A is for Apple … Adam … King Alfred … Abolitionist…

Alphabet Books: Some Variations on a Theme

The Pictured Alphabet, Front wrapper (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

The Pictured Alphabet (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

Language—and how learning about language can be presented in children’s books—was on my mind this past week, while cataloging three new ABC books here at the Cotsen Library. Before I began working with Cotsen books, I would have said that books about language or the alphabet–especially children’s books–would have been more or less “content neutral.” After all, what could be more straightforward than teaching letters of the alphabet, syllables, short words, and basic reading, right?  Wrong…as I’ve discovered–and enjoyed discovering.  Since letters, syllables, and words may seem to be just there on the page, it’s easy to overlook how language acts as a provider of meaning(s), in addition to being a container for meaning.

The anti-slavery alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)  Cotsen new accession

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)
Cotsen new accession

But language is inherently charged with meaning, and its use full of cultural values and ideology, as various writers have observed. Language’s potential for both clarity or ambiguity can be used—or manipulated—by a writer or speaker.  Sometimes the way we use language is conscious and sometimes our use of language reflects our education, culture, and formative influences. Sometimes it’s both intended and unconscious.

In a book, meaning can also be shaped, extended, or modified by visual elements. This is particularly evident in children’s illustrated books, where the balance of text and illustrative elements can be more equal—or the visual can even take precedence over the text that it “accompanies.” Take early alphabet books, for instance. The New England Primer, the first primer (or ABC and elementary reader) first issued in the United States in the 1670s, famously begins its alphabet rhymes with the verse:

In Adam's Fall... Detail (Cotsen 32844)

“In Adam’s Fall…” Detail
(Christopher Sower, 1764)
The New England Primer, (Cotsen 32844)

New England Primer,  First page of alphabet rhymes (Cotsen 32844)

New England Primer,
First page of alphabet rhymes (Cotsen 32844)

Accompanying this verse is a woodcut showing Adam and Eve standing under the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, apparently just before eating the apple. Apart from the mnemonic aspect of the rhyme itself–making it easy to remember (and recite)—the illustration complements the cautionary nature of the text in a relatively vivid way.

Language is being presented as more or less inseparable from religion and moral teaching: A is for Adam, the original co-sinner, for the eating of the Apple. Other illustrative examples in the Primer include Job, Queen Esther, and the whale that swallowed Jonah—along with a cat, a dog, and an “idle fool,” everyday object-examples presumably readily accessible to children at the time. This is consistent with Locke’s recommended use of familiar, everyday objects—and pictures of them—as learning aids for educating children and for fixing concepts more vividly in their minds.

A is for Apple Aunt Lely's Picture Alphabet (McLougliin Bros., [between 1863 and 1866]) Cotsen 4393

“A is for Apple…”
Aunt Lely’s Picture Alphabet
(McLougliin Bros., [bet. 1863 and 1866]) Cotsen 4393

I’ve always found it interesting that some later alphabet books replace Adam with Apple. For a reader in this Age of Irony, it’s hard not to find this a little ironic, but it’s hard to tell if this would have seemed so to a nineteenth-century reader.  Perhaps it was ironic to some readers, but not to others. It’s always dangerous—although tempting—to view the past through the filter of our implicit present-day values and attitudes or to make sweeping, “historicizing” generalizations about what “everyone believed at the time” long after the original audience’s reception.

If nothing else, this change from Adam to Apple reflects an relatively increasing secularization in the mid-1800s, as compared with the 1670s (nineteenth-century people were still generally religious then, of course, but religion had been complemented, or diffused, by other spiritual and cultural influences).  Merely one of many ABC books using “A is for Apple” is McLoughlin Bros. Aunt Lely’s Picture Alphabet (New York, [between 1863 and 1866]).  McLoughlin Bros., the preeminent American popular children’s book publisher of the era, was a master at providing books—and content—that people wanted to buy, so “marketability” must have been at least a partial factor too in the content.  Maybe fire and brimstone didn’t sell as well in the mid- and latter-1800s and early 1900s? Perhaps Apple was a little more “up-to-date” and familiar to children then too? Likely, some combination of all these factors factored into the text and illustration of this “A is for Apple” book.

