A Christmas Box, or, a Small Holiday Mystery…

Some Early Holiday Books for Children Published by the Baldwins

Book publishers frequently reissue a variety of new versions of books around the holidays, many in “special holiday editions” or versions meant to make them suitable as gifts. Sometimes, these are indeed new books, but often they’re just reissues of prior editions, with colorful new covers or dust-jackets, designed to catch the eye of someone looking for a entertaining but educational gift.  This is especially true of many children’s books.  What adult hasn’t spent time looking for a last-minute gift or stocking-stuffer for a child?

We tend to think of this repurposing of content as a modern phenomenon—after all, isn’t this the era of marketing and targeted sales? But—as in many cases—children’s booksellers seemed to have caught on to this idea long ago—indeed, in the eighteenth century they seem to have been one of the early innovators of this practice.

In much the same spirit of entrepreneurial innovation, bookselling was perhaps the first trade to realize that the packaging for item—that is, books’ covers or paper wrappers—could be a marketing tool for helping attract purchasers. Books, which had been offered for sale unbound or in plain bindings or paper wrappers, were sold in increasingly attractive publisher’s bindings, some illustrated, some colored, and some in eye-catching materials.  Dutch gilt paper for instance, was used by Thomas Boreman and John Newbery to bind up entertaining books for young readers as a way of distinguishing them from school books or more serious titles.

The Three Baldwin variations (arranged earliest to latest from left to right, in their appealing Dutch Paper wrappers. (Cotsen New Acquisition)

The three R. Baldwin editions (arranged from earliest to latest, left to right, in their appealing (but quite different) Dutch gilt paper wrappers.
(Cotsen New Acquisition)

 

Title page of a Christmas Box (R. Baldwin, [after 1754] (Cotsen new acquisition)

Title page of A Christmas Box, 
(R. Baldwin, [after 1754])
(Cotsen new acquisition)

Cataloging several editions of a previously unrecorded eighteenth century children’s book brought home the idea of repurposing content to me. The first book I cataloged announced that it was a Christmas book in its title: A Christmas Box. The full title, as it appears on the title page is: A Christmass Box, or, Little Polite Tales, Fables, Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c.: in Easy Prose and Verse, with Other Lessons of Morality Equally Instructive & Entertaining for Little Masters and Misses: Adorned with Sculptures.  Quite a mouthful, compared to the current practice of keeping titles to single words.  (Note: “Christmass,” which I first thought must be a typo, turns out to be an early variation on the spelling, more widely used in the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century, but clearly still in use in the mid-eighteenth century. By the way, a “Christmas box” was a small clay container with a slot like a piggy bank and at the end of the year servants went around with them collecting tips from employers.  The term could also be used in the eighteenth century as a synonym for any present given during the extended Christmas holidays).

As the subtitle suggests, the book is miscellany of fables, tales, riddles, short Bible stories, short poems, precepts, and epitaphs. This broad range of material was consistent with prevailing eighteenth-century views that an anthology ought to mix up serious and humorous materials as a way of catching and holding the interest of children, so they might learn something useful from their pleasure reading. It’s still fairly typical of gift books.

But this book posed some small mysteries for a cataloger.  When was it published? (It’s undated, as the image of the title page shows.)  Also, who was the publisher “R. Baldwin”? There several booksellers and printers using the name “R. Baldwin” at about the same time.  Cotsen Library has no other book titled Christmas Box by Baldwin, nor did I find one in the WorldCat, the world-wide combined library catalog.  With so little information and no other similarly-titled book to compare, the plot thickened…

But the long alternate title turned out to be an important clue.  And Cotsen does have another Baldwin publication—in fact two copies of one—titled Little Polite Tales, Fables Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c.  Looking inside these books, I quickly realized that all three books had the same content, and the same number of pages (128, plus two leaves of engraved plates, the frontispiece illustration and the title page). Only the title pages were different—along with some other, relatively minor printing variations; take a look at the variations in the woodcut headpieces and the decorative capital letter “T” at the first selection in each book.

First page of text in all three books: actual text is the same but all three have different woodcut headpieces and decorative capital initial "T," among other smaller changes--suggesting different editions of similar content.

First page of text in all three books: actual text is the same, but note how all three have different woodcut headpiece ornaments and different printer’s device decorations around the initial “T,” among other smaller changes–suggesting different editions of similar content.

 

Little Polite Tales,  R. Baldwin, Jr, (1751) (Cotsen new acquisition)

Title page of Little Polite Tales,
R. Baldwin, Jr,  (1751)
(Cotsen new acquisition)

Only one book was dated, the 1751 edition of Little Polite Tales. Was it the first one printed, or was one of the other books printed first?  How to tell?  One potential clue—or point of confusion—seemed to be in the variation in the publisher’s name, “R. Baldwin, Jr.” (on both Cotsen copies of Little Polite Tales), as opposed to “R. Baldwin” (on the Christmas Box).  But was this the same person or two different people, perhaps a father and son?  (Publishing in this era was often a family affair.)  To make things more confusing, there were at least five R. Baldwins issuing books in London at this time, three Richards and two Roberts, two brothers and their three sons!

