The Tale of Tom Kitten

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The Tale of Tom Kitten
The Tale of Tom Kitten cover.jpg
First edition cover
Author Beatrix Potter
Illustrator Beatrix Potter
Country England
Language English
Genre Children's literature
Publisher Frederick Warne & Co.
Publication date
September 1907
Media type Print (hardcover)
Preceded by The Story of Miss Moppet 
Followed by The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck 

The Tale of Tom Kitten is a children's book, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. It was released by Frederick Warne & Co. in September 1907. The tale is about manners and how children react to them. Tabitha Twitchit, a cat, invites friends for tea. She washes and dresses her three kittens for the party, but within moments the kittens have soiled and lost their clothes while scampering about the garden. Tabitha is "affronted". She sends the kittens to bed, and tells her friends the kittens have the measles. Once the tea party is underway however, its "dignity and repose" are disturbed by the kittens romping overhead and leaving a bedroom in disorder.

Potter's career as a children's author and illustrator was launched in 1902 with the release of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She continued to publish, and, in 1905, bought Hill Top, a farm in Cumbria, with the sales profits from her books and a small legacy from an aunt. Her tales then took inspiration from the farm, its woodland surroundings, and nearby villages. Work began on Tom Kitten in 1906 and its setting became the Hill Top farmhouse. Illustrations depict the interior of the house and the gardens, paths, and gate at the front of the house.

Twenty thousand copies of the book were released in September 1907 and another 12,500 the following December. Potter composed a few miniature letters for child friends as if from the characters in the tale, and, in 1917, she released a painting book under Tom Kitten's name. In 1935, two books of piano pieces and piano duets for children were published with one piece inspired by Tom Kitten and another by the Puddle-Ducks. Tom and other characters in the book have become the subjects of a variety of merchandise over the years including porcelain figurines and plush toys. The tale is still in print, and has been translated and published in several languages.


Tom Kitten, Moppet and Mittens with the Puddle-ducks

The tale begins with three feline siblings – Tom Kitten and his sisters Moppet and Mittens – tumbling about the doorstep and playing in the dust. Their mother, Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, expects "fine company" for tea so she fetches the children indoors to wash and dress them before her friends arrive. Tom is "very naughty" and scratches his mother while she grooms him. Tabitha dresses Moppet and Mittens in clean pinafores and tuckers, and Tom in "all sorts of elegant uncomfortable clothes" taken from a chest of drawers. Tom is fat and bursts several buttons, but his mother sews them back on again.

Tabitha turns her kittens into the garden to keep them out of the way while she makes hot buttered toast for the party. She tells them to keep their frocks clean and keep away from the pigsty, the dirty ash pit, Sally Henny Penny, and the Puddle-Ducks, and then returns to her work. Moppet and Mittens soon have their pinafores smeared with grass stains. They climb upon the garden wall and lose some of their clothing in the ascent. Tom has a more difficult time gaining the top of the wall "breaking the ferns, and shedding buttons right and left". He is disheveled when he reaches the top of the wall, and loses his hat, but his sisters try to pull him together. The rest of his buttons burst.

Three Puddle-ducks come marching along the road – "pit pat paddle pat! pit pat waddle pat!" Jemima Puddle-duck and Rebeccah put on some of the dropped clothing. The kittens lose the rest of their clothing descending the wall. Moppet invites Mr. Drake Puddle-duck to help dress Tom. He picks up various articles of Tom's clothing and "he put[s] them on himself!" The three ducks set off up the road just as Tabitha approaches and discovers her three children with no clothes on. She pulls them off the wall, "smacks" them, and takes them back to the house. "My friends will arrive in a minute, and you are not fit to be seen; I am affronted!" she says.

Tabitha sends her kittens upstairs, and tells her guests the kittens are in bed with the measles. However, "the dignity and repose of the tea party" is disturbed by the "very extraordinary noises overhead" as the playful kittens romp in a bedroom. An illustration depicts the bedroom in complete disorder and Tom in his mother's bonnet. The next illustration shows Tabitha entering the room. The author interrupts to promise the reader she will make a larger book about Tom some day. In the last pages, the Puddle-ducks have lost the kittens' clothing in a pond, and they have been looking for them ever since.

