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Beatrix Potter: Beyond Peter Rabbit

A name recognized by millions, Beatrix Potter brought the delightful stories of Peter Rabbit to vast numbers of readers both across the globe and over the centuries. What was relatively less-known, however, was Potter's very keen business acumen. Her artistic skills and unabashed interest in the natural world probably would not have had the global impact they do today without her progressive thinking and initiative. Potter's personal struggles and achievements thus serve as a commendable model not only for those with literary pursuits, but also for creatives aiming to change the world by the power of their own gumption.

From The Tales of Peter Rabbit.
Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse.
Princeton University Library

Potter was born in 1866 to an affluent English family. Noticing her penchant to sketch the leaves and flowers she observed in the gardens, her parents immediately put her though art lessons. However, Potter rebelled against the artistic conformity of the time--rather than emulating the works of classical painters, she opted to sketch insect specimens she caught herself. Once, she even managed to capture a rabbit and brought it into the nursery. Not allowing any moment to be wasted, she prolifically studied the rabbit and sketched its movements.

Her fascination of the natural world didn't stop at all things fauna; Potter's powerful observational skills led to the exploration of many subjects, including fungi. Nearing the end of the 19th century, she wrote a thesis called "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae" which housed her theory of fungi spores and their reproductive cycles. While she was already creating a name for herself with her accurate and beautiful scientific illustrations, Potter was also fond of drawing for children. Discovering her charmingly depicted narratives about a disobedient Rabbit named Peter, a governess suggested that Potter publish her story.

From the moment Potter stepped into the publishing world, she encountered many setbacks. For example, Potter insisted that her story be printed with color illustrations even if black and white graphics were the status quo. After being turned down by six publishers, Potter refused to accept defeat by privately funding a small batch of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Once assured that her story matched her exacting standards, Potter next marketed her book to children and small shops. She also personally took charge of inventory and requests for reprints.

Potter was finally able to sign a contract with Frederic Warne & Co. in 1902, and the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit sold out before publication. Floored by the overwhelming response to her work, her publishers made a serious error (and one that Potter never again forgot)--they had failed to file a copyright. Overseas competitors quickly took advantage of Potter's success by publishing knockoff versions of Peter Rabbit. This crucial error helped Potter develop into a shrewd businesswoman who understood the importance of protecting her intellectual property. As her popularity and, thereby, demand for stuffed toys of her characters grew, Potter was sure to copyright everything down to the very the materials used to bring Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck to tangible life.

100 million copies, 35 languages, and over 100 years later, Potter is undoubtedly regarded as a master of her craft. Transcending gender roles, traditional forms of education, and even societal labels (she didn't marry until she was 47, which made her a spinster in the eyes of the Victorian public), Beatrix Potter is a story unto herself: One of inquisitiveness, drive, and a fierce, unapologetic perseverance.


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