A Christmas Box, or, a Little Bibliographic 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.

All I Want for Christmas is an Anchor Building Box!

Anchor block tower

The "Toy The Child Likes Best" really was as popular as advertised but probably not this useful for wooing.

The “Toy The Child Likes Best” really was as popular as advertised but probably not this useful for wooing.

From the 1880’s till the end of the First World War the title of this post would have been heard (politely asked, screamed, cried, or begged for) anywhere in the western world during the holidays.  Dr. Richter’s stone building sets were an immensely popular toy for children and hobby for adults.  According to Jerry Slocum and Dieter Gebhardt, authors of The Anchor Puzzle Book, “Richter’s stone building sets became one of the most popular toys of its time and one of Germany’s largest export products. . . Anchor Stone Building Sets were the best-known toy and were exported all over the world” (p.15).

Being that the holidays are right around the corner we thought that it would be appropriate to exhibit our sets of these once well-known toys and explain a little about their history (not to mention get the chance to show off our sweet block buildings skills).

Our 3 boxes, side by side to show scale

Our 3 boxes, side by side to show scale

big box

medium box

small box

The once famous Dr. Richter, while not really a doctor, was a savvy businessman.  Before he purchased his Doctorate in Chemistry from the nonexistent University of Philadelphia in 1875, he was already a wealthy and successful member of the German bourgeois.  Using his experience and capital gained as a druggist, Richter became a wholesome patent medicine manufacturer and distributor as well as a printer of textbooks (and self-promotional material). In 1877 he began building a state of the art factory outside of Rudolstadt, Thuringia (in central Germany) establishing a base of operations for all his business endeavors.

Ritcher used a variety of anchor devices as a trademark in order "to guard against the substitution of inferior imitations".

Ritcher used a variety of anchor devices as a trademark in order “to guard against the substitution of inferior imitations”.

The Anchor blocks come a few years later, in 1880, after Richter purchased the patent of the first ever “stone” building blocks from Gustav and Otto Lilienthal (who could not successfully market their invention like Richter could).  Richter preserved the original Lilienthal formula consisting of a combination of quartz sand, chalk, linseed oil, and dye. Richter’s stones came in three colors: red, white, and blue and some sets even included metal parts for making bridges.  The sets were sold in sizes ranging from the paltry Orion Set #0 with 17 stones, to the monstrous Great Fortress (Grosse Festung) with 9696 stones and weighing 375 lbs.

Our 3 sets are a sampling of the more commonly sized boxes.  We have a small set No. 1  (dated between 1906-1910) of 23 stones and 2 metal bridge parts, but we are missing the 2 metal clasps for the bridges.  We have a medium set No. 5 (dated between 1907-1910) of 94 stones with only 2 small white stones missing.  Last we have a large set No. 12 (dated 1884) of 180 stones with no stones missing. The numbering system for sets is quite complex becoming somewhat clearer and more sophisticated over time (later sets even involve a system of passwords for identification that, for the sake of brevity, I will not detail here).

Below are our 3 sets displaying the box arrangement for the stones, as detailed on the diagram provided on the underside of the lid, and each box’s inlaid instructional booklets:

set number 1

set number 5

set number 12

Solely for the sake of historical demonstration we mirthlessly assembled an example from one of the instructional booklets laid into each box:

2nd example on p.5 of Booklet No.1, perfectly executed.

bridge example

built bridge

2nd example on p.1 of the booklet for set No. 5 (we added an extra layer to the tower, borrowed from set No. 1, in order to impress you even more).

tower example

built tower

built tower

Example from p.32 of the booklet for set No. 8. (The other booklet laid in, specifically designed for set No. 12, is in preservation and couldn’t be used).  The architecture had to be modified slightly in order to accommodate for the block differences between sets No. 8 and 12.  The picture at the top of the page is from this set as well.

big tower example

big tower built

Given the popularity of these toys, and thus their lucrative dividends for Richter,  you might be surprised by their short-lived appearance on the toy market.  The downfall of Richter’s Anchor blocks, along with his Anchor Puzzles and other enterprises, was relatively swift.  World War I saw the demand for toys (especially demand for German toys in the American market) plummet.  War rationing meant that Richter could no longer procure the superior ingredients for his blocks, and the final Fortress sets (inspired, of course, by the war itself) were marred by inferior quality stone.

It might have been possible for the clever Richter to have weathered this misfortune and seen his company return to former glory.  But he never got the chance.  On a wholly sad and coincidental note, Richter died on December 25th, 1910, Christmas Day.  At the time of his death Richter was one of the wealthiest men in Germany.  Within 15 years his 4 sons squandered their inheritance and were unable to continue growing the company.  With business downsizing since Richter’s death and the set backs caused by World War II, the Soviet takeover of East Germany (including a full takeover of the Rudolstadt factory), and increasingly outdated equipment, Anchor block manufacturing finally ceased in 1963.

But it doesn’t end there!  Hobbyists and Collectors have been so enamored with Richter’s Anchor building blocks that the “Club of Anchor Friends” was founded in Amsterdam in 1979. With the support of the Club of Anchor Friends, the company was restored as Anker Steinbaukasten GmbH. Production at the factory in Rudolstadt restarted 15 September 1995.

So, if your still waiting to pick out that perfect gift for that block enthusiast you know . . . Look no further than Dr. Richter’s Anchor Building Box!  Just remember, if it doesn’t have the trademarked anchor, it’s a cheap no-good lascivious knock-off!

Happy Holidays!



Hardy, G. F. (2007) Richter’s Anchor Stone Building Sets.

Slocum, J. (2012) The Anchor Puzzle Book. Beverly Hills: Slocum Puzzle Foundation.



Items used from our collection, call numbers included:

The Toy The Child Likes Best! — 18647

Richter’s Anchor Box (small size, No. 1) — 34021

Richter’s Anchor Box (medium size, No. 5) — 5202

Richter’s Anchor Box (large size, No. 8) — item 6763049