior chronology of the books was becoming a problem (in his 80s in 1827, Parley was in his 90s in Parley’s Farewell), but because spurious Parley books were “diluting” the brand. Parley’s Farewell contains a complaint about the fake Parley books “palmed upon the public,” which made him, Goodrich declared, “responsible for works, some of which are sullied with passages incompatible alike with good manners and good morals.” (iii) So Parley died.
And Goodrich lived on to become, at the end, completely identified as the brand he created: his obituaries pointed out that he was “better known” as Peter Parley; a carte de visite published after his death identified him as “Peter Parley”; and his Recollections of a Lifetime was abridged for children as Peter Parley’s Own Story. Ironically, the Parley brand lasted longest in England, which had been the source of so many of the spurious works.
As brands, neither “Peter Parley” nor “Robert Merry” outlived their century. But the idea of “branding” had been established in children’s literature, in all its negatives and also in all its positives.
Robert Louis Stevenson received Peter Parley’s Tales about Europe, Asia, Africa, and America from his aunt in 1856; Anne Carroll Moore described it in St. Nicholas magazine in November 1919. Like the book Stephen Dedalus mentions in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stevenson’s book was likely one of the pirated reprints published by the British publisher Darton & Co.
My understanding of brand names and branding is based on three books: Douglas B. Holt. How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. • Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson. The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001. • Al and Laura Ries. The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. N. p.: HarperBusiness, HarperCollins, 1998.
Information about 18th-century clothing came from Linda Baumgarten. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002.
Samuel Goodrich’s works about Peter Parley include Peter Parley’s Farewell. Philadelphia: R. S. H. George, 1841. • The Tales of Peter Parley about Africa, 2nd ed. Boston: Gray & Bowen; NY: Collins & Hannay, 1831. • The Tales of Peter Parley about America, 2nd ed. Boston: Carter, Hendee & Co, 1828. (also, the Dover reproduction: New York: Dover Publications, 1974.) • The Tales of Peter Parley about Asia. Boston: Gray & Bowen and Carter & Hendee, 1830.
Goodrich’s memoirs are available on this site: Recollections of a Lifetime; or, Men and Things I Have Seen. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856. Reactions to Peter Parley also are transcribed here: J. C. Derby. “S. G. Goodrich.” In Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers. Hartford, CT: M.A. Winter & Hatch, Publishers, 1884; p. 117. • Donald G. Mitchell. “Peter Parley.” In American Lands & Letters. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897; p. 330. Many early letters to Robert Merry’s Museum mention subscribers’s affection for Robert Merry; selected letters are available at this site as part of “Dear Friend Robert Merry”: Letters from 19th-century Children, which is an online expansion of Letters from Nineteenth-century American Children to Robert Merry’s Magazine (Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 2001).
Fortunately for later researchers, Dorothy Dechert includes the Francis brothers’ version of how Parley’s Magazine came to be published in her carefully researched thesis—“The Merry Family: A Study of Merry’s Museum, 1841-1872, and of the Various Periodicals that Merged with It.” (MA thesis. Columbia University, 1942.)—because that paragraph apparently fell out of the magazine when the Francis brothers reprinted it; the reprinted volume is held by many libraries and provides the basis for the microfilm and digital versions of the American Periodical Series, and has been digitized by the American Antiquarian Society, which complicates researchers’ efforts to understand the magazine. Parley’s Magazine has a complicated reprint history, and more than one article or illustration was edited in the reprints.