Scholarly commentaries

Tom Kitten with his mother Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit

Ruth K. MacDonald, professor of English at New Mexico State University observes that Tom Kitten is the first of Potter's Sawrey books and introduces characters that would make appearances in the following Sawrey books. Tabitha Twitchit was a longtime resident at Hill Top who kept the rats in check and figures prominently in three of the books and peripherally in another. She is a blend of Potter herself and probably her mother or another proper Victorian lady who resembled her.

Inspired by the real Tabitha and a kitten Potter borrowed for the 1906 production of The Story of Miss Moppet, The Tale of Tom Kitten is about how children react to manners. Tom Kitten's very name suggest carefree, mischievous boyishness in the manner of the 19th century's exemplars of boyhood, Tom Sawyer, Ton Aldrich[citation needed], and Tom Brown. He is unusually defiant of parental strictures and taboos. Tom's mother tries to dignify the rascal by calling him Thomas, dressing him in elegant clothes, and by issuing taboos once he is groomed and dressed to walk upon his hind legs and to stay away from the pig sty, the ash pit and other animals. Not only has Tabitha forced her children into unnatural human clothing but forces them into unnatural postures. However, in the end her efforts are in vain, and Tom and his sisters lose their clothes and remain as carefree and mischievous as ever.


Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28 July 1866 to barrister Rupert William Potter and his wife Helen (Leech) Potter in London. She was educated by governesses and tutors, and passed a quiet childhood reading, painting, drawing, visiting museums and art exhibitions, and tending a nursery menagerie of small animals. Her interests in the natural world and country life were nurtured with holidays in Scotland, the Lake District, and Camfield Place, the Hertfordshire home of her paternal grandparents.[1]

Potter's adolescence was as quiet as her childhood. She grew into a spinsterish young woman whose parents groomed her to be a permanent resident and housekeeper in their home.[2] She continued to paint and draw, and experienced her first professional artistic success in 1890 when she sold six designs of humanized animals to a greeting card publisher.[3] She hoped to lead a useful life independent of her parents, and tentatively considered a career in mycology, but the all-male scientific community regarded her as an amateur and she abandoned fungi.[4][5]

Potter had maintained contact with her last governess Annie Carter Moore and had grown fond of her children. Through the 1890s, she wrote the children story and picture letters. Mrs. Moore recognized the literary and artistic value of the letters and urged her former charge to publish.[6] Potter liked the suggestion, and, in 1900, revised a tale she had written for five-year-old Noel Moore in 1893, and fashioned a dummy book of it in imitation of Helen Bannerman's 1899 bestseller The Story of Little Black Sambo.[7] Unable to find a buyer for the tale, she published it for family and friends at her own expense in December 1901.[8]

Frederick Warne & Co. had once rejected the tale but, eager to compete in the booming small format children's book market, reconsidered and accepted the "bunny book" (as the firm called it) following the recommendation of their prominent children's book artist L. Leslie Brooke.[9] Potter agreed to colour her pen and ink illustrations, chose the then-new Hentschel three-colour process for reproducing her watercolours,[10] and on 2 October 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit was released.[11]

Potter continued to publish with Warnes. Early in July 1905 she bought Hill Top, a working farm of 34 acres (14 ha) at Sawrey in the Lake District with profits from her books and a small legacy from an aunt. On 25 August 1905 Potter's editor and fiancé, Norman Warne died suddenly and unexpectedly. Potter became deeply depressed and was ill for many weeks,[12] but rallied to complete the last few tales she had planned and discussed with Warne.[13]

