The Pre-History of Christmas Book Shopping

The Christmas season is most wonderful time of the year to pay tribute to the children’s bookseller and this one starts with..

John Newbery
who made a fortune selling Dr. James’ fever powder,
a patent medicine to which references were
strategically planted in his juvenile books.

One of Newbery’s diabolically clever publishing projects for the children’s market was to create a series of books that were suitable for purchase as presents for  any major holiday, whether Christmas, New Year’s, Twelfth Night, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Whitsuntide.   Could this series been the answer to the prayers of every brother, sister, papa, mama, uncle, aunt, godfather and godmother who needed a present at the last minute?   Thanks to Newbery, the philanthropic bookseller of St. Paul’s Church-Yard, perukes, product placement, and plum pudding go together like Macy’s, Santa, and Sedaris.

Digression on critics which is optional reading

Children’s literature critics have declared themselves shocked, shocked, at the unmistakable stench of commercial instincts burbling up in Newbery juveniles, even though it ought to be as plain as the nose on Rudolph’s muzzle that there would be no children’s literature as we know it if John Newbery had not created needs that could only be gratified on his premises.

A handful of modern writers have taken it upon themselves to explain to children the debt of gratitude they owe Mr. Newbery as the namesake of the American Library Association’s annual award for the best American work written for children.  There is Josephine Blackstock’s Songs of Sixpence: A Story about John Newbery (1955) and Russell Roberts’ John Newbery and the Story of the Newbery Medal (2003).  The latest entry in the field is Shirley Granahan’s John Newbery: The Father of Children’s Literature (2009).

Front cover, (New York : Follett Publishing Company, c1955), Songs of Sixpence: A Story about John Newbery, (Private collection)

Quite by accident, I discovered in the Cotsen stacks what appears to be the earliest children’s book about John Newbery: A Book for Jennifer (1940) by Alice Dalgleish, founding editor of Scribner & Sons Children’s Book Division and author of well-regarded historical novels for children.  It was illustrated by Katharine Milhous, who is perhaps best known for the murals she painted for the Pennsylvania WPA and The Egg Tree, the picture book about Pennsylvania Dutch Easter traditions that won the 1950 Caldecott Medal.

If you are familiar with the dark urban landscape of Leon Garfield’s historical fiction set in the eighteenth century, the recreation of Dr. Johnson’s London by Dalgleish and Milhous in A Book for Jennifer is a bit prim and dull.   Milhous’s full-page color plates are paired with the line art based on cuts in eighteenth-century children’s books from the collection of Wilbur Macy Stone, which Dalgleish consulted so that her readers would have some idea of what Jennifer’s books actually looked like.

 A Digression which only Antiquarians and Bibliophiles  may appreciate…

Dalgleish did not give credits to the actual sources of the illustrations she used, but I can vouch that only one or two were reproduced from actual Newbery titles.  There is one howler: the cut that is identified as a picture of John Newbery’s store front is actually an early nineteenth-century one, the Juvenile Library of William Godwin, which can be identified by the sculpture of Aesop over the door.

True to the spirit of her subject, Dalgleish has repackaged the Newbery myth of enlightened entrepreneurship as a Christmas book for American youngsters about a little girl named Jennifer getting not one, but two Newbery books as presents.  With that snow coming down, shouldn’t someone break into a song?

Plate facing page 3, (New York : Scribner, 1941), A Book for Jennifer, (Cotsen 7267)

Page 2, (New York : Scribner, 1941), A Book for Jennifer, (Cotsen 7267)

Here is the scene where Jennifer’s doting godmother gives her a copy of The Important Pocket-Book.   Her godmother is about to leave on for America and she expects Jennifer to track her good and bad deeds and present the diary for inspection upon her return to England.  Jennifer looks underwhelmed by this thoughtful and useful gift, which was an actual Newbery publication that is now of legendary rarity.

Plate facing page 12

Pages 11, A Book for Jennifer

When Jennifer falls sick on Christmas day, her two brothers are driven down to Newbery’s shop to find something to cheer her up while confined to quarters until the plum pudding is ready to be flamed.  Tempted by John-the-Giant-Killer’s Food for the Mind, a collection of riddles which the boys mistake for a version of the famous gory English folk tale, they think better of their first choice and unselfishly select The History of Goody Two-Shoes as perfect for girls, who should not be upset by anything too stimulating (apparently they missed the bit where that the heroine’s father dies because he didn’t get a dose of Dr. James’ Fever Powder in time).  Newbery himself makes a cameo appearance.

Plate facing page 26

Page 25, A Book for Jennifer

“Quaint” was the verdict of the anonymous reviewer in Kirkus.

A final digression for Christmas shoppers that should not be skipped

I would be doing my gentle readers a disservice if this tribute to the great-grandaddy of  children’s booksellers did not close with a puff for three marvelous independent booksellers in the Princeton area, who could give the old man some stiff competition.  To wit…

 

The Bear and the Books on Broad Street in Hopewell has over 4000 titles lovingly and knowledgably selected by Bobbie Fishman, who was the long-time children’s book buyer at Micawber’s and Labyrinth before going out on her own.

 

Jazam’s on Palmer Square has a small but choice selection of books—many signed by the authors or illustrators—complementing with all the wonderful toys and games.  

 

Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street has a cozy nook in the back with everything from board books to YA fiction.  Buyer Annie Farrell has real bookish creds as the daughter of librarian and a rare books curator and a mother of two.

 

Yes, it’s supposed to be more convenient  and cheaper to order from Amazon, but why not visit stores where people who are passionate about children’s literature want to put the best of the best in hands of their customers’ children?   In Princeton we are really lucky to have easy access a truly priceless resource, great children’s booksellers…

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 teacher 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 pretty vivid way that likely stayed in young reader’s minds.

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” with a dunce cap, 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 thought” at the time from our vantage-pont long after the original audience’s reception.

If nothing else, this change from Adam to Apple seemingly reflects an relatively increasing secularization in the mid-1800s, compared with the 1670s (nineteenth-century people were still generally religious, 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 Brothers’ Aunt Lely’s Picture Alphabet (New York, [between 1863 and 1866]).  McLoughlin Brothers, the preeminent American popular children’s book publisher of their time, was a master at providing books—and content—that people wanted to buy, so “marketability” must also have been at least a partial factor in the content they selected here.  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 pioneered in the mid- late-1800s. So printing technology would seem to have played a part in this changeover too. 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 has 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.  (Compare the illustration shown on the right with the cover label shown at the bottom of this posting.)

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

English history is being used along with familiar objects perhaps to add a touch of history to visual examples making letters more vivid. Generally accepted as the first king of a united England, Alfred the Great 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 and can be observed in a number of English children’s books.

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.

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 “new” or topical illustrations or textual content. 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 relevant contemporary 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 shows 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

Yet 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 to the American publication.  (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 anything like a beer mug 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 now, no copy other than Cotsen’s being found in OCLC’s combined libraries catalog.  Sometimes, cheap books in wrappers must have been used and then discarded once their condition deteriorated—unlike more expensive books, which were often more likely to be retained.

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 alphabet book—and one with a clearly moral didactic goal—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 striking wood-engraved title-page vignette depicting a slave sale, and 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 illustrations are the only ones in this twelve-page book, somewhat unusual for the time perhaps, and the 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 had 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