Marks in Books #1: “Our Girls Stories”

Marks that readers make in their books has been an area of interest to book historians for some time, particularly since Roger Stoddard’s 1985 Marks in Books.  They provide evidence of how people actually used their books and what they thought about them.  Some readers note the dates each time they read, which tells us how frequently they read and how much reading was done in a sitting.  Some note questions, indicating  how they responded to their reading. And some make comments, indicating agreement or disagreement with the text being read.   Some readers make marks not consisting of words at all: shorthand symbols, doodles, faces and figures, or copies of the illustrations printed in the book. These can be especially hard for book historians to interpret, especially in the case of children’s markings, because they are not in words.

Cover of Our Girls: Stories for the Young (London: Routledge, [not before 1888]).

Cover of Our Girls: Stories for the Young (London: Routledge, [not before 1888]).

Yet marks in children’s books–annotations, pictures, squiggles, or coloring of printed illustrations–are increasingly seen as an important avenue for book-historians to gauge how little readers–sometimes “pre-literate”–actually used their books and how they may have responded to them.  M. O. Grenby’s recent book, The Child Reader, uses inscriptions and marginalia, along with other sources, such as diaries, to reconstruct child-readers’ experiences.

A recently-cataloged Cotsen Library book, Routledge’s Our Girls: Stories for the Young, has some readers’ marks that provide considerable evidence of use by those who previously handled the book.

Here’s the basic record in Princeton’s catalog:


Our Girls: Stories for the Young.


New York; London; Glasgow; Manchester: George Routledge and Sons, Limited, 9 Lafayette Place [not before 1888] (N[ew] Y[ork]: Beatty & Co., Lith., 193 & 194 West St.)

Physical description:

[48] p.: ill.
(wood engrs.); 24 cm.
Frontispiece ill. (signed by Stoddard) hand-colored by a child-reader.

Frontispiece ill. (signed by Stoddard) hand-colored by a child-reader.

Like many children’s books, especially those published by Routledge or Warne, this book isn’t dated; the 1888 date is based on the dates that Routledge was active under the imprint “George Routledge and Sons, Ltd.” and on the date that the firm opened up their New York offices (1889). A collection of stories and poems for children, Our Girls is extensively illustrated with wood-engravings, many occupying a full page, signed by well-known engravers and illustrators, such as the Dalziel Brothers, Edmund Evans, Alfred Thomas, E.J. Walker, Lizzie Lawson, Robert Barnes, Joseph Blamire, and others.

For a mass-produced Routledge title from this period, this book is surprisingly rare today, no other copy being found in OCLC, the world-wide library catalog (although other similar titles were found, suggesting a possible series of related books).

But our interest here is in the marks made in this book by those who handled it after it came from the publisher. There are three different sorts.

  • A gift inscription on the first leaf of the book, the front free endpaper, apparently in an attractive adult hand: “Blanche, from Fansie.”  Above this, in the upper right corner are some pencil markings, presumably by a book dealer: “B51539, 15 [stuck out], 10″
  • Another pencil inscription on the last leaf of the book, facing the last illustration, apparently from a child reader that reads: “Faustina Freeman”
  • Apart from written annotations, a number (but by no means all) of the illustrations in the book have been colored, presumably by a child-reader.
Inscriptions on first and last pages of the book and title page hand-coloring by a child reader.

Inscriptions on first and last pages of the book and title page hand-coloring by a child reader.

What can the annotations and/or markings in this particular book tell us about the book itself, its readers, or how child-readers interacted with the book?  For starters, there are several marks–of different types–apparently made by different people at different times.  Taken together, they constitute quite a bit of evidence of possession and actual use by owners or readers.  This, in turn, tells us that this book did indeed serve “the purpose for which it was created”: to be actively handled, valued, and used, presumably by child–the second name and the colored illustrations evidence this.

