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.)

Illustrating a primary school textbook between World Wars: Hans Brückl’s Mein Buch

Cover of Mein Buch

Cover of Mein Buch

I received an inquiry from a woman who was hoping to obtain copies of a few missing illustrations in Hans Bruckl’s Mein Buch, which she’d had as a girl in Belgium during World War II. She didn’t know why they had been removed, but suspected that the portrait of Hitler she remembered had something to do with it. ”I think,” she wrote, “my parents wanted me to know some German in case, but took out certain illustrations–also in case–depending on who was going to win the war.”

Cotsen has nine different editions of Mein Buch, published by the Munich firm R. Oldenbourg between 1923 and 1964, five of which were printed during the National Socialist period. The records in the Princeton University online catalogue indicated that Mein Buch had been reillustrated several times, but I couldn’t find any information about the nature of the changes in either Gisela Teistler’s Fibel-Findbuch: Deutschsprachige Fibeln von den Anfängen bis 1944 (2003) or Noriko Shindo’s Das Ernst Kutzer-Buch: Bio-Bibliographie (2003). So I headed down to the stacks on a hunch that some of changes to the pictures must have been politically motivated. And indeed they were–some blatant, others were more subtle.

One variation of the illustration image showing children rolling hoops and playing catch

One variation of the illustration image showing children rolling hoops and playing catch

Illustration that faces the playing children in the 1941 edition

Illustration that faces the playing children in the 1941 edition

Nowhere in the first edition of 1923 are children shown engaged in political activity. Some version of an image showing children rolling hoops and playing catch appears in all the editions in Cotsen that I looked at, but it faces different material in each case.

In the 1941 edition illustrated by Ernst Kutzer, for example, the idyllic illustration is opposite an overtly propagandistic picture of a school yard where two boys are raising the national flag while their fellow students and teacher stand by respectfully. This is entirely in keeping with the color portrait of Hitler that precedes it.

Illustration in 1941 edition that depicts an anniversary celebration of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch

Illustration in 1941 edition that depicts an anniversary celebration of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch

Illustration from 1941 edition, showing a family listening to a war-time radio broadcast

Illustration from 1941 edition, showing a family listening to a war-time radio broadcast

Two other images in the 1941 edition encourage children consider themselves one with the Nazi Party. Page 28 depicts an anniversary celebration of the November 9, 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which took place in front of the Feldherrnhalle in Munich. There are no children among the spectators. But the caption, which is flanked by flaming pylons commemorating Hitler’s followers killed during the abortive uprising, urges young readers to be brave and true to the cause.

Facing it is an illustration of a mother and three children listening to a radio broadcast, rapt during the performance of “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.” Father is presumably away at war.

It was these three pictures and the portrait of Hitler that had been cut out of our patron’s copy of Mein Buch.

St. Nicholas, as depicted in the 1923 edition

St. Nicholas, as depicted in the 1923 edition

Treats left by St. Nicholas, and the naughty fruit

Treats left by St. Nicholas, and the naughty fruit

I also noticed some interesting changes in the illustrations about Christmas that seemed consistent with the Nazis’ emphasis on celebrating the holiday in the “authentic” German manner. Hans Volkert’s picture in the 1923 edition shows St. Nicholas carrying a lantern and marching along in the dark, with a switch for punishing bad children clearly visible under his arm. Just a few presents peep out of his bag and one from his pocket.

It is accompanied by two verses: the first imploring the saint to empty his bag at the singer’s house; and the second listing all the treats he left behind, with a jolly cartoon of the fruits being punished for their naughtiness over the past year.

Knecht Ruprecht, in color, replaces St. Nicholas in the 1941 edition

Knecht Ruprecht, in color, replaces St. Nicholas in the 1941 edition

The revised poem in  the 1941 edition

The revised poem in the 1941 edition

In the spirit of reclaiming Christmas for the nation, Knecht Ruprecht, who accompanies Nicholas on his rounds according to German folklore, stands in for the Dutch saint in the 1941 edition. Knecht Ruprecht’s bag is literally bursting with toys and sweets and the switch is tied to the staff like another seasonal decoration.

The poem thanking Ruprecht for his generosity in rewarding good children says nothing about punishment….

Preface to the post-war edition, printed in English and German Fraktur, stating that its "issue does not imply that it is entirely suitable"

Preface to the post-war edition, printed in English and German Fraktur, stating that its “issue does not imply that it is entirely suitable”

St Nikolaus returns, here with cozier and miter, printed in black-and-white, presumably due to post-war austerity

St Nikolaus returns, here with cozier and miter, printed in black-and-white, presumably due to post-war austerity

Mein Buch was deNazified when Allied Expeditionary Forces occupied Germany after the Third Reich fell, down to the images of Christmas. The image of the children playing is reprinted in black and white and it faces a notice in English and German stating that this book’s contents are suspect, but that it can be used until that time when better ones can replace it.

St. Nikolaus the Dutch saint returns in a new flowered robe and carrying an even bigger bag with still more toys spilling out of it.

All these changes to Mein Buch suggests just how important a standard elementary schoolbook can be to a political regime–or occupying force–looking to create loyalty in tomorrow’s citizens.