Peter Parley Promoter and the Prehistory of Product Placement


Peter Parley stands center stage, holding up copies of the 1868 Annual for his eager readers. Peter Parley’s Annual: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for Young People. London: Darton and Co., 1868 (Cotsen 70617).

“Christmas Bells and Peter Parley’s Annual have been for many, many years associated in the affections of the rising generation all the world over.  But it is my earnest hope,” declared the avuncular editor, “that my young friends will find amongst the stores of entertainment I have this year provided for them something more durable than Christmas chimes–something that when the merry cadences of those bells have died away, and the pudding is gone, and the holly is taken down and cast into the fire, will serve to make them a Christmas all the year round.”   And what exactly is Peter Parley’s contribution to the promised Annual feast?   “Every variety of wholesome entertainment” larded with knowledge.

But fine words butter no parsnips and a book can’t be judged by its cover.  Does Peter Parley’s Annual for 1868 also contain “things to delight the eye” more than they “gratify the mind,” like its gold-stamped binding decorated with tops, cricket bats, kites, and butterflies?

Among the “things to delight the eye” in the 1868 Annual are  seven color-printed wood-engraved plates, neatly signed “W. Dickes” in the lower right hand corner.  The ones of marine life are particularly nice.


Plate facing p. 110 (Cotsen 70617).


Plate facing p. 174 (Cotsen 70617).

And who took out a full-page illustrated announcement in “Peter Parley’s Annual Advertiser” at the end–William Dickes.  He must have reasoned that if there were an informative advertisement for his full-service business proximate to his fine plates, some papas looking at the book with their children might be inspired to engage the “artist, engraver on wood, lithographer, and oil colour printer” for some venture.


P. 320 in Peter Parley’s Annual Advertiser (Cotsen 70617).

A similar tactic to drum up business was used by another contributor to the 1868 volume.  Eugene Rimmel wrote an article entitled, “Sweet Things at the Paris Exhibition,” but he did not set out to enumerate all the marvelous confections invented for the delight of our palates and the ruin of our teeth” that were arrayed at the World’s Fair–“the lolypops of England, the bonbons of France, the confetti of Italy, the chocolate of Spain, the Lebkuchen of Germany, the biscottes of Belgium, the rahat lakoum of Turkey, the preserved ginger of India, the guava jelly of South America.”   His subject was perfume and one of the marvels described at the Exhibition was a cottage in which “a complete collection of perfumery materials, a still at work, and models of all the implements used in the trade” were on view.


P. 167 (Cotsen 70617).

And if M. Rimmel’s readers were unable to visit the cottage in person, they could learn about the sweet olfactory art in his Book of Perfumes, which was one of Christmas novelties that could be purchased at any of three convenient locations in London.


Detail from p. 315 in Peter Parley’s Annual Advertiser (Cotsen 70617).

The enterprising Mr. John Davies surely would have imitated Dickes and Rimmel, if the contents of the Annual had featured an appropriate selection.  But perhaps it was just as well that there wasn’t…


Is the affecting poem “She never smiles” the work of John Davies, surgeon-dentist, or his brother Maurice, the inventor of Royal Balmoral Tooth Paste? We may never know. P. 342 in Peter Parley’s Annual Advertiser (Cotsen 70617).

The advertising supplements at the end of the Peter Parley Annuals are an excellent way to get an idea of what Victorians bought and to speculate what real or imagined need, the products were supposed to satisfy.  Print and digital facsimiles often exclude this kind of –another reason for collecting the old books.

When Piglets Oversleep: The Award-Winning Picture Book “The Reason for Being Late” by Yao Jia

Haven’t we all searched for a good reason for being late–one that has the appearance of being legitimate, that is beyond our control, and that we hope to give to our friends, teachers, and colleagues without having to own our faults? In The Reason for Being Late (迟到的理由), a delightful picture book by a 26-year-old Chinese artist named Yao Jia (姚佳), a piglet does just that in an unnervingly quiet school hallway, searching hard for the best reason to give to his second-grade teacher before timidly pushing open the door to his classroom.

The Reason for Being Late by Yao Jia. Jinan Shi: Ming tian chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen copy)

The Reason for Being Late (Jinan, China: Tomorrow Publishing House, 2014) tells a humorous and sympathetic story about a piglet who has overslept. Every page of the book, that is, from the front fly leaf to the title page to the back pastedown, is well crafted with interesting visual details that reward slow reading and observant eyes. Winning first place in the Fifth Hsin Yi Picture Book Awards, The Reason for Being Late is among the best picture books China has to offer her young readers today.
The picture book opens with a close-up view of an alarm clock, face down on the edge of a piece of furniture. The owner of the clock, to be revealed on the next page as a panicked-looking piglet, must have reached out, half-asleep, to turn it off, and knocked over the loyal caller. We cannot see what time it is. The only hint comes from sunlight dazzling through the gap in the curtains. We follow the hurried piglet across a quiet school playground and into a quiet school hallway. There our protagonist stops to catch his breath. He decides that he must come up with a reason for being late. First, he considers borrowing his classmates’ excuses. Perhaps he can claim he is late because, like the elephant, he spends too much time blowing his nose. The piglet discards this idea — his snout is so much shorter than the elephant’s trunk that the teacher will not be convinced.
Next he thinks of the alligator’s excuse of taking too long to brush his teeth. But this excuse would fall flat too — the number of teeth he has does not justify the amount of dental hygiene required by a wide-mouthed alligator.
10To see whose excuse the piglet next entertains, you need to turn the book ninety degrees clockwise. We see a giraffe taking her time as she wraps a scarf around her long neck. But this excuse would be a tall tale for a chubby piglet. Of the piglet’s three classmates, the giraffe’s life is the most richly imagined. The artist apparently indulged herself in customizing a cozy home for the gentle long-necked creature, even down to the special drinking cup the giraffe likes to use, how she playfully poses for photos, and how a young giraffe keeps track of her growth in height.
12In the second part of the piglet’s brainstorming effort, he changes strategy and searches for a more plausible reason that may even put a positive spin on his lack of punctuality. (Incidentally, this is a well-known technique for answering tricky questions.) He has a brilliant idea — he could say that his Dad purchased so many alarm clocks to help him be on time and he had to turn them off one by one? The double-spread illustration that accompanies the text, or the climax of the story, shows our piglet up a ladder that leans against shelves, and attending to clocks in every endearing shape.
16Besides humor, imagination, and intriguing visual detail, the creativity of The Reason for Being Late is also reflected in the expressive power achieved through font and layout of the text. The font style and size convey meanings and emotional tensions. When we see the smaller, thinner characters “Knock, knock, knock” (笃、笃、笃), we sense that it is not with boldness that the piglet has tapped at the classroom door. Similarly, as the piglet’s words, “I…I…I got up late” gradually shrink in font size, we hear his voice fading ever softer.

The images and text of The Reason for Being Late are to be savored and re-read. Do not skip the pastedown pages and fly leaves — actually, pay particular attention to those pages that we typically turn over without so much as a glance, and I promise you will be rewarded with joyful discoveries.


Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work and feedback to this post!