It was precisely 150 years ago this week—on July 4, 1865—that the world first met a very special girl, who in the decades since has taught countless readers (and movie- and theatergoers) about the importance of believing in the impossible.
Charles Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, had taken a boat trip exactly three years earlier, on July 4, 1862, with a group that included a girl named Alice Liddell. Liddell was a daughter of the Dean of Christ Church at Oxford, where Dodgson was studying mathematics. (Some people have questioned the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice, although there appears to be little firm evidence that it was not benign.) As the Lewis Carroll Society tells it, it was on that outing that he began to tell the story of another Alice, who found her way to a magical place underground. The character’s real-life inspiration loved the story and asked him to write it down for her, which he did.
That story became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was published in a very limited run by Macmillan on July 4, 1865, with illustrations by John Tenniel. A few weeks later, Tenniel announced that he didn’t like the quality of the first printing and asked to have the edition withdrawn. The book didn’t become more widely available until that holiday season, but according to the University of Florida libraries—which hold a collection of editions of the work—it was from the July 4 printing that Alice Liddell was given her very own copy of the book she helped bring into the world. July 4 is celebrated throughout Oxford as Alice’s Day.
Many other museums, libraries and groups will also celebrate Alice‘s birthday this week; one of the Tenniel illustrations in the gallery above, for example, can be seen at the new exhibit Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, on view now through Oct. 11 at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.
In the 150 years since John Tenniel’s illustrations first helped the world imagine Alice, depictions of the character have evolved—but she has never lost her sense of wonder.