From Apple to Apple Pie... Chromolithographed illustration from Aunt Lely's Picture Alphabet (McLougliin Bros., [between 1863 and 1866]) Cotsen 4393

From THE apple, to apples, to apple pie… Chromolithographed illustration from A, Apple Pie (Warne, & Co., [after 1885) Cotsen 31090

Apples are also nicely colorful objects, suited to the sort of chromolithographed color illustration that McLoughlin Bros. pioneered in the mid- late-1800s. So printing technology would also seem likely to have played a part in this changeover. Even though Aunt Lely’s Alphabet (pictured above) doesn’t have colored illustrations, many of McLouglin’s books did, and you can readily imagine how strikingly visual the large apple shown in Aunt Lely’s Alphabet would be if it was colored in bright red. (Chromolithographs are often notable for their extra-vivid, slightly surreal colors.)  Sometimes, the Apple even found its way onto an apple pie, as in Warne’s A is for Apple Pie, thus moving us all the way from a cautionary Garden of Eden to a veritable kitchen cook-book.

Three Recently-cataloged Alphabet Books

The Alphabet Ladder, Frontispiece pastedown (G. Martin , [bet. 1817 and 1839]), new accession

The Alphabet Ladder, Frontispiece pastedown (G. Martin, [bet. 1817 and 1839]), Cotsen new accession

The Alphabet Ladder, or Gift for the Nursery (London, after 1817) provides a relatively early example of a colored alphabet book; it dates from some time after 1817 (when its publisher George Martin began publishing) and features hand- or stencil-colored engravings.

The front wrapper of this sixteen-page book features a paper onlay depicting a Britannia-like Fame (name printed on her shield) standing atop a structure of alphabet letters—the alphabet ladder, perhaps?—and some fashionably-dressed children (the target audience for this not inexpensive one shilling book?); the frontispiece-like front pastedown provides a similar illustration, a striking visual presentation, I think.

The letter A is illustrated here by a (boy-like) King Alfred, instead of by Adam or an Apple, an interesting complement to the Bullfinch pictured below, a bird that would probably have been familiar to a child-reader at the time.

A is for King Alfred, The Alphabet Ladder,  (G. Martin , [bet. 1817 and 1839]), new accession

“A is for King Alfred,” The Alphabet Ladder, (G. Martin, [bet. 1817 and 1839]),
Cotsen new accession

So English history has replaced—or used along with—familiar objects to make the letters more vivid. Generally accepted as the first king of a united England, Alfred would have a strong patriotic connotation to an English boy or girl, especially about this time, the era of the Napoleonic Wars, in which England and France of course figured large. So it’s not so very surprising that another illustrative colored engraving presents a sword-flourishing “Frenchman,” looking very much like Napoleon himself, complete with a bicorne hat tucked under his arm.  Parodic mockery of a vainglorious Napoleon was a staple of English satirists at the time.

Pictured above the Frenchman is a brightly-colored “Egg Plum,” another object familiar to children, as was the Bullfinch. This juxtaposition of historical personages and everyday items or animals may seem a bit strange to us now, though.

F is for Frenchman, The Alphabet Ladder,  Cotsen new accession

“F is for Frenchman…”
The Alphabet Ladder,
Cotsen new accession

But such combinations are not all the unusual in children’s ABCs, and it was also quite common for a publisher to “update” a book with some contemporary or “new” illustrations or with some other material. A quick and dirty way to provide a “revised edition” perhaps and encourage some new sales? And what better way to entice a young reader than blatantly patriotic and directly-topical examples in wartime?  Offhand, I’d say that The Alphabet Ladder—and it’s illustrative examples—would appeal more to a boy that a girl; apart from the warlike soldiers, almost all of the children pictured inside the book are boys—adding an interesting gendered aspect to the  presentation of the actual alphabet, which is belied by the cover and frontispiece featuring two boys and two girls.

