Unique Copy of “Nancy Cock’s Song-Book” (1744) Acquired

Copies of the four foundational collections of English nursery rhymes are as scarce as  proverbial hen’s teeth.  There’s less chance of finding in your grandmother’s attic a copy of the two-volume Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book (1744), Mother Goose’s Melody (1780), or Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784) than a 42-line Gutenberg Bible.  There are forty-eight copies of Gutenberg, versus no copies of the first and two copies of  the second volume of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, one copy of  the 1784 edition of Mother Goose’s Melody, and the compiler Joseph Ritson’s copy of Gammer Gurton’s Garland.

Until now, the black swan of nursery rhyme anthologies was the first edition of Nancy Cock’s Song-book, which was assumed to have vanished without a trace.  The English Short Title Catalog of eighteenth-century imprints lists an edition printed around 1786 in Newry, North Ireland and the Elisabeth Ball copy of a John Marshall edition from the early 1790s, now at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington.  The nursery rhyme scholars Iona and Peter Opie considered Miss Ball’s copy of Nancy Cock one of the most important books in her collection because it was almost certainly a late edition of an anthology published earlier in the century.  The rhymes it contained were recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951).

Who published it and when remained a mystery until Brian Alderson and I found an advertisement in the May 15 issue of the Daily Post identifying the publisher as one T. Read of Dogwell-Court while researching the history of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.  Read is not mentioned in the scholarly literature as a competitor of Thomas Boreman, Mary Cooper, and John Newbery during the 1740s.nancy-cock-ad

James Burgh’s Youth’s friendly Monitor; or, The affectionate School-master. Containing his last pathetic farewell Lecture to his young Pupils, on their Entrance into a busy World (1752) was a Thomas Read book, but childrens’ books do not seem to have been part of his stock in trade unless Joe Miller’s Jests or a ripping yarn like The English Rogue: or, The Life of Jeremy Sharp, commonly called, Meriton Latroon (1741) are counted.   More down Read’s alley were things like  A Collection of the most remarkable Trials of Persons for High-treason, Murder, Rapes, Heresy, Bigamy, Burglary; and other Crimes and Misdemeanors (1734), Warm Beer, a Treatise. Proving, from Reason, Authority and Experience, that Beer so qualify’d, is far more wholesome than that which is drank cold (1741), or Celibacy: or, Good Advice to young Fellows to keep single. In which are painted, in very lively Colours, the Pictures of many terrible Wives, both at Court and in the City (1739).

Read’s motives for publishing a novelty like a nursery rhyme anthology are not clear, but he produced a winner.  Advertisements for different editions of Nancy Cock in London and American papers between 1747 and 1770 indicate it was frequently reprinted.  No copies by any publisher survive, however.   Only one copy of any edition of Nancy Cock has come into the rooms in the last twenty years.   Cotsen was the underbidder for the Marjorie Moon-David R. MacDonald copy of a 1795 provincial edition with the imprint “For the booksellers” sold December 2 2014 at Sotheby’s New York.  Even though it was likely that this would be my last chance to add a Nancy Cock to the Cotsen, I was philosophical about the loss.

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Illustration of “Little Robin Red-Breast” from the “for the booksellers” edition of Nancy Cock previously owned by the collectors Marjorie Moon and David MacDonald.

It is an unwritten law of bibliography that if you publish speculations about a rarity no one has ever seen, and a copy will rise up eventually to bite you.  In the 2013 Cotsen Occasional Press edition of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book, Brian Alderson and I reconstructed the contents of the lost volume 1 and ever since then we have been waiting for our come-uppance.  Instead, we have been rewarded for going out on a limb because the 1744 Nancy Cock has turned up this fall.  And it’s a very special copy, having been passed down by three generations of English women as a family treasure.

The 13 January issue of the Times Literary Supplement features our account of its discovery and importance in the “Commentary” section.  But it is not illustrated with pictures from the book, and this post is!  Here is the title page spread, with the frontispiece of a cross schoolmaster punishing one of his pupils.   Notice that Nancy Cock is credited to the fictitious Nurse Lovechild, who is also supposed to have compiled Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.


The first section of the book consists of twenty-three pages, each with two captioned etchings, many showing children at play.   Pages five and six  includes one of children playing a card game.  It looks as if the boy is about to take the trick and the pot.  The other not-so-innocent amusement shown is bird’s nesting, or climbing up into a tree to steal the chicks from its mother.  Even though this favorite boys’ pastime was considered rather cruel, it is illustrated fairly often in children’s books of the period.  This is one in Nancy Cock may be among the earliest ones.spread6-7

This opening, with the swan in full sail on the left, and boys trying out different ways of breaking their playmates’ backs on the right, is another of my favorites.spread12-13If some of you think you’ve seen the illustrations of the child musicians in the next opening somewhere else, you’re right.  It has been copied from this little set of prints by Hubert Gravelot.  But it was also adapted in the frontispiece for the second volume of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.  The lifting of this particular image strongly suggests that the engraver George Bickham, junior may have been involved in the production of Read’s Nancy Cock, along with several other of the “little books” Brian and I discussed in “Nurse Lovechild’s Legacy.”


