Paws and reflect: the legacy of Margaret Marshall Saunders’s Beautiful Joe

By Alyssa Currie

The Story

Beautiful Joe is a bestselling children’s story written by Margaret Marshall Saunders. The novel describes the life of a mistreated dog who finds happiness when he is adopted by a kind family. It gives a voice to domestic animals by presenting the story from Joe’s perspective and stressing animal cruelty. Using the name Marshall Saunders, the author originally entered her story into a contest by the American Humane Society in 1893 and won first place. The text was published a year later and quickly became a bestseller, reportedly the first Canadian book to sell over a million copies.

Our collections include two photographs and two autographed postcards related to Beautiful Joe. These records are remarkable because they document the real-life inspiration for the story and its connection to Saunders’s animal advocacy efforts. The preface to Beautiful Joe reads:

BEAUTIFUL JOE is a real dog, and “Beautiful Joe” is his real name. He belonged during the first part of his life to a cruel master, who mutilated him in the manner described in the story. He was rescued from him, and is now living in a happy home with pleasant surroundings, and enjoys a wide local celebrity.

The character of Laura is drawn from life, and to the smallest detail is truthfully depicted. The Morris family has its counterparts in real life, and nearly all of the incidents of the story are founded on fact.

Margaret Marshall Saunders, Preface to Beautiful Joe

The Photographs

Margaret Marshall Saunders first encountered “Beautiful Joe” during a visit to her brother and his fiancé, Louise Moore, in Meaford, Ontario. Upon returning to her family home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Saunders began writing, determined to share Joe’s story. Though Saunders based her novel on reality, she adapted elements of the story to suit her fictional setting. For example, the location was changed to an American town to suit the rules of the contest and appeal to American readers. Saunders also renamed the Moore family, who originally adopted “Beautiful Joe,” as the Morris family and introduced elements of her own family into their narrative.

Black-and-white photograph featuring Dr. Edward M. Saunders, standing on the front staircase of a three-story Victorian style house. Dr. Saunders is wearing a black clerical suit and a black hat. The photograph was taken from across a residential street.

The Saunders family residence in Halifax, Nova Scotia where Beautiful Joe was written (MIKAN 3305717)

Throughout the narrative, Saunders appears to model the Morris family after her own. This likeness is supported by a photograph of Dr. Edward M. Saunders donated by the author. A handwritten note, possibly from Margaret herself, on the reverse of the photograph reads:

Dr. Saunders original of Mr. Morris in “Beautiful Joe”

Black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged man sitting in an ornate chair with a small dog, possibly a Russell terrier, laying at his feet. The man is wearing a black clerical suit. Dark drapery and a potted plant appear in the right of the portrait. The back of the photograph includes a stamp from Gauvin & Gentzel Studio.

Dr. Edward M. Saunders, father of Margaret Marshall Saunders and inspiration for the character Mr. Morris in Beautiful Joe. Handwritten notes on the back of the photograph document its connection to Beautiful Joe (MIKAN 3220890)

The Postcards

Two recently described postcards from our literary archives further emphasize the story’s connection to reality and the enduring legacy; both postcards were printed years after the book’s original publication and signed by the author. The first postcard features a picture of the original “Beautiful Joe” and provides a visual counterpart for the story’s protagonist.

Black-and-white postcard featuring a photograph of a dark dog with no ears in a sitting position. The postcard is captioned “BEAUTIFUL JOE” and autographed in black ink, “Marshall Saunders, 1930.” The back of the postcard features a small picture of Margaret Marshall Saunders with the caption, “Marshall Saunders, author of the world famous book, ‘Beautiful Joe.’” The postcard has not been mailed.

Autographed postcard featuring the original “Beautiful Joe” who inspired the story (MIKAN 4921901)

As Beautiful Joe gained national and then international recognition, Saunders used its popularity to promote animal welfare. She collaborated with animal advocacy groups on campaigns, which in turn promoted the sale of her own literary works. A postcard issued by the Canadian Antivivisection Society demonstrates this reciprocal relationship; it features Saunders, with the caption, “Author of the world-famous book ‘BEAUTIFUL JOE.’” The author autographed the front of the postcard and signed the back:

“Please do not vivisect our dear dogs, Marshall Saunders.”

Black-and-white postcard featuring a photograph of a middle-aged woman wearing a lab coat and holding a small dog on her lap. The postcard is captioned, “Author of the world-famous book, ‘BEAUTIFUL JOE’” and autographed in black ink, “Yours truly, Marshall Saunders.” The back of the postcard reads “ISSUED BY THE CANADIAN ANTIVIVISECTION SOCIETY, 445A YONGE ST., TORONTO” and is signed by the author. The postcard has not been mailed.

Autographed postcard featuring Margaret Marshall Saunders, “Author of the world-famous book, ‘BEAUTIFUL JOE’” (MIKAN 4921902)

The Legacy

Saunders was a bestselling author by the time of her death on February 15, 1947. Later that year, the Government of Canada recognized her accomplishments by naming her a “Person of National Historical Significance.” Over a century has passed since Margaret Marshall Saunders wrote Beautiful Joe, but still her legacy remains.

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Alyssa Currie is a master’s student from the University of Victoria working in the Literature, Music, and Performing Arts Archives Section at Library and Archives Canada.