We find a similar juxtaposition of commonplace illustrative examples and patriotic ones in another new Cotsen title: Solomon King’s: The Pictured Alphabet (New York, ca. 1820). K is for Kite, another familiar object to a child then, but N is for…Napoleon, somewhat surprisingly perhaps in an American book of the time.

K is for Kite, N is for Napoleon, The Pictured Alphabet, (Solomon King, 1820) Cotsen new accession

K is for Kite, N is for Napoleon,
The Pictured Alphabet
, (Solomon King, ca. 1820)
Cotsen new accession

Another pair of facing illustrative wood-engravings show a Dunce to illustrate the letter D and a Guard the letter G, the latter looking distinctly English (and I think grenadier guards were generally a European type of soldier?).

D is for Dunce, G is for Guard, The Pictured Alphabet, (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

D is for Dunce, G is for Guard,
The Pictured Alphabet
,
Cotsen new accession

Another pair of illustrations shows a tankard—Quenching thirst, I guess—to illustrate the letter Q, which faces the letter T’s Trumpet, here having been affixed with the letters “US,” adding both a topical and patriotic military touch.  (And while a tankard was more of an all-purpose drinking cup in 1820 then than it is now, the association with beer and ale must have been apparent when this book was published.  Imagine a children’s alphabet featuring beer mug, or the like, now!)

Q is for Quench, T is for Trumpet The Pictured Alphabet, (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

Q is for Quench, T is for Trumpet,
The Pictured Alphabet,
Cotsen new accession

Some of these combinations suggest that the printing blocks may have either come from Europe, or been adaptations of European ones—1820 is relatively early in American printing and publishing development, with type and book-printing blocks still often being imported from Europe rather than being manufactured domestically. King’s book is a fairly simple production—even a somewhat primitive one—small in size (just 3 ½ inches tall) with simple illustrations and no text other than the alphabet letters themselves; after all it is a one penny book, as the publisher’s advertisement on the lower wrapper tells us. (In contrast, the relatively deluxe Alphabet Ladder has a cover price of a full English shilling for the “coloured” version.)  But The Pictured Alphabet is also quite a rare book, no copy other than Cotsen’s being found in OCLC’s combined libraries catalog.

And they sighed by reason of their bondage... The Anti-Slavery Alphabet,  Cotsen new accession

“And they sighed by reason of their bondage…”
Title page vignette The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)
Cotsen new accession

"For indeed, I was stolen out of the land," The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)  Cotsen new accession

“For indeed, I was stolen out of the land,”
Vignette on title page verso
The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)
Cotsen new accession

Another intentionally topical–and distinctly morally didactic–alphabet book is the Anti-Slavery Society’s: The Anti-Slavery Alphabet (Belfast, 1849). Apart from the very title and didactic approach of the text, there’s a wood-engraved title-page vignette depicting a slave sale, with another illustration on the verso side depicting a slave telling a seated white man and woman: “For indeed I was stolen out of the land.”

Even without the caption text beneath them, these two illustrations make their meaning clear. These striking illustrations are the only ones in this twelve-page book, somewhat unusual for the time perhaps, and gathering of printed pages comes within plain paper wrappers with no text, advertising, or illustration on them. Perhaps this is a function of cost? Or perhaps the publisher like the Anti-Slavery Society didn’t think that such “marketing” aspects were appropriate (or needed) for a book presumably sold or given away by/to people of strong conviction? These conjectures are just a couple of the possible explanations.

