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The Five Little Peppers book series was created by Margaret Sidney from 1881 to 1916. It covers the lives of the five children of Mamsie and the late Mister Pepper who are born into poverty in a rural "little brown house." The series begins with the Peppers in their native state and develops with their rescue by a wealthy gentleman who takes an interest in the family.
The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew tells how the Peppers live, learn, and play in their little brown house. They are poor, and Mamsie must work constantly to keep the wolf from the door, but their lives are unexpectedly happy. They make do with whatever they have and the older children help the younger ones. They bear bad times as best they can and make the most of the good times.
When Phronsie is kidnapped by an organ grinder, she is rescued by young Jasper King and his dog Prince, both of whom soon become fast friends with the Peppers. The family so charms Jasper and his father that one by one they are invited to visit the Kings' home in the city and soon the entire family is living there. Mr. King makes Mrs. Pepper his housekeeper and does everything in his power to entertain and educate the children.
Though the Kings surround the Pepper children with luxury--in 5 years Phronsie collects 200 dolls--the values of hard work, humility, and togetherness are still firmly enforced by their mother. This puts them in a curious position in society. Though they live with an upper-class father and son, the older children are aware they’ll someday work for their livings. This makes them willing to befriend anyone, from street girls to grocers’ sons.
The stories continue with the Peppers' adventures in school, abroad, and even back in the little brown house where their thoughts and hearts will always turn. The series spans 17 years, beginning with Phronsie as a three-year-old and finishing with her as a 20-year-old young lady.
Mrs. Pepper (Later Mrs. Fisher): Called "Mamsie" by her children, Mrs. Pepper is a widow struggling to keep her five children healthy and educated. She is the moral backbone of the family and her children are completely devoted to her. She eventually weds Dr. Adoniram Fisher with full approval of her brood.
Ben (Ebenezer): The eldest Pepper boy. Ben is an avid scholar but willingly puts aside schooling in favor of providing for the family. With his sister, he manages the younger children and will sacrifice anything for them.
Polly (Mary) The eldest girl in the Pepper family. Polly is a busy, bright and cheerful girl who makes the Pepper family’s life as happy as possible. She loves music, flowers and her baby sister with equal passion.
Joel: The middle boy of the family and the most active. Joel is an enthusiastic sportsman who loves treats, parties and entertainment. He is the most trying of the children, often getting himself into mischief or causing the others grief with the things he says. In college, he settles down somewhat and becomes active in a student church group.
Davie (David): The youngest boy in the family and the quietest. Davie allows the world to go on around him as he calmly absorbs the doings of the family. He is an obedient student and equally willing to give up anything to make Joel or Ben happy. Somewhat of a dandy in late adolescence, he is teasingly nicknamed "Davina" by other students.
Phronsie (Sophronia): The baby and pet of the family. The series opens with her at the age of three. Phronsie is a blond, wide-eyed child who sees the good in nearly everyone and is anxious to aid anyone in need. She calls her dolls, Baby and Seraphina, her children and treats them as such. She is especially devoted to Polly and Mr. King.
Mr. J. Horatio King, Senior: The Pepper family’s benefactor. He is an older widower and in uncertain health at the beginning of the series. Bringing the Peppers into his household revitalizes him. Though quick to tempers and firm in his opinions, "Grandpapa" is a family man who seeks to ease every pain and concern in the lives of his children and the Peppers.
Jasper (Jasper, Junior, called "Jappy"): Mr. King’s son. Jasper is an eager boy who is just as willing to go sledding with Ben as to bake pies with Polly. Jasper and his dog Prince befriend the Peppers when he rescues Phronsie from an organ grinder, and his affection for them ultimately leads him to request their company permanently in the household by marrying Polly.
The Whitneys: Marian King Whitney, Mr. King’s adult daughter, and her boys Percy, Van, and Dick Whitney make up the rest of the King household. Mr. Whitney ultimately turns out to be Mrs. Pepper’s cousin, making the Peppers distant relatives of the family. Mrs. Whitney is a second mother to the Pepper children. The three boys, while infatuated with Polly, are frequently at odds both with each other and with Joel.
In order of publication, the Five Little Peppers books are as follows (publication dates follow in parentheses):
Margaret Sidney felt she had completed the books with the publication of the fourth book: "Phronsie Pepper", and stated as much in her introduction to the book. But letters from readers all over the world prompted her to continue writing about the Peppers, which she did for another nineteen years. All of the later books take place much before the third book in the original series. To read the six key books in chronological order, rather than by publication date, they would be read approximately in this sequence:
The other six books are "background" and are set about the time of the first three books listed above chronologically. Since they were written many years later, some situations in them are at variance with those same situations as described in the earlier written books.
The Pepper books were the inspiration for a brief series of feature films produced by Columbia Pictures in 1939 & '40. The four films were vehicles for Columbia's juvenile star Edith Fellows, who played Polly. The rest of the kids were Charles Peck as Ben, Tommy Bond of Our Gang as Joey, Robert Boyce "Bobby" Larson as Davie, and Dorothy Ann Seese as Phronsie. The first film was devoted mostly to Fellows as the senior member of the Pepper brood, and was not an exact reflection of the book. The other three films were homespun family stories with elements of comedy and drama. Edith Fellows carried the series, although by the time it lapsed, five-year-old Dorothy Ann Seese had become an audience favorite and was billed at the head of the cast, second only to Fellows. The Pepper screenplays had little to do with the original books, but the films were popular with moviegoers. They remained in circulation for many years, and were frequently scheduled for children's film festivals and weekend matinees.