Noah’s Art: Designing Arks for Children

Noah’s Ark Toys

For centuries the story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 has been an inspiration to toymakers. Thanks to the biblical connection, miniature arks are the best known of the so-called Sunday toys or quiet amusements appropriate for the Sabbath.

Noah's ark from l'arche de Noé (Paris:1880)

Noah’s ark from l’arche de Noé (Paris:1880)

Examples as early as the seventeenth century survive and famous German toymaker Georg Hieronymous Bestelmeier advertised elaborate, expensive sets in his enormous 1803 catalogue. During the nineteenth century the entry into the ark came into its own as a subject for high-end toys, novelty book formats, and nursery friezes.

The recently-opened Cotsen Gallery exhibition features two of Cotsen’s most spectacular arks–one a building toy, the other a panorama:

  • Le déluge universel: Construction de l’arche de Noé (Paris: Matenet, ca. 1880);
  • Lothar Meggandorfer’s Artist’s Dummy and Color Proofs for Arche Noah: Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1903).

These toys were displayed against two different backgrounds, reproductions of illustrations adapted from related children’s artwork:

  • Warwick Hutton’s Noah and the Great Flood (New York: Atheneum, 1977), a Margaret K. McElderry Book;
  • Peter Spier’s Caldecott Medal-winning Noah’s Ark (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1977).

Le déluge universel: Construction de l’arche de Noé (Paris: Matenet, ca. 1880).

Full set of l'arche de Noé:  the ark, stand-up figures and scenery, and illustrated box, with Hutton's artwork as background.

Full set of l’arche de Noé: the ark, stand-up figures and scenery, and illustrated box, with Hutton’s artwork as background.

This toy with its combination of pictorial blocks and stand-up figures, including animals, people, and background scenery, is something of a departure from the traditional ark with a removable roof or top deck that allows it to double as storage for the accompanying sets of paired animals.

Descriptive sign (shown next to the Ark in photo left), dating the Flood very precisely in 1536 BC.

Descriptive sign (shown next to the Ark in previous photo), dating the Flood very precisely in 1536 BC.

The design was not unique to Le déluge universel: there is a similar set representing the fall of Canton in 1858 during the second Opium War at the Getty Research Institute.

Lithographed box lid, with stand-up figures repeating some poses.

Lithographed box lid, with stand-up figures repeating some poses.

Like many elaborate late nineteenth-century French toys, a very showy illustration lithographed by the H. Jannin firm decorates the box lid.

Stand-up animals and background pieces.

Stand-up animals and background pieces.

This previously “hidden collections” item was “rediscovered” in 2011 when Cotsen’s toy collection was shifted into a new vault.

Lothar Meggandorfer’s, Artist’s dummy and color proofs for Arche Noah: Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1903).

Meggendorfer's dummy of the panorama, cardboard leaves hinged with fabric, measuring almost five feet long folded out fully  (Note: photo shown here composed of two separate photos, added together, creating the false effect if irregularity in the middle, not present in actual item).

Meggendorfer’s dummy of the panorama, cardboard leaves hinged with fabric, measuring almost five feet long folded out fully
(Note: photo shown here composed of two separate photos, added together, creating the false effect if irregularity in the middle, not present in actual item).

The German artist Lothar Meggendorfer is best known for his humorous mechanical book illustrations, but he also designed table games with playing boards and cards, as well as “theaters” in the round showing scenes in the city park, the zoo, or the circus, constructed of cardboard leaves hinged together with fabric.

Animals being herded onto the Ark, two-by-two, with one tiger looking quizzical and one horse perhaps having second thoughts?

Animals being herded onto the Ark, two-by-two, with one tiger looking quizzical and one horse perhaps having second thoughts?

Meggendorfer’s mock-up of this panorama depicting the animals’ stately progress into the ark shows his flair for large-scale scenic effects. It came from the publisher’s archive of Meggendorfer’s artwork, which was dispersed some years ago.

While most animals are depicted placidly, as per the usual description, Mrs. Lion looks none too pleased, a nicely humorous touch.

While most animals are depicted placidly, as per the usual description, Mrs. Lion looks none too pleased, a nicely humorous touch.