The Gravelot original of the two child musicians.


The copy of Gravelot in Nancy Cock.


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The same two musicians and friend face the title page of Tommy Thumb.

Nancy Cock’s second section consists of twenty-seven nursery rhymes and “Hey my kitten,”a poem imitating nurse’s prattle attributed to Alan Ramsay, chopped up into sections.  Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book and Nancy Cock print a handful of the same rhymes, but the illustrations are not the same.  “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” is a good example.  In Tommy Thumb, the picture has nothing to do with the text.   In Nancy Cock, the illustration brings out the bawdy undertones of the final line, the refrain of a famous song set to a famous tune in John Playford’s 1651 The Dancing Master.  The three men waiting on Mary are wearing horns, the cuckold’s signature headgear.

tommy thumb page18

Nowhere in the text is a monkey mentioned…


Mistress Mary and her row of cuckolds.

One of the jolliest English nursery rhymes must be “Boys and girls come out to play.”  It is also among the earliest recorded, cropping up first in William King’s Useful Transactions in Philosophy, a 1709 satire on the Royal Society, then alluded to in Henry Carey’s “Namby-Pamby” (1725).  It also appears on page 32 of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book accompanied with a etching of two children looking up at the full moon, and in Nancy Cock with a picture of three boys, one with a cricket bat, hallooing a boy standing in the doorway.  There’s a crescent moon shining in the upper right hand corner.

tommy thumb page32


Nancy Cock makes two appearances on facing pages in her song book, as the newly minted heroine of “Ride a cock horse” and of “Up hill and down dale,” a now unfamiliar rhyme long associated her.  The picture of Nancy as a demure milkmaid was adapted from the same set of Gravelot designs, perhaps hoping to distance her from the associations with the name “Nancy Cock,” which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries signified a girl who no better than she should be. Thomas Rowlandson seems to be playing on those connotations in his drawing of a luscious young laundry maid with a come-hither expression.nancycockspread52-53

nancy cock thomas-rowlandson-ca-1815

Thomas Rowlandson, “Nancy Cock clear starcher.” National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

I am extremely grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library, whose generous contribution helped make poassible the purchase of  this wonderful children’s book.  And with the addition of Nancy Cock’s Song-book, Cotsen needs just the R. Stockton Gammer Gurton’s Garland to complete the quartet of foundational English nursery rhymes.   It would be the perfect retirement present…



Building a Better Blog for 2016 and Beyond

In December, the Cotsen Curatorial Blog published its one hundredth post!  Its band of writers–Jeff Barton, Minjie Chen, Ian Dooley and I–are looking forward to finding the next one hundred subjects to surprise, inform, and amuse old friends and, with any luck, catch the eyes of many new ones.

In addition to writing lavishly illustrated posts, a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to make the site more useful.  The list of categories been beefed up and the posts reindexed so that the contents can be accessed in a variety of ways, so visitors with different interests can see if anything has been published on their topics.

Visitor A has just heard about  the Cotsen Children’s Library and is curious about  what goes on there.  By going to the pull-down menu headed “Categories” on the right hand side of the page and looking at the complete list, that  she will find “News,” which will pull up announcements about major gifts, exhibitions, new gallery publications, improvements to the Cotsen Bookscape gallery, etc.

Visitor X, on the other hand, wants to learn a little about the rare book collection, just to get a general idea of what there is.  He might want to call up posts in the categories of “Classics,” “Fairy and Folk Tales,” “Nursery Rhymes,” “Beatrix Potter” or “ABC and Alphabets.”   Enter  “Potter” in the search box in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and Harry Potter will come up too.

Visitor L is an animal lover, a great cook, and a reader of mysteries.   She could try her luck using the search box.  Lions?  Mice?  Black Cats?   How about food or murders?  There is some surprising stuff buried in this blog…

Visitor Q is a graduate student in East Asian Studies who is thinking about applying for a Friends of the Princeton University Library Research but wants a better sense of the Chinese-language holdings before making up her mind.  She can find several leads under categories: “20th century;” “Research reports;” and “East Asian children’s books.”

Last but not least, Visitor F is a bookish person with wide-ranging interests.  Have we got a site for you!   Categories will lead F to things like “Annotations in Books and Manuscripts,” “Bindings,” Ephemera,” “Graphic Design,” “Manuscripts,” “Moveables,” “Original Artwork,” “Prints,” and “Wall Charts.”   The search box will pull up things like names of illustrators, engravers, and titles of books mentioned in posts.  There is also a series called “Marks in books” that features defaced frontispieces, doodles, signatures of former owners, and more…

But don’t take our word for it–please feel free to explore the curatorial blog on your own.  Work to improve the tags will continue through the winter.

Stay tuned in the coming months for a report on Cotsen’s textiles, a survey of Cotsen’s extensive collection of books by Raduga, the great Soviet independent children’s book publisher of the 1920s, a peek into an eighteenth-century toy store, more letters by Marcus French, and a review of Jim McKay’s illustrations for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  And who knows what else in the collection will inspire us?