A few weeks ago when reading The Easter Gift published by John Newbery, I ran across the term “shews in boxes.” Context made it clear that they were nice toys given as rewards to boys or girls for being on their best behavior. My hunch was that the phrase was a synonym for “peep-shows.” Certainly that’s the object referred to in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Magician’s Show Box” and Nathaniel’s “Fancy’s Show Box,” both of which were published in the early nineteenth century. But during the eighteenth century, the term comprised another kind of novelty format–the moving panorama.
The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest use of “show box” in a newsy letter of September 5, 1748 from Lady Henrietta Luxborough to her good friend William Shenstone the poet. She wrote, “As to your thought about improving the Show-box, I do not despise it for believing you took it from the thing called London Cries, which children play with.” Might she have had in mind a toy like the one shown below, where a long engraved strip is wound around rollers inside a box, so that the pictures can be scrolled past the viewer? This show box of London street criers has been halted at the picture of an itinerant peep-show operator, with his equipment strapped on his back.
These toys were sold by James Kirk, an engraver who was one of the three sons of the medal and gem engraver John Kirk (there is some question as to his birth and death dates). Newspaper advertisements in the early 1750s indicate that pere Kirk, whose shop was located on the north side of St. Paul’s Church yard, went in with his son James, the proprietor of a toyshop, a stone’s throw away, to sell sets of money weights. James was an enterprising entrepreneur in his own right, issuing tokens with pictures of the shop’s interior one side to promote the premises, which boasted a grotto and waterworks to enhance the shopping experience. Like many eighteenth-century booksellers, or engravers, Kirk stocked sundries like Woodcock’s sticking plaster, an early type of Band Aid; this elaborate engraved advertisement is pasted down on the rear wrapper of one of his pamphlets of London cries.
Kirk does not seem to have produced many juveniles, but he had a strategy to keep them fresh over the years. His London cries has quite a complicated history, which I was able to pull together from a passel of newspaper advertisements, the three Kirk London cries show boxes, and one Kirk pamphlet of London cries in the Cotsen collection. What it all shows is James Kirk liked to repackage the same content in three or more formats.
It began in February 13, 1755 with an advertisement for four engraved prints, each with twelve different street criers redrawn from the celebrated prints of Marcellus Laroon. The set of prints could be purchased for a shilling or in little three-penny pamphlets, each consisting of one sheet of criers. Below are the title page, the criers of green peas, writing ink and pens, and pins from one of the pamphlets in Cotsen.By February 7, 1756, Kirk was advertising the London cries in a new format: “made up in boxes, on Rollers. Very fit to amuse Children and help them forward their learning.” Notice that he doesn’t call them show boxes or give a price. In an advertisement the next week, a second show box repackaging a set of illustrated Aesop’s fables pamphlets was offered for sale at eight pence, which is not all that dear for what it was.
As detailed as the advertisements are, they don’t tell the whole story. Examining individual copies reveals some variants the ads don’t mention. Two of Cotsen’s show boxes, 12683 and 30501, have the same sequence of street peddlers, but differ in small details. The panoramas are printed on two paper stocks: 30501 is printed on faded blue paper, while 12683 is on the more usual ivory. The illustrations in 12683 are hand-colored. Booksellers and engravers normally advertise when a title is available in plain and colored versions, so I wonder if 12683’s missing glass may have been removed at some point (and never replaced) so that that the strip could be watercolored one image at a time without having to take it out of the box and off the rollers. The water colorist was almost certainly no professional.
I couldn’t find any newspaper advertisements for Cotsen’s third specimen of a Kirk cries moving panorama. It’s hard to tell if it originally had a title page, but there is no doubt that it was produced from another plate, because it is an alphabet illustrated with a completely different set of criers printed on bluish paper. It’s not in original condition: clumsy repairs on the box cover up the original Dutch gilt paper and flimsy little handles have been substituted for the round knobs on the bottom. An old manuscript with calculations has been cut up to reattach the left hand edge of the strip to the roller.
If only an antiquarian bookseller would quote Cotsen the fourth manifestation of Kirk’s London cries–the “pastime cards” advertised March 26 1757 nicely colored for 5 shillings a deck, a good deal more than the show boxes… I’ve not succeeded in finding any reproductions of cards in the cries set, but am guessing that they would have looked something like the Aesop cards below.
Surely Kirk had to engrave new plates in order to insert the symbols differentiating the court and pips cards, but forty-eight of the fifty-two street criers could have been redrawn from the original set of cries plates. If the alphabet moving panorama was published by 1757, then there was no need to draw any new figures (see the addenda at the end for all the peddlers found in the Kirks in Cotsen).
It’s unlikely that James Kirk invented the miniature moving panorama, but the format has had a long life: Cotsen has almost two dozen later examples of this novelty format. Kirk’s modest little animations of the “moving market” on the streets of London appeared decades before the advent of huge ones that were among the most popular public entertainments of the nineteenth century.
Who knows if the inventors of these more elaborate examples were inspired by toys like these? There’s room for just two favorite examples from the 1800s. Here’s S. and J. Fuller’s The Grimacer (ca. 1820?) The top strip moves across the box vertically and the bottom strip horizontally, so that the heads and torsos of the figures can be amusingly mismatched. You can see the rollers’ knobs on the bottom and the right hand side of the box.
The second example shows the animals entering Noah’s ark, which the publisher Betts manufactured in a small and a large version (this is the large one). The strip is contained in a wooden box attached to the underside of the panel and passes through slots on the left and right of the background on its upper side. To advance the strip, someone must stand behind the entire apparatus and turn the concealed handles.
Addenda: The Peddlers Represented in the Kirk London Cries
The contents of three of the four plates can be reconstructed from the surviving examples. To save space, only the product, not the cry has been transcribed.
Plate A (Cryes of London pamphlet: Cotsen 153707)
1. green peas, 2. white-heart onions 3. small coal 4. Seville oranges and lemons, 5. ballads, 6. cherries, 7. song birds, 8. eels, 9. ink and writing pens, 10. pins, 11. herrings, 12. almanacs
Plate B (Cryes of London pamphlet: Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington)
1.Waltho Van Clutterbanck 2.potatoes 3.cotton laces 4. Past twelve o’clock 5. brooms 6. matches 7. sweetheart cakes 8. shrimps 9. bellows 10. periwinkles 11. crab 12.???
Plate C (Moving panorama: Cotsen 30501 and 12683)
1.Mutton or eel pie 2. hot gray peas 3. lines 4. raree show 5. gudgeons 6. long tail pig pastries 7. whiting 8. Holloway cheese cake 9. Scotch cloth 10. gingerbread 11. poor prisoner 12. mops
Peddlers in the alphabet moving panorama (Cotsen 425)
- AB walnuts 2. CD old clothes 3. EF Italian flowers 4. GH rabbits 5. IJ milk curds and whey 6. KL door mats 7. MN fresh salad 8. OP pickling cucumbers 9. QR Yorkshire lemon cakes 10. ST strawberries 11. UV kitchen stuff 12. YWZX [sic] chairs to mend
In preparing this post, I drew on Sheila O’Connell’s London 1753, British Map Engravers by Laurence Worms and Ashley Bayton-Williams, Karen Beall’s Kaufrufe und Strassenhandler, and Sean Shesgreen’s Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London.