Multiple inscriptions suggest that this book mattered to people–both to a consumer who bought it, or otherwise obtained it, and then gave it as a gift, presumably to a child, its intended audience, and to another child reader, who inscribed it. One person (Fansie) thought it worthwhile to note giving it as a gift, and a second, a child (Faustina), then, in effect, laid  “claim” to it as her own by signing it herself.  The gift inscription is, in part, a product of its era and the culture of literacy and book-use at that time.   People signed their books, both as owners and donors, something they seem to do less often today.  (When was the last time that you inscribed a book?).

Gift inscriptions from adults to children are relatively common in Cotsen’s nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century books, even though they are found in a relatively small percentage of the Library’s total holdings, reminding us, as Grenby points out, that inscribed book are still the exception, not the rule.  Nor do we know for certain if inscribed books were retainedat a higher rate than those without marks, although this seems plausible.Inscribed books were, after all, used and presumably given a measure of attention and respect from their owners, so it’s reasonable to infer that they were kept, and even passed along to other people, as seems to be the case with Our Girls.  But we just don’t know how truly “representative” a sample they provide of all books published.

Gift Inscription: Blanche, from Fansie.

Gift Inscription: Blanche, from Fansie.

Apart from evidencing one received tradition of nineteenth-century book-culture, this inscription suggests that “Fansie” thought that making the gift of this little book was important enough to record this fact for the recipient–and for posterity; after all, she wrote in pen.  This wouldn’t have been a terribly expensive gift  book when new, but it’s not a cheap, semi-disposable pamphlet either.  It was meant to last a while, possibly through several readers.  From the fact of the inscription, we might also infer that books mattered to Fansie and that “Blanche” was a child who mattered to her personally, as well.  Why bother inscribing a book casually passed off to a semi-stranger?

Fansie’s hand is nicely-formed, with an attractively decorative capital “B”, possibly suggesting a well-educated inscriber, or at least one well-schooled in script penmanship.  She thus seems to be a member of the educated English middle-class that valued books and reading for children, as an increasing number of people seemed to do in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  Adults were willing to spend money on books for children that weren’t strictly pedagogical or overtly religious, and publishers like Routledge were eager to supply this expanding market.

Bookseller's notation: inventory number and prices.

Bookseller’s notation: inventory number and prices.

The other annotations on the page appear to be inventory code and price codes, written by a used bookseller or antiquarian dealer.  These are typically made in pencil, to avoid “defacing” the book, and are sometimes also found on a page at the end.  The meaning of the inventory number is lost to us, but the price information does tell us how much the bookseller charged for it–and also suggests that it wasn’t a fast-seller, because the price appears to have been knocked down by 50%!  Perhaps this was due to the condition of the embrittled paper or a lack of appeal by the anonymous stories, or both?  Since we don’t know the exact date when these price notations date were made, it’s hard to be sure how revealing they are, but, clearly, it was not a tremendously expensive item for a collector, even thirty years ago (even if the price refers to British pounds, not American dollars).  Oddly enough, the “lack of appeal” is quite possibly due to the very markings under discussion, which used to be regarded as flaws or “imperfections” by dealers and collectors–and sometimes still are–since the annotations are not by important people (insofar as we know, anyway), they’re not “literary” or terribly revealing in personal terms, and some collectors and scholars regard coloring as tantamount to defacing illustrations by rendering them no longer “as issued” when a book was published.

Inscription facing last illustration: Faustina Freeman.

Inscription facing last illustration: Faustina Freeman.

The other inscription in this book was done by a child: Faustina Freeman.  It’s location is somewhat unusual: on a blank page at the end of the book, facing the last illustration.  Why here?  Usually, such a name inscription arrears on a page at the beginning of the book.  But notations certainly can appear throughout a book, particularly in one with a lot of other inscriptions.  We don’t even know for certain who actually wrote it, but it seems reasonable to assume it was Miss Faustina herself, signing her name.  Perhaps she was just using a conveniently blank page to practice writing or signing her name.  (This happens fairly frequently in children’s books from both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In cases like that, though, there are usually other writings in a book.)  It’s also possible that the little girl was imitating adult practice of signing a book to indicate her ownership but just hadn’t yet learned that book-ownership convention put such signings at the beginning of the book.  There’s no way to know for sure, but whatever the case, signing your name is a claim of sorts, telling anyone else seeing the book that  “It’s mine” or at least “I was here.”

