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

Language—and how learning 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.  I’ve begun to understand more clearly just how easy it is to overlook  language as a provider of meaning(s), in addition to being the container for meaning—after all, letters, syllables, and words are just there, aren’t they?

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. George Orwell, for instance, discusses the use and abuse of language in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” as well as in other essays and in fiction like 1984 and Animal Farm. We don’t necessarily have to share Orwell’s views about the abuses of English to take his broader underlying points that language reflects the values of the person(s) speaking, or writing, and that language has a distinct potential for both clarity—or ambiguity—which can be used—or manipulated—by a writer. William Empson identified “seven types of ambiguity” in language!—at least in poetry—and wrote a book detailing them all, but I’m getting a little far afield of children’s books now…or am I?  Am I being ambiguous? Ironic?  Blame Empson and Orwell, copies of whose books were in the window of Labyrinth Books here in Princeton the other day… Anyway, as Empson pointed out, sometimes this ambiguity and the way we use language is conscious and sometimes this merely reflects our education, culture, and formative influences. Sometimes it’s both intended and unconscious.  (Apart from profoundly affecting the study of English literature, the eccentric Empson eventually grew one of the great beards of all time–but back to our regularly-scheduled program.)

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

The New England Primer, First page of alphabet rhymes
(Christopher Sower, 1764)
(Cotsen 32844)

Meaning can be shaped by language alone but sometimes it’s also 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 about equal—or the visual even more prominent or evocative than the language 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
The New England Primer, (Cotsen 32844)

The New England Primer (Christopher Sower, 1764) Cotsen 32844

The New England Primer, Title page (Christopher Sower, 1764)
Cotsen 32844

Accompanying this verse is an illustrative 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 (here a woodcut) complements the cautionary nature of the text in a relatively vivid way (for the 17th- or 18th-century, at least). This Cotsen copy of this often-reprinted book pictured here is a 1764 edition, published by Christopher Sower of Germantown, Pennsylvania–apparently a well-used book too, judging from its condition, and thus having well served its purpose: being used by child readers and teaching them.

Language is here 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. John Locke had recommended the use of familiar, everyday objects—and pictures of them—as learning aids for educating children and 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 fundamentally ironic to a nineteenth-century reader. Perhaps it was; perhaps it wasn’t. 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 the present-day with all our implicit values and attitudes or to make sweeping, “historicizing” generalizations about what “everyone believed at the time” based on some aspect of language or illustration that we observe now, long after the fact of publication or original reading.

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 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 too.)  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 recently-cataloged 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 latter—the alphabet ladder—and some fashionably-dressed children (the target audience for this 1 shilling book?); the frontispiece-like front pastedown provides a similar illustration, a striking visual presentation, I think.

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

The letter A is illustrated here by a (distinctly 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. 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

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

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

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. 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!  Times change, in terms of what is thought “appropriate” for child-readers…)

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

Collector’s condition???

In the 6th edition of John Carter’s essential ABC for Book Collectors (1980), it is noted on p. 67 that the word “condition” in book collector’s mind “means a good deal more than the volume’s superficial, physical appearance; for the term covers the completeness and integrity of the contents, a proper degree of margin, etc., as well as the beauty or appropriateness or originality, and the state of preservation of the covering.”

Children’s books obviously weren’t on Carter’s radar screen, because if you want to collect historical children’s books, almost nothing comes up to his gold standard.

"Nye Billed=A,B,C for Børn," page 1 with 'annotations'

“Nye Billed=A,B,C for Børn,” page 1 with ‘annotation’

Take the Danish alphabet book, Nye Billed=A,B,C for Børn [New Illustrated ABC for Children] (Alborg, 1778), in the Cotsen Children’s Library. It is one of the earliest alphabets of proper names I’ve ever seen and unusual for having been designed as a set of little picture cards, which were probably supposed to be cut apart by little learners.   It passes the rarity test: when I couldn’t find a description of it, I wrote to a Danish colleague for help.  She was absolutely thrilled to learn of its existence, because she had never heard of it either.

Many collectors I know would never consider giving shelf space to a scruffy pamphlet bound in wrappers of a thickish paper the color of burned porridge.  To add injury to insult, most of the pages have been scrawled upon by disrespectful young persons.  None of it could be graced with the term “marginalia.”  But look closely at the “annotations” and you will find some absolutely delightful stick figures interacting with the illustrations.  If given a choice between a pristine copy and this one with all the doodling, there’s no question in my mind which one is in superior condition…

Page 3: The letter J, as annotated.

Page 3: The letter J, as ‘annotated.’

Page 3: More 'annotations'

Page 3: More ‘annotations.’

Page 4: Even more 'annotations'

Page 4: Even more ‘annotations.’


Detail of 'annotation' for the Letter N

Page 4: The Letter N, as ‘annotated.’