Stone of Heart

Stone of Heart

The little old kitchen had quieted down from the bustle and confusion of midday; and now, with its afternoon manners on, presented a holiday aspect that, as the principal room in the brown house, it was eminently proper it should have. It was just on the edge of the twilight; and the little Peppers, all except Ben, the oldest of the flock, were taking a “breathing spell” as their mother called it, which meant some quiet work suitable for the hour.

These words, familiar to generations of young readers, are the opening sentences of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Published in 1881 during the golden age of children’s literature, they were written by New Haven native Harriett Mulford Stone, better known to reading audiences as Margaret Sidney. Ultimately, the Pepper family, consisting of five children struggling with their widowed mother to make ends meet while finding ways to amuse and support each other, would star in a dozen titles whose popularity once rivaled the works of Louisa May Alcott. Later, from 1939 to 1940, the books would be loosely adapted into four films, three of which starred the young actors pictured above.

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Born nearly a century earlier, in 1844, Stone was the daughter of prominent 19th-century New Haven architect Sidney Mason Stone. She grew up in a house her father designed and built, which is still standing on Olive Street, and was a proud descendent of Connecticut Colony and Hartford city founder Rev. Samuel Stone and Connecticut Colony Governor, Robert Treat. She attended Miss Dutton’s School at Grove Hall in New Haven, where school records described her as displaying “such mental alertness, combined with retentive memory and a great imaginative and poetic talent,” that she was “marked for future success.”

When as an adult she pursued her literary interests, Stone chose to use a pen name in deference to her father, who, she said, “looked with disfavor on young women who wrote for publication.” She created the name Margaret Sidney in part by taking his first name as her last. In her fledgling efforts as a writer, she initiated a correspondence with the Boston-based publisher Daniel Lothrop. Intrigued by her writing, Lothrop began to make stops in New Haven while on business trips to New York and Philadelphia. Their relationship blossomed into love, culminating in a New Haven wedding in 1881.

The couple moved to Concord, Massachusetts, when Lothrop’s Boston apartment became too confining. There, Harriett found her second passion: historic preservation. The property the Lothrops purchased was The Wayside, once home to both Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcott family, just down the road from Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott’s famous residence. Harriett worked tirelessly on preserving both homes as literary landmarks while she continued to write for children and adults. Always interested in history, she penned A Little Maid of Concord Town, A Little Maid of Boston Town and, in 1900, The Judges’ Cave; Being a Romance of the New Haven Colony in the Days of the Regicides, 1661, the latter still available at local libraries.

But the Five Little Peppers series was far and away her widest and most enduring success, and contemporary sentiments suggest the books have retained much of their charm. Out of five stars, the first book has received averages of 4.6 on Amazon and 4.03 on GoodReads, with the number of reviews on the latter approaching 24,000. Reviewers often mention happy memories of reading (or being read) the book as children and report that their own kids, even in this technology-soaked era, are enjoying the journey to a poor but otherwise rich household from more than a century ago.

Margaret Sidney
Where to buy: RJ Julia | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble | Amazon
Where to read for free: Google Books | Gutenberg Project

Written by Nancy McNicol.

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