Production and release

In 1906, Potter experimented with book formats for babies and very young children just acquiring verbal skills. One of the three books produced during this period was The Story of Miss Moppet, a Victorian moral tale about teasing and its consequences with a kitten as the titular heroine. As the model for Miss Moppet, Potter borrowed a kitten from a mason working at Hill Top and wrote Millie Warne, Norman Warne's sister, "I have borrowed a kitten and I am rather glad of the opportunity of working at the drawings. It is very young and pretty and a most fearful pickle." Tom Kitten himself would be created from the drawings Potter had produced during the production of The Story of Miss Moppet.[14]

Potter began work on Tom Kitten in the summer of 1906, and used the gardens and interior of the farmhouse at Hill Top as the setting for the tale. A week after the letter to Millie Warne she wrote her publisher Harold Warne, "I have not quite finished the Kitten, it is an exasperating model; and I always find it difficult to settle to work in the country. I hope I have not been inconveniently long about it."

Three weeks later, she was on holiday at the rented country estate of Lingholm on the shores of Derwentwater with her parents and wrote, "I am wishing most heartily I was back at Sawrey, but I suppose I shall scramble along for a bit here; at all events I must get some drawing done, that kitten book has been sadly neglected." She had taken her drawing and sketching to one of the attics at Lingholm and found the place draughty yet "stuffy". She missed the sheltered open air and gardening at Hill Top. She was back at Hill Top in October and wrote Millie Warne that she was busy gardening and was stealing garden plants from her neighbours.

Tom Kitten was written out in an inexpensive exercise book with the text divided into short paragraphs and 24 pencil sketches pasted in at their corners.[15] Tom's mother, Tabitha Twitchit was named after one of Mrs. Satterthwaite's cats at Belle Green where Potter was staying while alterations were underway at the Hill Top farmhouse.[16]

An old photo of a village street
The main street of Near Sawrey photographed by Rupert Potter in May 1913

The illustrations of the garden depict what Potter hoped to see following her labours there, and detail some of the flowers, trees, shrubs, and butterflies Potter described in her letters to Millie Warne. The farmhouse interior and its furnishings are precisely rendered. The entrance porch with its Barthay slate walls, the stone flagged floors, the oak panelling and deep-set windows were all original to the house and faithfully depicted. Potter added her personal furnishings to the illustrations: her flowered washbasin, the cane chair where the kittens sit to be scrubbed, her hall clock and wall mirror. The white wicket gate and the fern covered stone wall are real world details as are the views looking out over Hill Top, Smithy Lane, Stoney Lane winding up to Bank Wood, and the dry stone walls crossing the fields.[17]

Some of the pictures of the ducks were made in London. As models, she used ducks belonging to a distant cousin who lived at Putney Park. She wrote to Warne of her pictures, "I hope to bring the remaining four in a few days, if I get to Putney again tomorrow. I hope you will like them. I think myself they will lighten up the book. It is a refreshment to do some outdoor sketching again."[15]

A pencil sketch illustrating the line "[The three Puddle-ducks] stopped and stood in a row, staring up at the kittens" depicted the duck on the right facing the other two ducks, apparently in conversation. However when Potter copied her sketch for the book picture she inadvertently turned the duck's head to the right (like the other two ducks) with all three now facing the same direction. Although the kittens are not shown in the picture, the ducks now have their backs to the kittens sitting on the wall and cannot be staring up at them as the line indicates – but only those who are familiar with Sawrey would realize this.[15]

Potter made several revisions to her manuscript using strips of paper pasted over lines in the manuscript to indicate her changes. Harold Warne criticized the line "all the rest of Tom's clothes came off" and thought "all" should be changed to "nearly all" but Potter objected:

"Nearly all" won't do! because I have drawn Thomas already with nothing! That would not signify: I could give something over but there are not many garments for Mr. Drake to dress himself in; and it would give the story a new and criminal aspect if he forcibly took off and stole Tom's trousers.