A is for Abolitionist... The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)  Cotsen new accession

A is for Abolitionist…
The Anti-Slavery Alphabet,
Cotsen new accession

But the four-line alphabet rhymes for each alphabet letter speak compellingly to the book’s underlying moral purpose: to teach children about the evils of slavery and move them to moral awareness, in part by making them aware of their own potential complicity for enjoying sweet treats made from slave-produced sugar. Apart from the A,B,C rhymes pictured at right, some other verses read:

I is the Infant, from the arms
Of its fond mother torn
And, at a public auction, sold
With horses, cows, and corn.

S is the Sugar, that the slave
Is toiling hard to make,
To put in your pie and tea,
Your candy, and your cake.

U is for Upper Canada,
Where the poor slave has found
Rest after all his wanderings
For it is British ground!

Why “Upper Canada” and “British ground”?  While this book may seem directed at American audiences, it was printed in Belfast, Ireland. Escaped slaves often tried to reach Canada, via the Underground Railroad and other means, because slavery has been outlawed in most of the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.  Canada was then part of the British Empire, and Upper Canada was the area what we now know as Southern Ontario, bordering New York State (Lower Canada being Quebec).

So, looking at this batch of three new Cotsen alphabet books, I think we can understand some of the many, wide-ranging, “educational” goals that ABC books subserved, teaching language mechanics being just one.

Three Recently-cataloged Cotsen Library Alphabet Books Cotsen new accessions

Three Recently-cataloged Cotsen Library Alphabet Books
Cotsen new accessions

School Days in Children’s Books…

One of the interesting aspects about cataloging children’s books is that you get to see quite an amazing variety of materials–“children’s books” includes fiction, stories, poetry, history, as well as books about history, science, technology, nature, animals, birds, insects, not to mention illustrated books of all shapes and sizes, and books meant to educate children, “juveniles” and what we would now term “young adults”.  Some scholars don’t really consider instructional books and materials to be children’s “literature” per se, but these non-classroom educational books and materials constitute an important part of the Cotsen collection too–along with certain kinds of  games, and ephemera… The list goes on and on…

When cataloging, I often encounter a dizzying array of material on a semi-random basis, since books are generally cataloged in the order that they’ve been acquired by a curator or collector.  The sheer variety is part of the fun.  But sometimes, I serendipitously encounter books on similar subjects that seem to complement each other or to suggest connections that wouldn’t have occurred to me if only looking at one alone.  Just this week, I saw several  educational books about teaching children that also pictured children themselves in the accompanying illustrations.  Let’s take a look…

Frontispiece : The Boys' School

Frontispiece: The Boys’ School, or Traits of Character in Early Life / by Miss Sandham (London: John Souter, 1821?) Cotsen acc. no. 6100564

The engraved frontispiece of The Boys’ School, or Traits of Character in Early Life (undated but published about 1821) shows a well-appointed (and generally quite orderly!) school-room–notice all the books and several globes on the shelves in the background.  A well-dressed boy expounds an astronomical problem to a smiling master sitting at his desk in front of a small class.  Note the compass the boy holds, the telescope, and the other astronomy, navigation, or  time-keeping paraphernalia in the foreground too.  Looking at the illustration, it’s not clear to me how much attention the other boys are paying to the recitation though, but at least they’re in their seats!  Generally, a scene of enlightened decorum is effectively presented.

The frontispiece pretty much speaks for itself, but the text it accompanies tells us that this is a private school for a “limited number of boys,” and that Mr. Morton, the master was “good-natured” with a “steadiness of temper.”

It’s worth pointing out that, while the process of education is depicted in the frontispiece, the real object of this book is the moral education of its readers, as the author makes clear in her preface. The main character is one of the “children of affliction”–an orphan named William Falkner of small size and weak body–who is at first ridiculed by other students for his “personal defects” at the school, but who shows his mental and moral strength in the course of the story via his accomplishments.  In many respects, this presentation is characteristic of English “moral tales” for children of its era.

