Special Collections recently acquired eight editions, dating from 1860 to about 1890, of The Bobbin Boy, or How Nat Got His Learning: An Example for Youth, by William M. Thayer.
The Louisiana connection isn’t immediately obvious to modern readers, but in fact there is a strong one. Originally published in Boston in 1859, The Bobbin Boy is a fictionalized biography of Nathaniel Banks, one of the commanders of Union forces in Louisiana during the Civil War. In 1863, Banks captured Port Hudson, twenty miles north of Baton Rouge, bringing the entire Mississippi River under Union control. His success was marred, however, by his mismanagement of the subsequent Red River Campaign and defeat at the Battle of Mansfield, near Shreveport.
As a boy, Banks worked in a textile mill in Waltham, Massachusetts, where his job was to deliver bobbins to girls at the looms. For the rest of his life, he was known as “The Bobbin Boy” or “Bobbin Boy Banks.” Although he received only a basic education in public schools, Banks rose through the ranks on his own by hard work and self study. By 1853 he had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Two years later he became Speaker of the House. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially opened the West to slavery, had recently been passed, causing widespread public outcry in the North. Determined not to let southern slaveholders have their way, Banks, a Democrat, used his influence to place members of the new antislavery Republican Party in power.
Banks’ early life served as a model for William Makepeace Thayer (1820-1898), a minister and educator who in 1852 began writing inspirational works for young readers. Written in dialogue form, his biographies of famous men were free with the facts but sought to show boys and girls that hard work and honesty really did pay off. In 1863, Thayer published The Pioneer Boy, one of the first biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and before the Civil War had even ended he began publishing a Youth’s History of the Rebellion. More than one million copies of his works were sold, and many were translated into foreign languages (including Greek and Hawaiian!).