The galley proofs arrived dated 21 February 1907 and Potter carefully read through them, making corrections where necessary and changes where appropriate.[18] Twenty thousand copies were released in September 1907 in a 138 by 105 millimetres (5.4 in × 4.1 in) small book format and another 12,500 the following December. Two different bindings were available: one in grey-green paper boards priced at 1/- and a deluxe edition in decorated cloth at 1/6d.[19] The book was dedicated "to all Pickles—especially those who get upon my garden wall". "Pickle" was Potter's word for mischievous kittens, children, and her exuberant, free-spirited cousin Caroline Hutton.[16] Potter received a copy of the published book and wrote Harold Warne, "I am much pleased with Tom Kitten. Some of the pictures are very bad, but the book as a whole is passable, and the ducks help it out."[18][20]

Miniature letters

Potter created a series of miniature letters for child fans between 1907 and 1912. These letters were written as from her characters and intended to continue their lives outside their tales. Each letter was folded to represent an envelope, and addressed to the child recipient; there was a tiny stamp in the corner drawn with a red crayon. They were sent to the children in a miniature post bag Potter had made herself or in a bright red toy tin mail box. "Some of the letters were very funny," Potter wrote, "The defect was that inquiries and answers were all mixed up."[21]

Six letters involving the characters from Tom Kitten are extant. Invitations for Christmas Eve "Indian corn and dancing" were sent from Sally Henny Penny "at Home at the Barn Door" to Tom, his sisters, and the Puddle-ducks. Tom accepts for his sisters and himself and promises "[we] will all come, if our Ma doesn't catch us". Rebeccah Puddle-Duck however is "laid up with a sore throat" and writes Mrs. Ribstone Pippin (from The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan) asking for the loan of a red flannel petticoat to wear as a comforter. Mrs. Pippin replies:

I am sorry to hear of your sore throat, but what can you expect if you will stand on your head in a pond? I will bring the flannel petticoat & some more head drops directly.[22]

Other Tom Kitten publications

The following year, in October 1908, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers was published, which again featured Tom Kitten, as well as his mother and sisters.

Tom Kitten's Painting Book was published in June 1917 with a cover by Potter depicting Tom standing at an easel, paint brush in hand. It was the second of Potter's three painting books for children, following Peter Rabbit's Painting Book of 1911 and preceding Jemima Puddle-Duck's Painting Book of 1925. The books were composed of pairs of pictures with short, appropriate texts at the foot of each page. When the book was opened, the fully coloured picture on the left page served as a model for the child artist to follow while colouring the outline picture on the right page.[23]

Peter Rabbit's book was abridged in 1917, and seven pairs of pictures were cut to create Tom Kitten's Painting Book. One new pair of pictures was added to Tom's book and three new pairs of pictures to Peter's book with the result that there were eight pairs of pictures in both books.[23] Jemima's book would also feature eight pairs of pictures.[24] In addition to painting instructions, Tom's book told the child artist "[Y]ou can colour these pictures quite nicely with Crayons." The accompanying illustration depicts three kittens playing about a painting book and several crayons lying on the ground.[23]

Two Peter Rabbit music books by Christopher Le Fleming were published in December 1935 under the combined imprint of J. & W. Chester, Ltd. and Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.. The first book contained six easy piano solos and the second book six easy piano duets. Both books were intended for children aged ten to twelve years. The fifth piece in the book of solos was "Tom Kitten" and the fourth piece in the duet book was "The Puddle-Ducks Take a Walk". Potter thought the music charming but too difficult for children to perform. She supplied six illustrations for the first book and twelve for the second book because it was a collection of duets. "I have been very long over them," she wrote Le Fleming, "Doing them at odd times in a busy season of the year. Some are better or worse than others." She had difficulty with the ducks. "The ducks are least satisfactory. I am having another try at Pit Pat Puddle." Chesters assured Potter her preliminary pencil sketches could be reproduced nicely but, in the end, they were inked-over by another artist without Potter's knowledge. She was disappointed with the results. Both volumes were released in 305 by 240 millimetres (12.0 in × 9.4 in) paper or board cover formats.[25]


