More Pretty Little Pocket Books for Children

A woman’s hanging pocket in the collection of the V & A.

The word “pocket book” was a term for a wallet or small purse for money and personal objects in the eighteenth century.  That wasn’t its only meaning, however.  It also referred to books– especially memorandum books (i.e. “diaries” in British English) or vade mecums, compilations of useful information– that could be comfortably stowed in a weskit pocket  or the hanging bag attached to a tape that tied around a woman’s waist.   Related to almanacs, they were revamped for adults by enterprising publishers in the 1740s, among them John Newbery, more famous for his children’s books.  Twenty years later he went back to the drawing board and reconceptualized the pocket book for younger customers.  Newspaper advertisements confirm that the publisher really was its compiler. .The Important Pocket-Book or Valentine’s Ledger (ca. 1765), which was also a tie-in to The Valentine’s Gift, may be the first of its kind and a good model for the genre as a whole, whether or not  Continental children’s books publishers were influenced by it.

Cotsen 5354.

The more famous Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which could be carried on its owner’s person without any trouble, was not meant for ready reference or record keeping. The Important Pocket-Book was, with its  tables of money, weights, and measures and a  calendar for recording daily expenses over a twelve-month period that was not keyed to a particular year, making it saleable over a long span of time.  On the facing pages Newbery added a second calendar for tracking good and bad deeds, a feature which does not seem to have caught on.  He also selected stories from classical literature such as Cornelia, mother of the Graecci, and combined them with anecdotes from modern history, and short fiction reprinted from others of his juveniles. Selections were accompanied by both copperplate engravings and wood cuts. Shown below is the cut of Father Time illustrating a story about a time-wasting school boy and an opening from the moral ledger that was marked up for about a month.  Someone tried to erase the notes, but “Bad” is still visible on the right hand side.  The entire package of material was attractively bound in boards covered with Dutch floral paper shiny with gilt.Prentjes Almanach voor Kinderen, a charming Dutch pocket book bound in pale apple-green printed boards (Cotsen 3466), is much smaller than The Important Pocket-Book  and appears to have been issued annually by its publisher W. Houtgraaf. In 1799, the contents featured a page of information about eclipses, which was probably suggested by the three forecast between April and October, culminating in a total solar eclipse. The selection of literature was somewhat lighter in character than the stories in the Newbery book.  Prominently featured was a series of illustrated poems about children’s pastimes,  itinerant street vendors, and strolling players.  English street cries for children often portray as many sellers of foodstuffs as small commodities, whereas the Almanach shows just one vendor tempting children with sweet teeth with a basket of “china apples, i.e. oranges.”  A somewhat unusual subject is the man crying umbrellas, a convenience that was still something of a novelty in  Europe. Children were surely more likely to flock around the bagpiper with his trained animals than the seller of useful objects, especially when the musician undoubtedly would perform for anyone with pennies burning in their pockets.  While it was a well-established practice to draw vendors full-length,  I can’t help but wonder if it was deliberate that the attractive nuisance is shown without an audience, whereas the ink vendor has a customer that looks like a school boy to his left.The daintiest of the three pocket books is, of course, French, but it may come as a surprise that Reveries orientales (Coten 65141) was issued in by Louis Janet in 1794 during the French Revolution.   I did look at a near contemporary catalogue of moral, instructive, and amusing children’s books issued in Lyons by Bohaire  (Cotsen in process)  to see what pocket books he stocked and found three or four for ladies with elegant engravings and bindings that sound as fashionable as this one in embroidered cloth with tiny drawings under isinglass (or horn) with a little pocket lined with rose paper on the inside of the rear board.  The tiny engraved plates are based on the ones by famous Roccoco artists for the celebrated Cabinet des fees, a multivolume anthology of French fairy tales and stories from the Thousand and One Nights.  The rather perfunctory monthly calendars of accounts surely could not compete with the illustrations, like the one for the tale of the miserly merchant Abou Cassem.John Newbery probably would not have approved of this frivolous approach to a kind of children’s book that he believed ought to help form good habits and regular self-examination, but the French and Dutch examples here suggest that the conventions for pocket books were just as fluid as they were stable.