To make a long story short, it seems that “R. Baldwin, Jr” was Richard Baldwin, 1724-1770, son of Richard, brother of Robert, and both nephew and cousin of two Roberts. He first issued books under the name “R. Baldwin, Jr.” to distinguish himself from his father, but gradually dropped the “Jr.” once he became more established himself; the last book he issued as “R. Baldwin, Jr.” was in 1754.¹

Title page of Little Polite Tales, R. Baldwin, Jr, ([between 1751 & 1754?]) (Cotsen new acquisition)

Title page of Little Polite Tales,
R. Baldwin, Jr,  ([between 1751 & 1754?]) 
(Cotsen new acquisition)

What does all this mean in terms of dating our books? Remember, one copy of Little Polite Tales was dated 1751. So the other copy of Little Polite Tales, the one with no date, seems likely to have been issued sometime between 1751 and 1754—that is, between the date of the first (dated) edition and the date when Richard Baldwin dropped the “Jr.” from his imprint.  This conclusion seems supported by an interesting change to the title page of this undated edition, the addition of the text: “A Pretty Present as a Christmas Box, or New Year’s Gift.”  This suggests the original Little Polite Tales was reissued as a holiday gift book. (Perhaps the printing of the frontispiece and title page in red ink was meant as a festive touch?)

The book titled Christmas Box, then, must date from sometime after 1754, since Baldwin identified himself just as “R. Baldwin.”  Cotsen’s copy of this book also has an inscription dated “1774,” so we can use 1774 as the last possible date the book could have been issued. So the Christmas Box seems to date from between 1754 and 1774 and it is apparently the last of the three books to be published.

Inscription, dated Jan1774, in Christmas box, which suggests a 1774 terminal date

Inscription, dated Jan, 7, 1774, in A Christmas Box, which suggests 1774 as a terminal date for publication: thus a date of [between 1754 & 1774].  The January 7 inscription also suggests that this book was indeed given to Jos. Phillips as a Christmas or New Year’s holiday book.

This sequence of publication also makes sense, I think, in terms of how the title of the book seems to have evolved: 1) Little Polite Tales; 2: Little Polite Tales…A Christmas Box…; 3) A Christmas Box. The idea that Baldwin took a “regular” book and reissued it at least twice seems to make sense too, in terms of the general publishing “model” I talked about at the beginning of this piece—it seems unlikely that Baldwin took a Christmas book and reissued it as a non-seasonal piece (but technically, that remains a possibility).

And what sort of Christmas delights could be expected by the “masters and misses” to whom Baldwin dedicated each version of his book?  “A Short Essay on the Nature and Beauty of Fable,” and “An Alphabet in Verse, containing Rules of Life,” lead off the book, followed by fables each followed by an explicitly didactic moral “application.”  Next come the riddles, and after them, the Bible stories, such as “A History of the Creation of the World, and the Fall of Man,” “The History of Cain and Abel” (accompanied by a woodcut of Cain braining Abel with a huge club), and “ The History of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” Following these Bible stories, comes the seven-page “Filial Ingratitude: the Ancient History of King Lear and his Three Daughters,” which at least follows the eighteenth-century editors’ practice of having Lear and Cordelia survive “for some years afterwards,” instead of meeting the tragic ends Shakespeare provided.  (Dr. Johnson, for one, thought the original ending of King Lear was just too horrific for adults, not to mention for children.)

Concluding all three of the “Christmas Box” books and its kin are “serious” and “humorous” epitaphs, the last reading:

An Humorous Epitaph

On Little Stephen, a noted fiddler, in the Country of Suffolk.
Stephen and Time
Are how both even;
Stephen beat Time,
And Time beat Stephen.

So, while these eighteenth-century books are quite different from earlier religious instruction, primers, and alphabet catechisms aimed at “miniature adults,” as they’re sometimes termed, publishers clearly had quite a different idea of what an “instructive and entertaining book for little masters and misses” was than we have now.

And on that note, Cotsen Library wishes all of you–children and grown-ups alike–a very Merry Christmas!

 Note:  1) C.Y. Ferdinand, “Richard Baldwin Junior, Bookseller,” in Studies in Bibliography, Vol 42 (1989), p. 259.

Fantasia on the Theme of Christmas Book Shopping Starring John Newbery

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).

For some reason, John Newbery (of whom no portraits survive) always bears a striking resemblance to Ben Franklin. Front board,  Songs of Sixpence: A Story about John Newbery (New York: Follett, 1955), (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 for America and she would like 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 ill 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 for flaming.  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…