Potter asserted her tales would one day be nursery classics, and part of the process in making them so was marketing strategy.[26] She was the first to exploit the commercial possibilities of her characters and tales with spinoffs such as a Peter Rabbit doll, an unpublished Peter Rabbit board game, and Peter Rabbit nursery wallpaper between 1903 and 1905.[27] Similar "side-shows" (as she termed the spinoffs) were produced with her approval over the following two decades.[28]

After Potter's death in December 1943, Frederick Warne & Co. granted licences to various firms for the production of merchandise based on the Potter characters. Beswick Pottery of Longton, Staffordshire was one of the first and a porcelain figurine of Tom Kitten was one of the first ten Beswick Potter figurines released in 1948. Tabitha Twitchit, Mr. Drake Puddle-Duck, Rebeccah Puddle-Duck, and Mittens and Moppet were released either as single figurines or in combination with other characters. A Tom Kitten mug, plaque, and tableau were issued. In sum, 12 Tom Kitten figurines were released by Beswick between 1948 and 2000.[29]

Crummles of Poole, Dorset began producing small enamelled boxes beginning in 1975. Three boxes had lids depicting characters from Tom Kitten: Tabitha Twitchit scrubbing Moppet's face, the Puddle-Ducks diving for Tom's lost clothes, and an image of Tom Kitten holding his book taken from the book's endpapers.[30] Tabitha Twitchit sewing Tom Kitten's button on was depicted on the lid of a Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin produced between 1974 and 1978.[31]

Stuffed toy manufacturers had sought licensing rights for the Potter characters as early as 1906, but it was not until the 1970s that an English firm was granted worldwide rights. Their labour-intensive products were unprofitable however, and in 1972, The Eden Toy Company of New York became the exclusive manufacturer of Potter characters. A plush Tom Kitten dressed in his finery was one of the first ten characters released in 1973. He was released as a bean bag in 1999.[32]

Schmid & Co. of Toronto and Randolph, Massachusetts was granted rights to Beatrix Potter in 1977 and produced character-related merchandise over 18 years. In 1977, Tom Kitten was one of the first ten character music boxes released by the company. Another music box featuring Tom and playing "My Favorite Things" was issued in 1990, and a music box featuring Tabitha Twitchit and playing "Lara's Theme" was released the same year. In 1983, Tom Kitten was one of the first six flat ceramic Christmas ornaments issued by Schmid. Drake Puddle-duck, Rebeccah Puddle-duck, and Tom with the Butterfly were released in 1984. Scenes from the tales were produced as flat ornaments in 1987 featuring Tom and Moppet, and Drake Puddle-duck in Tom's clothes. In 1991, Schmid manufactured a 3-dimensional Tom Kitten ornament, and in 1992 a Tabitha Twitchit ornament. Another 3-dimensional Tom ornament was released in 1994 before the company closed in 1995.[33]

Reprints and translations

As of 2010, all of Potter's 23 small format books remain in print, and available as complete sets in presentation boxes,[34] and as a 400-page omnibus.[35] Tom Kitten is available in an electronic format.[36]

The English language editions of Potter's books still bore the Frederick Warne imprint in 2010 though the company was sold to Penguin Books in 1983. All the printing plates for the 23 books were remade from new photographs of the original drawings by Penguin in 1985; the entire Peter Rabbit series was released in 1987 as The Original and Authorized Edition.[37]

Potter's books have been translated into nearly thirty languages, including Greek and Russian.[37] Tom Kitten was released in braille by the Royal Institute for the Blind in 1921 and in the Initial Teaching Alphabet in 1965. The tale was translated and released in Dutch in 1946 as Tom Het Poesje and again in 1970 as Het Verhaal van Poekie Poes. It was released in Danish in 1946 as Tom Kitte, and in French in 1951 as Toto le Minet. Twelve Potter titles including The Tale of Tom Kitten were under licence to Fukuinkan-Shoten of Tokyo, and released in Japanese in the 1970s.[38] In 1986, MacDonald observed that the Potter books had become a traditional part of childhood in both English-speaking lands and those in which the books had been translated.[39]