 

Whittington and His Cat: The Encounter Between Cultures Illustrated

There’s no magic in the rags-to-riches story of  Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London, shown at the left at the height of his fame from a chapbook ca. 1808 published by T. Sabine and son (Cotsen 154124).  The orphan owes his fortune to a cat whose special power is the ability to slaughter enormous numbers of mice and rats in short order.  The scene, which realigns the boy’s stars, is set in a faraway land with there are no felines, but many of us probably don’t remember it is somewhere in the East. The history of its illustration is interesting for a twist that seems to have gone unnoticed.

Here’s a summary of the events leading up to the scene. Dick was a scullion employed by Mr. Fitzwarren, a wealthy merchant.  His life was made miserable by the tyrannical cook and the vermin overunning his attic room. With a penny received for an errand, he purchased a cat, who eradicated them  When Fitzwarren had a ship ready to depart to foreign lands, he always invited every member of the household to invest.  As capital, Dick put in  the cat, being his only piece of property (illustrated to the left from The famous and remarkable history of Sir Richard Whittingon (1656). The master’s ship was driven ashore on a part of the Barbary Coast where no Englishmen had landed.  The resident Moors received the British graciously and the King was so pleased by the goods he was shown that the captain and the factor were invited back to the palace.  A sumptuous feast was laid out, but no one could enjoy a bite because a torrent of rats and mice befouled and devoured everything.  The king vowed it would be worth half his treasury to control the beasts, so the factor had the brilliant idea of bringing Dick’s cat to the palace.   Puss was expecting kittens very soon, but in spite of her condition, she was so efficient that a  king’s ransom was given for her and her litter in order to decimate the country’s population of rats and mice.

How has this scene showing an exchange between two cultures, religions and races been depicted over time?  Given the outline of the story, it lends itself to dramatic treatment rather than cultural commentary and that is how it was presented in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century chapbooks.  The first one comes from The famous and remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington (1656), the second from The Children in the Wood, to which is added The History of R. Whittington (London: Sabine and Son, ca. 1810) The one on top ignores the text and does not darken the King of Barbary’s skin–it’s his headware and slippers with the pointed toes that mark him as an exotic foreigner.  In the second cut, turbans capped with crowns and skin color distinguish the King and Queen from the European visitor, but all the figures have been cut in such a rudimentary fashion that it would be difficult to see in them reflections of actual attitudes towards the other.

Although smaller than the first two examples, these blocks from an early nineteenth provincial chapbook, Whittington and his Cat (Otley, York: W. Walker, ca. 1820: Cotsen 150398)  are by two hands.  But even the less accomplished of the two represents the European as more noble and civilized than his Black Moorish hosts, whose features look as if they have been gouged into the block.  Neither the king nor queen wear the flowing robes associated with Moors and it’s hard to say if they are supposed to wearing the native dress of a particular country or if they came out of the cutter’s imagination.

The hand-colored engraved frontispiece of The History of Whittington and his Cat (London: Orlando Hodgson, 1833: Cotsen 95990) above  transformed the King of Barbary into the Emperor of Morocco, who seems to be wearing vaguely Chinese finery and forsaken a turban.   What has precipitated this change?   Perhaps that this illustration was influenced by a popular stage production. While the publisher Hodgson, is best known for his satirical political prints, he also issued toy theaters, many of whose scripts were based on the best known contemporary plays, and versions of fairy tales not taken from the originals, but from the versions that held the stage for some time.

December 26th 1815, the pantomime Harlequin Whittington premiered at  Covent Garden Theater, praised by the European Magazine for the beautiful scenery and well-staged stunts, which included a balloon ascent and a final production number punctuated by fireworks.    In the cast was the beloved clown Joey Grimaldi who delivered the showstopping number, “All the World’s in Paris.”    There was no  Emperor of Morocco listed as a character in the early playbills I could access, but it may have been better for business to emphasize the spectacular effects and Grimaldi’s hit song.

But the subsequent history of Whittington on the stage suggests that the scene where the foreign king is astounded by a cat would continue to change. The folk tale quickly became established in the nineteenth century as among the most popular subjects for pantomime productions. While the Emperor of Morocco can be found in the programs’ dramatic personae, it is clear that the character no longer owed much to the traditional chapbook. Late in the Victorian period, the role was assigned to the First Boy,  a charming young actress whose legs could be shown to advantage by the costume designer (this drawing is reproduced from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum).  And a highly unscientific search for pictures of the Emperor in contemporary productions did not (unsurprisingly) turn up Black actors or white men in black face playing the part.