In addition to free lance drawing and book illustration, in the early 1960s Eloise successfully designed and marketed, via the Vogue Doll Company, a new-born infant doll about which the popular Little Golden Book, Baby Dear, was later written. Eloise's daughter, Deborah and grandson, David served as the models for the mother and baby in the book. The realistic style of the Baby Dear doll revolutionized the doll industry at the time, encouraging more realistic baby dolls. Reportedly, former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev returned home with several of the dolls after a trip to F.A.O. Schwartz in New York City.
Born in Rochester, New York in 1904, Eloise Burns, was fortunate to have had a mother who encouraged her imaginative children to enjoy their creative gifts, allowing them to draw all over one wall in their house just before redecorating. Her father was a newspaperman and her mother had studied piano at a conservatory and often played classical music, which Eloise grew to love. Eloise, her sister Esther (only fifteen months older), a brother Robert, and two other siblings grew up in New York City on 109th Street near Central Park. As children, Eloise and Esther shared a bedroom and spent hours creating doll houses from orange crates, dolls out of newspapers, and sewing doll clothes. Eloise and Esther, remained especially close, and eventually married brothers, Sydney and George Wilkin. At age 11, Eloise won a drawing contest for children, sponsored by the Wanamaker department stores, with a picture of a pilgrim returning home.
While studying art at Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology), Eloise Burns met Joan Esley, best known as an illustrator of several books for adolescents. They formed a lifelong friendship that included collaboration on a children’s book entitled, The Visit. After graduating from The Rochester Institute of Technology, Eloise and Joan began doing free lance work in Rochester (i.e., Eloise painting stations of the cross for the Sacred Heart Academy Church and illustrations for the Rochester Box Company) and ultimately moved together to New York City, where they hoped to have a better chance at careers in illustration. Eloise’s first book was The Shining Hour for the Century Co. Other publishers for which she illustrated were Ginn, Scribner, Little Brown, Rand McNally, Random House and MacMillian. Many early illustrations were for school books, i.e., The First Grade Book for Ginn. Early in her career Eloise illustrated paper dolls for Samuel Gabriel & Sons, Playtime House and Jaymar. She illustrated for four years before marrying Sidney Wilkin in 1935, thus, her early works are signed Eloise Burns.
The Wilkins family settled in a fieldstone farmhouse with eight fireplaces in the country near Canandaigua in upstate New York, and Eloise slowed her career for several years while raising her four children, Ann, Sidney, Jr., Deborah and Jeremy. In 1943, she was offered a contract with Simon & Schuster and worked almost exclusively for Little Golden Books, illustrating the 47 little golden books, calendars, shape books, big golden books, and sturdy golden books until 1961; then, only occasionally illustrating for them up until the mid-eighties. Eloise used her neighborhood, her home, her children, her husband, her grandchildren, and their friends and neighbors as models for her illustrations. Many little golden book pages became puzzles which were produced by Simon & Schuster and later Golden Press. Earlier puzzles illustrated by Wilkin have been found produced by Playtime House and Leo Hart Co. Her illustrations are also found on record sleeves of many little golden records (occasionally on the record label itself) and on china plates, ads, Hallmark cards and in Child's Life, Story Parade and Golden Magazines. Currently, original editions of Eloise Wilkin illustrated books in very good condition can command prices of up to several hundred dollars.
It is said that Eloise was very modest about her talents and was a woman who stood up for her beliefs, whether it was refusing to paint pants on a mother in one of her children’s books, marching with Martin Luther King, marching with the Berrigans in Washington early in the Vietnam War, teaching art to inner city children, or assisting a University of Rochester student in the burning of his draft card in Central Park.
In October of 1987, Eloise died of cancer, at the age of 84 in Brighton, New York. At the time of her death, she was working on a new doll and was still illustrating.
In the recently published, A Little Golden Book Collection Eloise Wilkin Stories (featuring nine of her most treasured stories: "Busy Timmy, "Guess Who Lives Here", "Wonders of Nature", "Selections from A Child’s Garden of Verses", "We Help Mommy", "Baby Listens," "Baby Dear," and "Baby Looks"), an afterword by James Werner Watson aptly describes Eloise Wilkin’s legacy:
"A warm and creative homemaker, Eloise shared with the world glimpses of her big, busy, welcoming household, its rooms papered with gentle patterns, its drop-leaf tables and rocking chairs aglow with hand-rubbed sheen, its four-poster beds covered by hand-stitched quilts. A devoutly religious person, she shared ever so gently her values, her sense of the beauty of order and love, of implicit self-discipline, and of regard for others . . . she has left us, only slightly idealized, rich reminders of a lovely time not very long ago."
To listen to a three-part interview with one of Eloise Wilkin’s daughters, Deborah Wilkin Springett, (author of the Eloise Wilkin’s Book of Poems, her mother’s last illustrated book, published in 1988) and to order her biography about her mother, The Golden Years of Eloise Wilkin, go to: http://www.triviumpursuit.com/blog/2007/02/21/podcast-2-interview-with-eloise-wilkins-daughter-part-one/