  • In 1971, the character of Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit appeared in the finale of the Royal Ballet film, The Tales of Beatrix Potter.
  • In 1992, the tale was adapted, along with The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, as an episode on the animated BBC anthology series, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends.
  • The character of Jemima Puddle-Duck, along with one of Tom Kitten's sisters, Mittens, appear in the 2012 CGI animated television series of Peter Rabbit in Nickelodeon.
  • More recently, John Patrick adapted a number of Beatrix Potter's tales into a live-action/animated musical feature film for his film studio, called Storybook Studio. The film is titled Beatrix Potter's The Tales of Peter Rabbit and Friends[40] and was released on July 28, 2018. One of the stories adapted for the film was The Tale of Tom Kitten.[41][42]


  1. ^ MacDonald 1986, pp. 1–4
  2. ^ MacDonald 1986, pp. 6–7
  3. ^ Taylor 1996, pp. 51–2
  4. ^ Taylor 1996, p. 60,67
  5. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 13
  6. ^ Lear 2007, p. 142
  7. ^ Lear 2007, p. 144
  8. ^ Lear 2007, p. 145
  9. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 144–7
  10. ^ Hobbs 1989, p. 15
  11. ^ Taylor 1996, p. 76
  12. ^ Lane 1978, p. 140
  13. ^ Lear 2007, p. 206
  14. ^ Taylor 1996, p. 109
  15. ^ a b c Linder 1971, p. 186
  16. ^ a b Lear 2007, p. 218
  17. ^ Lear 2007, p. 219
  18. ^ a b Linder 1971, p. 87
  19. ^ Linder 1971, p. 427
  20. ^ Lear 2007, p. 221
  21. ^ Linder 1971, p. 72
  22. ^ Linder 1971, pp. 83–4
  23. ^ a b c Linder 1971, p. 272
  24. ^ Linder 1971, p. 273
  25. ^ Linder 1971, pp. 288–9
  26. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 128
  27. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 172–5
  28. ^ Taylor 1987, p. 106
  29. ^ Dubay 2006, pp. 30,35
  30. ^ DuBay 2006, pp. 78–9
  31. ^ DuBay 2006, p. 139
  32. ^ Dubay 2006, pp. 92–3
  33. ^ Dubay 2006, pp.106–27
  34. ^ Potter, Beatrix (May 2006). The World of Peter Rabbit. ISBN 0723257639.
  35. ^ Potter, Beatrix (2006). Beatrix Potter: The Complete Tales. ISBN 072325804X.
  36. ^ "The Tale of Tom Kitten". Retrieved October 22, 2010.
  37. ^ a b Taylor 1996, p. 216
  38. ^ Linder 1971, pp. 433–7
  39. ^ MacDonald 1987, p. 130
  40. ^
  41. ^ "Beatrix Potter's the Tales of Peter Rabbit and Friends".
  42. ^
Works cited
  • Dubay, Debby; Sewall, Kara (2006). Beatrix Potter Collectibles: The Peter Rabbit Story Characters. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7643-2358-X.
  • Kutzer, M. Daphne (2003). Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-94352-3.
  • Lear, Linda (2007). Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. New York: St. Martins Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-37796-0.
  • Linder, Leslie (1971). A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter. Frederick Warne & Co. ISBN 0-7232-1334-8.
  • MacDonald, Ruth K. (1986). Beatrix Potter. Twayne's English Author Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-6917-X.
  • Taylor, Susan; Whalley, Joyce Irene; Hobbs, Anne Stevenson; Battrick, Elizabeth M. (1987). Beatrix Potter 1866–1943: The Artist and Her World. F. Warne & Co. and The National Trust. ISBN 0-7232-3561-9.
  • Taylor, Judy (1996) [1986]. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. Frederick Warne. ISBN 0-7232-4175-9.

External links

  • The full text of The Tale of Tom Kitten at Wikisource
  • Media related to The Tale of Tom Kitten at Wikimedia Commons
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