First full-page ill. that is hand-colored (p. [7]), to show two blond girls.

First full-page ill. that is hand-colored (p. [7]), to show two blond girls.

The hand-coloring of eight wood-engraved illustrations is too roughly done, and also too sporadic, to have been done by a publisher.  But they all do seem to have been done by the same child-reader. This coloring of printed illustrations in the book is a clear sign of a child’s use of it and an indication of a her response to it, albeit not in the form of writing or inscriptions, which are generally easier for adults studying book-history to interpret.  Do these colorings indicate the child’s engagement with the book and its contents or a lack of engagement and distraction?  Are they evidence of interest, perhaps by a child not yet able to write, or some sort of graffiti, showing disdain?  Of course, there’s no way to know for certain.  But I would argue that this hand-coloring shows engagement with the book–after all, it is quite neat and it’s also nicely artistic.  While child-like, the colorings are well within the outlines–something a very young child usually can’t manage–and many of them show an awareness of appropriate colors.  Hair is usually colored yellow and wood is brown, for instance.

Two hand-colorings, both foregrounding the girls in the illustrations with color.

Two hand-colorings, both foregrounding the girls in the illustrations with color.

Interestingly, virtually every illustration that is colored depicts a young girl, and hair coloring is always yellow, suggesting the handiwork of a young girl, perhaps four to seven years of age, and one with blond hair.  (I know of at least one little blond book-lover who almost always colored the children she drew with yellow hair, intending that they should look just like her!)  In two illustration (one depicting a girl and a boy together and one showing a little girl and her nanny) only the girl is colored, foregrounding her and leaving the other figures as background figures, perhaps indicating the way they were perceived by the little artist.

The coloring ends after the unnumbered page [19], with eight illustrations totally or partly colored-in.  Did the young artists lose interest in either coloring, or the book itself?  Or did she put the book aside, intending to come back another day?  And was she Blanche, to whom the book was inscribed?  Or was it Faustina who signed the book?  We’ll probably never know, but whatever the case–and whoever the artist–she left clear evidence of unmistakable use for us to see–and to learn from.  We have no idea if she was engaged with the stories in the book or even if she actually read them–or even if she could read.  But she obviously was engaged by the illustrations, and her use of the book is still clear and unmistakable–and it has been fortunately preserved for posterity.

The three other illustrations in Our Girls that have been hand-colored by a child, including two more blond girls. Note how the first (not a full-page ill.) is the only one colored that does not feature a little girl.

The three other illustrations in Our Girls that have been hand-colored by a child, including two more blond girls. Note how the first (not a full-page ill.) is the only one colored that does not feature a little girl.

Postscript (Dec. 14, 2011)

The great grandniece of Faustina Freeman, who read this Cotsen blog posting, has kindly supplied some more information about Ms. Freeman.

Faustina Freeman was born in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1886, the daughter of Prince Freeman and Dorinda Cook Young. She grew up in Provincetown, on Cook Street and was educated at Boston College, class of 1909, the University of California, Berkeley (1912), and Simmons College, Boston, in Library Science (1914).  She was a teacher for many years and died in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The book with Ms. Freeman’s signature, now in the Cotsen Library collection, was probably owned by her as a child, not as a teacher for use with her students; she probably she taught students who were a bit more mature than the book’s intended audience.

Faustina Freeman was also active in the Provincetown Art Association as an adult, and her descendant still holds small oil paintings in the family collection that she created, so the artwork on display in this book may well have been a harbinger of her adult interests and talents.

The Cotsen Library is grateful for the additional information!

3 thoughts on “Marks in Books #1: “Our Girls Stories”

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