Marks in Books 6: A Transcription of Baby Talk in The Imperial Alphabet


The front wrapper of The Imperial Alphabet (Cotsen 9108). It looks as if the wrong title label was slapped on.

This week I found a most unusual picture book in the nineteenth-century English pamphlets: The Imperial Alphabet  (London: E. Marshall, not after 1831), which sounds as if it must be full of pictures of soldiers and flags and horses.  What the pamphlet offered its little readers was pretty standard fare: an alphabet of lower-case Roman letters, a rhyming alphabet that begins “A was an Apple.  Pray, have you not seen/  One that was striped with red and with green?” plus the “Numerical pastime,” aka the nursery rhyme “One two,/ Buckle my shoe.”

What makes The Imperial Alphabet  a remarkable survival is that it was used by a mother to record her little boy’s early attempts to talk.   She didn’t use the blank pages as a diary, as is so often the case.  Instead she seems to have showed him the pictures, asked him “What is this?” and recorded the actual pronunciation of his words and translation, when appropriate, on the plates of the book.  The note at the head of the title page “Watling 17th Oct. 1831” suggests when and where the exercise took place, but there are Watling Streets in London, Dublin, and St. Albans, so we can’t be sure where mother and son were living at the time.


Over the frontispiece is written, “My darling child John Archibald’s way of explaining all the pictures,” so she must have been Mrs. Archibald.  The frontispiece is a version of an image of instruction that appeared in countless editions of William Lily’s Latin grammar.  Below the tree of knowledge are little John’s gurglings, “Pitty Tee.  Baw!  Too Baw!”  If his mother hadn’t indicated that “baw” was “boy,” I would have guessed John was referring to the apples on the ground, which look remarkably like balls decorated with letters of the alphabet.   The title page vignette of the bird prompted, “Gake Doodle Doo” or “Great Doodle Doo” which in John-speak meant “Bird.”   It’s a lark, not a rooster, and the cut dates back to the 1750s, where it appeared in the Lilliputian Magazine, the first children’s periodical published by John Newbery.


All the subjects on the plate for Apple to Fish are familiar objects, but some of John’s words for them need interpretation.    “Baa fy” for “butterfly” is easy, but  “daidy” in “Daidy. Apply” is obscure, as is “Bill doo” over “Dog.”  In 1831, “moo-cow milk” suggests that the phrase was well-established as baby talk.  John couldn’t manage the “sh” at the end of “Fish,”  but he identified “Egg” as something he father liked to eat: “Papa Yoig.”


The second plate is a mixture of animals and things and John identified them all. “Goke” for “goat,” “Baa Baa Feep” for “lamb,” and  “moc” for “mouse.”   Could “Poo yay” is an attempt to say the name of a pet rabbit instead of “hare.”  It surely isn’t “Puss,” which was a synonym for a rabbit or hare.  John knew  that the “Ink-Stand” was off limits to him: “Ing no tuss.”  “Kite” seems to have elicited an excited response from him: “Mimi kiye,” which meant “Mikey’s kite.”  Mikey could have been a sibling or a neighbor.


The words on the plate for the letters T through Z seem to have given John some trouble.  For example, he couldn’t pronounce the final “p” in “Top.”   The picture of a traditional head yoke seems to have thrown him for a loop.  The two bows, which go over the heads of the team of oxen, looked like whips (“Fipp”) to him.   Mama was able to construe “Stupid (or striped) Donkey” from “Tupie Nia” but she didn’t seem to know any more than I do what “Tu pa” meant with reference to the picture of the urn.    “Watch” and “Xerxes” were two other things John readily associated with his father.


The final engraved plate had other family associations for John.  “Queen” was of course his mama, while “Nag” had to be her horse (I wonder if he was prompted in some way).   A favorite dish “appa pa” appeared above “Robin,” which he identified as “Datey Ba.”  Only his mother could have known he was trying to say “Jane’s bird.”  Song birds were often kept as pets by girls, so Jane may have been another sibling.vignettepage23a

John knew exactly what the final illustration was: the chicken standing by the edge of the pond was “Doodle doo waa waa.”  Who knew babies in the early nineteenth-century had the same problem saying “water” as babies do now?  (“Moo-cow” is in the Oxford English Dictionary, but not this sense of “waa waa.”)  The ducks he passed over.

Did Mrs. Archibald have any reason to have done this besides being amazed by anything her little man did?  If she took the education of her children seriously, then she probably was familiar with the influential treatise Practical Education (1798) by Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard.  The father-daughter collaborators did indeed have plenty of hands-on experience with children: Richard fathered upon four wives twenty-two children, thirteen of whom survived; Maria, the eldest of his daughters, was intimately involved in bringing up her many half-sisters and brothers.

The Edgeworths recommended that mothers imitate Richard’s first wife Honora, who kept a notebook of “all the trifling things which mark the progress of the mind in childhood” because education as an “experimental science” would progress through observation rather than theory.   The Imperial Alphabet was a kind of register of John’s progress just like Honora Edgeworth’s notebooks.  Maybe Mrs. Archibald used others of John’s books the same way, but it is more likely that the normal demands of motherhood were too great to allow her to continue.  After all, how many baby books are completely filled in, even for the first arrival to the family?  That this copy of The Imperial Alphabet was not discarded as in substandard condition is a tribute to the acuity of the bookseller who offered it to Mr. Cotsen.  They both realized that all the writing inside it was what made it special.

