The solution will be spelled out with one of Cotsen’s charming sets of alphabet letters that resembles the one Jane Austen had for playing word games.
As a warm-up, here are some riddles heard around the British school yard, lifted from Iona and Peter Opie’s invaluable The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren:
What did one wall say to the other?
“Meet you at the corner.”
What is the difference between a big black cloud and a lion with a toothache?
One pours with rain the other roars with pain.
Even though the answer to the riddle will be in plain view (a common practice in early illustrated riddle books), you will still need your puzzling cap. While it seems completely counterintuitive to give away the answer, the average difficulty of eighteenth-century riddles was much higher than the ones we tell because they could run anywhere from four to thirty lines. I’ve been thinking that being able to go back and forth between the picture of the subject and the misleading text that describes it may have helped little people learn how to crack the clues.
This rhymed riddle was a classic that was reprinted many times in all kinds of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections of word games. Credit was rarely given to its ingenious creator, better known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels.
We are little airy creatures,
All of diff’rent voice and features;
One of us in glass is set,
One of us you’ll find in jet,
One of us is set in tin,
And the fourth a box within;
If the last you should pursue,
They can never fly from you.
The set of bone alphabet letters we used to spell out the riddle’s answer is my favorite in the collection. These sets of letters usually came in wooden boxes with sliding lids that were were decorated with inlaid “cover titles” of bone or ivory. It’s unclear if the manufacturer or the retailer was responsible for the packaging.
The letters in the set highlighted in this post are laid into a cunningly carved wooden box with a sliding lid that looks like a book. But it has no “cover title” or any other indications of who the manufacturer or retailer might have been. Perhaps the original box was broken or lost, and someone carved this one as a replacement. More likely that the remnants of a much larger set of letters were transferred to this pretty box because it was just the right size.
It’s also possible that customers might have been offered a choice of boxes. The Puzzle Museum owns a carved bone box containing bone letters with a sliding lid about the same size and shape as Cotsen’s, but with different decorations.
The box isn’t the real story here– it’s the distinctive letter forms. They are clearly copies of the early nineteenth-century Roman “fat faces” made popular by Robert Thorne, Vincent Figgins, and William Thorowgood, that are the forerunners of slab serif and typewriter fonts. Here’s an early nineteenth-century handbill that uses one of these wonderful in-your-face fonts that were designed for use in advertising.
The resemblance is unmistakable, even though the bone letters’ serifs are not as skinny and spiky as in the fat faces and the contrasts between the thick and thin strokes not as exaggerated. If the bone letters had been more faithful copies of the typeforms, they probably would have been much too fragile to hold up to extended play. Here’s second comparison of type and bone letter:
This summer when redescribing Cotsen’s collection of alphabet tiles and letters, I noticed that all but this set used some variation of the slab serif, instead of a fat face. This could mean that they can’t possibly date before 1815 or so, when these faces began to appear in type specimens and in job printing. So much for the common misconception that they are eighteenth-century nursery artifacts…. In fact, I strongly suspect most of Cotsen’s sets could date to the mid- to late nineteenth century, but that’s a riddle for another time.
Thanks for playing the puzzler!
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