This article originally appeared in the December 24, 2019 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back in the Day: Abandoned art in college classroom tied to Winnetka publisher
By Holly Marihugh
Tucked away on a top shelf of a storage cabinet in a Barat College art classroom sat the cache of art. Workers hired to clear classrooms when the college in Lake Forest closed in 2005 looked at the illustrations they’d found way up high and knew they’d be valued by someone, somewhere.
They phoned Maureen Ryan who had been part of the nonprofit organization administering the college and asked, “What should we do with these drawings?’
Turns out the 94 illustrations made up a set from a 1933 children’s book, “Engines and Brass Bands” by a Winnetka writer and publisher, Olive Beaupre Miller.
“It’s all a bit of a mystery,” said Rachel Ramirez, WHS curator. “We don’t know why they were on a shelf in a storage cabinet. I bet there was an art professor who was working on the illustrations and stored them in her classroom.”
Drawings in “Engines and Brass Bands” aren’t credited to any particular artist so it’s difficult to connect the name of an artist to a professor from decades ago.
Ryan kept the illustrations found at Barat College until earlier this year when she decided to sleuth Beaupre Miller’s name online. She discovered that the Winnetka Historical Society knew all about the publisher: an article about Beaupre Miller is featured on the WHS website, her portrait graces a wall in the museum and her books are in the permanent collection.
After examining the illustrations and accompanying papers, Ramirez believes that both offer a more in-depth look at how Beaupre Miller created and published her works.
“There’s an envelope with the artwork that contains all these little notes that Olive Beaupre Miller presumably wrote to the illustrators,” Ramirez said. “She was telling them, ‘I want this to look like that.’ You can imagine what she would have been like to work with by seeing all of her detailed notes, and it tells us what kind of an author she was.”
After the birth of her daughter, Virginia, Beaupre Miller was frustrated by the lack of high quality children’s literature in the early 1900s. She was determined to create better options and drew up three criteria: First, stories had to be well written. Second, they must be positive and ethical. Third, they had to be graded to fit the developmental age of the child. In 1919, Beaupre Miller and her husband, Harry, founded a publishing company, The Book House for Children.
“She was very tuned into children’s development,” Ramirez said. “The Book House books are actually graded, meaning the first ones are meant for younger children, and as the child gets older, the series grow with the child.”
At a time when most professional women worked as nurses or teachers, Beaupre Miller hired women in sales and management. The volumes were sold door-to-door by a largely female sales forces, and women managed company branch offices around the U.S.
My Book House collections remain popular today, especially in the home school community. A quick search on the website AbeBooks.com displays 2,000-plsu My Book House selections. Esty.com features Nursery Rhymes from France, Flying Sails and The Treasure Chest, among other favorites. One hundred years after launching her company, Beaupre Miller’s books are still in demand.
Now that the illustrations are part of the WHS permanent collection, Ramirez said that two-thirds are already scanned for quick digital access. The lost collection from the art classroom cabinet is turning into an unanticipated treasure.
“We don’t have many original drawings that later got published in a book,” Ramirez said. “These give us a deeper dive into Olive Beaupre Miller, and her life and work than we have anywhere else in our collection.”