Halloween Costume Crisis? Some Last-Minute Ideas from the Collection

halloween-storage-com-pumpkin-paintingNow that the end-of-the-year holiday season in America has been pushed back from Thanksgiving to Halloween over the last ten years or so, the festivities associated with October 31st have changed dramatically, not the least of with their profitability–$8.4 billion this year.

Compared to now, the bar was set shockingly low in Manhattan Beach, California, my hometown in the 1960s.  No one considered painting pumpkins.   A day or two before Halloween we hacked crude faces in pumpkins with kitchen knives instead of a selection of cunning little saws.  By first grade, I had graduated from trick-or-treating under the supervision of a sane adult to running around with a pack of neighborhood kids after dark.   Most of us wore homemade costumes and carried swag bags recycled from the grocery store. When we had reached the legal limit of candy, we would head over to the house of Skipper Frank, a local kiddie television show host, to admire the audio-animatronic horror sitting on his porch, being careful not to  set off his bad-tempered Afghan hounds.

One thing hasn’t changed–some one (meaning mom) is under considerable pressure to make their children’s dreams of disguises that can’t be topped come true.  Mothers shake in their boots when outfitting has been  left so long that they can begin living in dread against the day their angel kvetches, “I’ve never forgotten the time I had to go around as a friendly ghost in an old ripped pillow case that was so long I tripped over it and fell down and lost almost all my candy because YOU said the mermaid suit I REEEEALLY wanted was too hard to make.”


The Halloween nightmare of mothers who aren’t crafty…

To put that maternal anxiety in perspective, look at some examples of gay apparel children donned during the heyday of fancy-dress balls in England during the late 1890s and early 1900s.  Fairy tale and storybook characters, queens and clowns (Pierrot was not a scary creep) were all favorites for dress-up costumes then.  The publisher, Dean’s Rag Book Company, also marketed a brochure promoting different costumes based on illustrations in their books–you paid for the instructions, but received the “rag book material” gratis as thanks for the willingness to be a living advertisement for Dean at a public ball or carnival.  Unfortunately, the Cotsen textile collection does not own an example of the fancy dress costumes.


Alice Hanslip, Fancy Dress A.B.C. Dean’s Rag Book, number 49. London: Dean’s Rag Book Company, 1905 (Cotsen 74181).

Another book in the collection confirms that costumes like these did not just exist in the eye of the illustrator.   It features a dozen plates of fabulous costumes, any of which makes the construction of the adorable mermaid suit look like child’s play.  Miller’s costumes also suggest that they were built to last for more than one party for more than one child.  For each of the late Victorian costumes, color choices, fabric suggestions, estimates for yardage and special materials were all provided.  It was also possible for families with deep pockets to purchase them ready-made.  Neither option was especially reasonable, from the standpoint of either time or money.


The choices include Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, and a fairy godmother. Children’s Fancy Ball Costumes Illustrating Familiar Characters from Nursery Rhymes. London: Samuel Miller, ca. 1905 (Cotsen 1691).

Nowdays trick-or-treaters wouldn’t recognize many of the characters in the Miller book, so of course new ones from contemporary children’s books, cartoons, and movies have taken their place. How about some of the strong women from Greek mythology and French history memorialized in the book of pantins, or jointed paper dolls, below?  They could be the inspiration for a new super heroine with or without the horse.  No need to explain who Penthesilea was, except in a head-to-head with a mom with a chair in the  Classics department.


Job’s pantin of Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, killed at Troy by Achilles, is decently covered up, but still looks pretty fierce. Aristide Fabre, Amazones d’hier et d’aujourd’hui. Illustrated by Job (i.e. Jacques Maris Gaston Onfroy de Breville). London: Hachette, ca. 1905 (Cotsen 150584).


The book’s front board features Joan of Arc and la Grande Mademoiselle.


Twiggy Paper Doll. Racine, Wisconsin: Whitman, c.1967 (Cotsen in process 7419826).

How about something less ambitious, more modern, but still a little retro?   This paper doll book manufactured as merchandise to be sold during super-model Twiggy’s American tour in 1968 made it easy for her little fans to strut her style.


With a pair of fishnet stockings, you’re ready to go.


This is the actual dress bound into the paper doll book. It is one of the more restrained ensembles in the book. Don’t pretend there wasn’t a fake fur mini coat in neon colors hanging in the closet for years…

Take heart, set up the sewing machine, grab your glue gun (or credit card) and remember that even Martha Stewart doesn’t hit the bull’s eye every year..


The Queen of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things.

And when your husband asks for help coming up with something to wear to the office Halloween party, take a hint from the newest addition to Cotsen’s paper doll collection.  Inspiration is as close as your husband’s closet…  Add that chicken suit lying around from a previous Halloween, he can say he’s Albert Einstein  going to a party at the Institute.


einstein Gift of John Bidwell, gift of Molly Bidwell and Susan Klaiber.