The "Mother" of the Sun-Bonnet Babies

 by Julia Darrow Cowles

            Reprinted from THE HOUSEKEEPER, September 1907

Among the art workers who ply their brushes in one of the big buildings of Chicago, is a slim, young woman, out of whose magic ink-well troops that long procession of full-skirted, sun-bonneted infants who have captivated the hearts of all who know them.

And every one knows the "sun- bonnet babies". The children in school read of them and draw them; young people send them for valentines, and older people for Christmas cards; but few among their many admirers know aught of the busy young woman who draws them out of her ink-well one by one, and sends, them forth on their mission of joy and cheer.

This young woman is Bertha L. Corbett who commenced her study of art in Minneapolis, then had a year in Philadelphia under the able instruction of Howard Pyle, the well-known illustrator, and later went to Chicago. But it was while in Minneapolis that the idea of the sunbonnet babies was born. She and a group of congenial artists were together in her studio, discussing matters of art in general when one of the company said. "How little expression there is to a figure in which the face does not show!" Instantly came into Miss Corbett's mind the remembrance of a tiny child that she had recently seen. It was busily occupied with some bit of childish play, and its entire head was hidden by an enormous sun-bonnet. With this picture in mind, she answered quickly; "I do not think a face is necessary in order to make a figure expressive. "

She was challenged to prove her point, and taking her pen, she drew her first sun-bonnet baby. It was so enthusiastically received by her artist friends that she was readily induced to draw more, - in fact, she fell so thoroughly in love with her own baby that she has devoted almost her entire time to her nursery flock since.

By degrees the idea grew and expanded. A book of the sun-bonnet babies was published, and after that a primer, and the success of the primer has been unmistakable. Thousands and thousands of copies have been sold, and the little people in whose hands they are placed, find them a never-ceasing source of delight. They are captivated from the first page, where a sun-bonnet baby spreading wide her apron and bending forward so that only the top of her sun- bonnet shows, courtesies low and says, "How do you do?"

The inside cover of the books shows three small babies beside a huge ink- well, while two more are carrying an immense quill pen. Above them is printed the verse:

0, we are the Sun-bonnet Babies.
Good morning, and how do you do? We came all the way the other day,
From a bottle of ink for you.
We all are so very polite,
We never so much as look,
But laugh away about our play,
All through this wonderful book.

Miss Corbett is nearly as apt with her verses as with her drawings, and the condition of mind in which the child who has had this primer for her first reading book is left, is aptly expressed in the lines on the last page:

A little girl that once I knew
Read this book completely through; 
Read it every word, and then
Read it all right through again!

It is no infrequent experience for Miss Corbett to meet a small admirer who brings forth one of these well- thumbed books for her admiration and approval; the wee student seeming. to think that the "Sun-bonnet Lady" will enjoy it quite as well as herself - and surely she does, for are not the "babies" her very own! Then there were all sorts of cards for Valentine's Day, Christmas and New Years, and many thousands of these were sent out by the publishers, and they were to be found in every city and hamlet in the land. Advertisers sought for drawings of the "babies" to help them sell their wares, until Miss Corbett laughingly declares that she sometimes expects a visit from the com- missioners of labor, because "the babies are so very young to be made to earn a living for me. "

Miss Corbett unlike some mothers, is never at a loss for occupations for her babies. She simply watches children, and in a half-hour will have caught a sufficient number of attitudes and pranks to fill out a month or two of work. Her babies "keep store", feed the chickens, make mud pies, gather eggs, have tea parties, visit the circus and even go up in a balloon. In fact there is nothing that real babies do, that the sun-bonnet babies do not try their hands at. Miss Corbett's faculty for coining apt phrases is well known among her friends, and this faculty is often brought into play in connection with her drawing. As an in- stance of this, there are before me as I write two sketches of sun-bonnet babies. Beneath one sketch are the words, "They 'were simply carried away by Japanese art, " and the picture shows two of the "dearest" babies floating up through the air, bravely holding to the handles of two Japanese parasols. Another shows a baby seated on a great stone at the edge of a body of water, over which she holds a long fish pole, while just beyond her there is a suggest- ion of a companion, shown by a leg, and a skirt impertinently upright. Beneath are the words, "Once we went a fishin'.

Miss Corbett has a way of adding a characteristic touch to her personal letters to friends, as in the case of the one which closes with the words, "Well, I must fly to lunch, so goodbye, " and directly beneath the signature is a baby with wings, apparently making the, best of speed across the bottom of the page.

Miss Corbett was a recognized artist before this special line of work was developed, and she still does work in water colors, and portraits in oils, while her miniatures upon ivory are exceptionally good. -But the main part of her time is devoted to drawing the sun-bonnet babies, each one of which bears her signature and is copyrighted.

More recently, the "Over-all Boys" have been sent out to accompany the small misses in sun-bonnets, and though they have met with success, they can never hope to win the place that the babies themselves occupy. They are very cunning youngsters, however, dressed in over-alls and big straw hats which serve largely to conceal their faces, though the over-all boys are not quite so modest as the sun-bonnet babies, and do show their faces occasionally. They, too, have been placed in a primer, in which they frolic through the city, the country and the sea shore, and are occasionally accompanied by Molly and May, the "babies" of the sun-bonnet primer. They are cutest of all in their bathing suits and big straw hats, and have all sorts of adventures at the beach.

Miss Corbett's assertion that there can be plenty of expression in a figure in which the face does not show, is well proven in the case of her over-all boys, as well as by her babies, for they are certainly "cuter" in those pictures which conceal the faces.


Text is as it appeared in 1907.  The images are scanned in from the 1902 edition of The Sunbonnet Babies' Book.

-- Kim Bunchuck