Gift of Justin G. Schiller in honor of the opening of the Cotsen Children’s Library in 1977

(Note: The text here is based on the exhibition labels by Andrea Immel, Cotsen Curator.)

Historical Chinese-language Children’s Literature at the Cotsen Children’s Library

普林斯顿大学寇岑儿童图书馆的中文馆藏简介

The Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University holds a historical and international research collection of children’s books and materials in over thirty languages, including more than 45,000 items of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cultural artifacts that reflect the history of childhood in diverse sociopolitical and cultural contexts in the East. In addition to children’s books and magazines, the Cotsen Library has collected a rich array of printed matter and ephemera oriented for youth, including textbooks, comic books, educational wall charts, propaganda posters and broadsides, board games, cigarette cards, playing cards, as well as documents and manuscripts that captured children’s history and voices.

The earliest Chinese-language materials in the collection date from the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but the majority were published from the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to the present day. “Children’s literature,” defined as non-curriculum reading materials specifically targeting young people, did not take shape in China until the early 20th century. Western missionaries helped introduce the genre to China by bringing in modern movable type printing presses (initially in order to print the Bible) and soon starting to produce Sunday School papers in Chinese. This was well over 100 years after John Newbery published the now-famous The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) to entertain young minds in London. The tumultuous political and cultural dynamics of 20th-century China left indelible marks on children’s materials, which reveal both children’s historical reality and how the society had attempted to shaped young citizens’ perception and behavior.

One important area of Chinese holdings at Cotsen is children’s magazines. Dating mostly from the 1920s and after, this vibrant, relatively affordable, medium was quick to respond to China’s political dynamics. Some formats and genres of children’s materials at Cotsen are unique to the country. For example, during the 20th century, Chinese children collected cigarette cards that came free in cigarette packages, enjoyed looking at color images printed on them–at a time when color-illustrated children’s books were scarce and pricy for average families in the country–and they devised various competitive games to play with the cards. Another type of materials in Cotsen is Chinese illustrated story books, called 连环画 (lian huan hua), a hugely popular format of reading that entertained all ages but young people in particular.

Above: cover images of Chinese "lian huan hua"

Above: cover images of Chinese “lian huan hua”

Lian huan hua, or illustrated story books and comics, were read by both adults and youth in China, where literacy rate was low for the better half of the 20th century. Many poorly-educated adults relied on pictures to make sense of the stories. The format was cheaply available through rental facilities, reaching widely to neighborhoods in cities and remote rural areas.

The library recently launched a one-year project to improve the catalog records of Chinese-language children’s materials. Items touched by this project will have a more comprehensive and accurate description in the online library catalog, allowing researchers to search key fields by both pinyin Romanization and the original Chinese scripts. Through the project, we also hope to uncover some of the hidden gems in the collection.

Current exhibition: High over Asia

In “High over Asia: Politicization of the Sky,” the current exhibition at the Cotsen Gallery, we showcase Chinese and Japanese primers, illustrated children’s books, magazines, poster, and game boards that convey a changing perception of the sky over a span of more than a century. In these materials–dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century–the sky is transformed from a mythical space, to the territory of air force technology and space science, to the battle area of World War II and the Cold War, and back to a harmonious reunion between science and imagination. Goddesses, parachutists, and the Space Race all found their way into Chinese and Japanese children’s reading, play, identity formation, and political socialization.

The exhibition opened on December 7, 2011, and will continue until June 4, 2012.

Poster: A Visitor in Outer Space, featured in the "High over Asia" exhibition.

Poster: A Visitor in Outer Space, featured in the “High over Asia” exhibition.

Yu zhou xiao ke ren 《宇宙小客人》 [A Visitor in Outer Space]
By YANG Furu
Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Art Publishing House, 1980.

A somewhat androgynous boy visits outer space in a jet pack. His big eyes, round pink cheeks, red lips, and chubby torso recall traditional depictions of idealized babies in Chinese New Year prints (年画, or “nian hua”). Having just put the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to an end, Chinese political authority no longer designated “class struggle” as the nation’s priority in the 1980s. Children were encouraged to study hard and contribute to the Four Modernizations in agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense. In the background of this picture, spaceships carrying triumphant children travel along planetary orbits, inspiring young viewers of the poster to pursue the space dream.