Teaching Difference in a 19th-Century German Alphabet Book

This week I examined two copies of a Fibelbuch, or primer, published by Freidrich Geissler in Leipzig to make sure that they were correctly described.   The texts were identical, consisting of an alphabet, list of vowels, a syllabary, the Ten Commandments, Pater Noster, Creed, proverbs, and multiplication table all in a Gothic type.

They had different sets of illustrations, however. One has depictions of  skilled tradesmen and shopkeepers, with humorous details like a baby trying out its new wicker walker, a boy blowing up a bladder in the butcher’s shop, or  a boy trying pots on his head while his mother negotiated the price for a new piece of crockery.

The other copy features pictures of men and women in different national costumes–Tyrolers, Turks, Finns, Spaniards, and Cossacks.  For some reason, farmers are featured prominently, with couples from Saxony, Altenberger, Tartary, Russia, and Poland.  The pictures of Russian and Poland farmers are paired with pictures of a Russian merchant and his wife and a Polish Jew and his wife.

The one of the Polish Jews caught my eye.  The buildings in the background suggest that they are city dwellers like the Russian merchant and his wife.  The bearded Polish man wears a tall hat, boots, and ankle-length dark robe belted with a wide yellow sash.  His wife wears drop earrings, an orange dress with a form-fitting bodice and lace yoke, a tall yellow headdress, and dainty slippers.

A a b c d e f ff g (Leipzig: Greidrich Geissler, ca. 1830). Cotsen 46436.

I had no idea of the significance of the yellow headdress and sash until I showed the illustration to Ian, who explained that those garments must have been a sartorial marker similar to the yellow badge or patch Jews in Nazi Germany were required to sew to their clothing to distinguish them from Aryans.

Given the long history of laws in Europe and the Near East that required Jews to wear on their clothes markers that unequivocably announced their Jewishness to everyone else, it seems unlikely that it was coincidence or the whim of the colorist.   But there’s no text that explains the significance of the yellow garments to the child reader.

Is this something a child in Leipzig who was just learning to read would already know?  This is a troubling question that cannot be answered here, but it is a powerful reminder that the pleasing pictures in alphabets can communicate silently ideas of sameness and difference.  The illustration of the Polish Jew and his wife is an excellent example of a descriptive and value-free picture that looks innocent until we learn how to read it.


Puss in Boots and Friends on the Cat Walk

Charles Perrault, Contes: Edition du Tricentenaire. Head piece by Joseph Hecht (Paris: Rene Hilsum & Cie, 1928) Cotsen 60396.

What cat in children’s literature approaches the style of Dore’s Puss in Boots?  The turn-out of the extravagantly booted paws, the plumed hat, the tail floating in the air like a dancer’s arm all contribute to the air of effortless grace.

Charles Perrault, Contes. Illustrated by Gustav Dore (Paris: J. Hetzel, 1862) Cotsen 32595.

The equally fine ensemble by Harrison Weir for Puss is set off by a confident feline bearing.  No wonder the ladies find him irresistible.

“The History of Puss in Boots. With twenty-two pictures by Harrison Weir” in The Child’s Wonder Picture Book (London: Ward, Lock and Co., not after 1885). Cotsen 95124.

The doe has eyes only for the noble lion, splendid in lace and velvet.  The pig in the admiral’s costume knows that he hasn’t got a chance.

Eduard Ille, “Der Maskenball der Thiere” in Munchener Bilderbucher nr. 36 (Munchen: Braun & Schneider, ca. 1878) From the collection of Kurt Szafranski. Cotsen 44329.

Tabbies are as alluring as the toms with the right hat and accessories.

My Grandmother’s Cat, or Puss in Boots (London: W. Darton jun., 1811) Cotsen 20048.

“Tittums and Fido” in The Poll-Parrot Picture Book … with twenty-four pages of illustrations printed in colour by Kronheim (London: George Routledge and Sons, ca. 1878) Cotsen 153481.

Of course, cats don’t need clothes to bring out their natural elegance (or ferocity), but illustrators love to dress them up anyway.

Nora Chesson, With Louis Wain in Fairyland. Illustrated by Louis Wain (London, Paris, New York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, not after 1905) Cotsen 28339.

Good grooming is serious business for cats.

“The Cats’ Tea-Party,” illustrated by Harrison Weir in The Poll-Parrot Picture Book … with twenty-four pages of illustrations, printed in colours by Kronheim (London: George Routledge and Sons, ca. 1878) Cotsen 153481.

Or ought to be…

Cover design by Harry B. Neilson for The Jolly Fisher (John F. Shaw & Co. Ltd, not after 1913) Cotsen in process 6163286.

For an awesome gallery of tigers, visit our virtual exhibition…  If you think dogs rule, we’ve got a post for you…