Today is the birthday of a very well known author named Helen, after her mother. But, we don’t know Helen by her first name. We know her by her middle name. Beatrix. Beatrix Potter, born on this day, July 28th, 1866.
Beatrix was a born naturalist, fascinated by nature, even as a child she maintained quite a menagerie. Between Helen and her brother Betram they had a frog called Punch, a hedgehog, newts, a couple of caged birds, trained mice, a pair of rare bats, two lizards, some snails, a tortoise and a snake named Sally. But, by far, Helen’s favorite pet was a rabbit she named Peter Piper. She was often seen escorting Peter the rabbit around town on a leash.
Potter, who was homeschooled, was an eager and gifted student. At age 12 her father encouraged her to begin sketching and when she showed an aptitude, brought in an art teacher. At age 15 she began a journal but wrote it in a wickedly difficult secret code she developed. It wasn’t until 1958, 15 years after her death, that the code was finally deciphered. You can actually find her journal and read it online.
Helen grew to be a meticulous observer and skilled illustrator. One of her favorite subjects was fungi. Mushrooms. She wrote a paper on the propagation of spores, a paper good enough to be presented before a prestigious gathering of botanists but, in the 1890’s women were not allowed at these meetings; it had to be presented on her behalf.
In 1893 Beatrix wrote a letter to the young son of her former governess. The boy, Noel, was very sick and she thought a letter would cheer him up. The letter told of the adventures of Peter Rabbit and was illustrated with sketches of Peter and his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Young Noel loved the letter and all the woodland characters and asked for more stories.
Beatrix obliged and realized that maybe, she could make a living as a children’s author.
She extended Noel’s letter into The Tale of Peter Rabbit and immediately sent it off to a publisher … who sent it back. Then to another but, no deal. After a couple more tries Potter decided to self-publish and personally paid for a print run of 250 books.
In the first year, 1901, she sold those 250 books and 19,750 more! Six reprints followed. The Tale of Peter Rabbit has now sold more than 100 million copies and has been translated into 35 languages.
Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin and the rest of the characters who inhabited her 30 subsequent titles made Beatrix Potter a very wealthy woman. But it wasn’t just the books. Potter was a very shrewd businesswoman and realized early on that the children who were falling in love with her characters could be enticed to buy merchandise related to the stories. In 1903 Potter made her own plush Peter Rabbit doll and in 1903 registered it with the patent office; the first soft toy ever patented making Peter the oldest licensed character ever.
A Peter Rabbit board game followed … then wallpaper, porcelain figures, dishes, even infant formula.
And Beatrix Potter used her wealth for the greater good. In some people’s minds she single-handedly conserved the forested mountains of Cumbria, the Lake District of North West England. Potter bought up 14 farms and 4000 acres of countryside she later bequeathed to Britain’s National Trust. A codicil of her gift instructs all the farms she donated to continue to raise Herdwick sheep, a domestic breed found only in the Lake District originally brought to England by the Vikings in the 10th Century. A rare breed destined for extinction if not saved by Potter.
But for all her accomplishments in science, farming and conservation, she saw her in the joy she brought to children.
She once said, “If I have done anything — even a little — to help small children on the road to enjoy and appreciate honest, simple pleasure, I have done a bit of good.”