Moving back in time, Elementary Dialogues for the Improvement of Youth (published in 1790 as the first English version, of Joachim Campe’s Kleine Seelenlehre für Kinder) is presented in the form of a dialogue between a tutor and his students.  While generally benevolent, the tutor employs some educational techniques not exactly in accord with current practices today.  At one point, for instance, he appears at the beginning of the day “with a knotted handkerchief in his hand; and without speaking, strikes each of the boys with it.”  This isn’t as punishment for misbehavior though, but to demonstrate cause and effect to the boys in a way they’ll remember.

"the poor blockhead at his wit's end

“The poor blockhead at his wit’s end”: Elementary Dialogues for the Improvement of Youth / by J.H. Campe (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1792) Cotsen acc. no. 6334569

One of the illustrations depicts what I first thought was a studious boy in a library or study–maybe a model scholar?.  There’s no caption to key a response, but notice the books, including one open on the desk before the boy. Take a look for yourself and see what you think!

Yet the accompanying text tells a different story.  The tutor’s narrative describes the boy as a “poor blockhead at his wit’s end.”  Unable to do a merchant’s apprenticeship text in writing and arithmetic, the boy “struck his forehead to correct himself for want of diligence … having profited little by education and…lost his time in running about and at play.”

As the text makes explicit, the tutor first shows this illustration to his students–as he does with the fifteen others presented in the book–and then elicits responses from them as he explains the context–which is immediately apparent to the boys in this case, who “read” the illustration more correctly than I did!  Perhaps the moral here–at least for catalogers–is that you can’t tell a story by looking at one picture!

In some books, the illustrations make visible in graphical terms what the author is trying to describe in the text–they play a secondary or supporting role.  In other books, such as toybooks by Caldecott, the illustrations ironically comment upon, or even undercut, the text; they can even become the primary narrative element.  (And, to be honest, in some children’s books, there’s little relation between text and illustration; the illustrations are essentially decorative.)  In Elementary Dialogues, text and illustration work together, the pictures intended to “make sensible” to children the “ideas” that the author wants to present.  This method is meant to leave “the pleasure of discovering [the ideas] to the children,” and is consistent with the theories that Locke presented for using illustrations and objects for children’s education.

Having had all this moral and conceptual education, it’s time for a break, don’t you agree?

And so apparently do the students shown in the engraved frontispiece of Christmas Holidays: a Poem Written for the Amusement & Instruction of All Good Masters & Misses in the Known World by Tommy Tell-Truth, B.A., published circa 1767 (some titles are too good to shorten!).

Frontispiece: Christmas Holidays

Frontispiece: Christmas Holidays: a Poem (London: H. Roberts & H. Turpin [ca. 1767] (Cotsen acc. no. 6143802

Here we see an eighteenth-century English class on the verge of their Christmas break.   A benevolent-looking master gives out a prize, or treat, to one student, perhaps a star pupil? The rest of the students look like they’re about to explode with delight.  (Remember that feeling yourself when in school?) One boy skates out of the picture at lower right, school-bag and hat in hand; other students stand and cheer (Huzza!) or chatter amongst themselves–a sense of festive jollity prevails over order or decorum. Compare this scene with that depicted in the 1820’s Boy’s School frontispiece above, in particular the number of students, their clothing and the general classroom decor.  (We’ve moved from the world of Jane Austen back to the world of Tom Jones, or so it seems to me.)

Detail of frontispiece:  (Cotsen acc. no. 6143802)

Detail of frontispiece: Christmas Holidays (Cotsen acc. no. 6143802)

Of particular interest to me are the boys shown on the left side of the engraving.  In the foreground, one boy stuffs his school-bag (his back completely turned to the master) while another sprawls on the floor, holding his stomach in laughter while clutching a paper, perhaps his term grades?  Meanwhile, two boys feed the fire with what appears to be the master’s birch rod and disciplinary paddle.  The whole scene is one of blissful abandon and festive misrule, not inappropriate considering that another engraving in the book, titled “Twelfth Night,” depicts the festivity of a group of carousing adults, some apparently in their cups.