What’s a “rare book”?
That’s a question that’s often asked of people who work with rare books and special collections. Publications like the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio come to mind (although some might argue that the First Folio isn’t all that “rare” in rare-book terms, since some 234 copies are known to remain in existence to this day (out of an initial print run variously estimated between 750 and 1200 copies).
What about rare children’s books? A first edition of Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, signed by the author, might come to mind. Or a signed copy of the very first 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland (properly titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), withdrawn from circulation after some 48 copies had been given away, mostly by Lewis Carroll, because of John Tenniel’s dissatisfaction with the printing of the illustrations. Only a handful of copies remain in existence today. How about the very first edition of a Harry Potter book — titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when first issued in England — printed for a then-unknown writer named J.K. Rowling in an initial issue of some 300 copies, most donated to libraries to see if young readers liked the book. (You know the answer to that question!) Cotsen Library has copies of all these books, by the way — a real testament to the breadth of the collection!
So, not all “rare” books are old; not all are elaborately printed, bound, or illustrated; and not all are even meant for adults. It’s also with pointing out that not all “rare” titles are household names today or written by famous authors; some aren’t even “books” at all in the technical sense of the term. Many of the rarest items in Cotsen’s collection are books almost nobody remembers now, or books published anonymously; who would want to go out of their way to treasure, read, or even keep things like that? (Apart from a rare book library, or course!). How many people today are clamoring to own, or even read, books like Bertha’s Visit to her Uncle in England, Frank Netherton, Nedra, or Elsie Dinsmore? How many people have even heard of them? Not me, I have to admit, until I found them in the the library catalog. Yet those books once had their day and were read by children.
Many now-rare children’s books are cheap ephemeral publications, such as chapbooks or pamphlet books, issued without bindings in the usual sense of the term, sometimes in colored-paper wrappers or even using using their own first and last pages as wrappers of sorts for the reading matter continued inside. They were inexpensive (often costing only a penny or two apiece), cheaply constructed, and reading matter that people often seem to have read and discarded, or literally read to death and then tossed away. A book costing a penny is a lot less likely to have been regarded as important to hold onto and preserve than was a book costing, say, $1, £1, or $10, a purchase sometimes representing a decent chunk of a buyer’s disposable cash. But they filled an important niche for readers.
In terms of other types of children’s books that can often be rare today, some were issued in connection with a particular event — an Arctic expedition or Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, for instance. Once the resonance of the event faded, a publication that it prompted might well seem like yesterday’s news, and who wants yesterday’s papers? And some children’s books might well entail marking up, painting in, or even cutting apart the illustrations or the pages themselves to make paper toys or pictures to hang on the wall by a happy parent or even to mail in to a contest. Such books become literally “self-consuming artifacts” in the process of being read or used by children.A case-in-point is the Victoria Painting Book, issued in connection with a 1897 painting contest for British children, but lacking a publication date, author or illustrator name, or even any indication of the publisher. This book fulfills a number of the “criteria” for rarity outlined above, and a quick search online suggests that Cotsen’s copy may be the only one to be found in a library now. (Not to be confused with Cassell’s 1897 Victoria Painting Book for Little Folks!)
The blatantly patriotic — and brightly chromolithographed — cover of the book depicts a Boer War veteran having returned home, his helmet tossed on the ground, and his daughter sitting on his lap reading to him, with his sailor-suited son standing next to them, holding a large Union Jack. One facing pair of illustrations inside the book — captioned “Home Again” — depicts the happy moment of the veteran’s homecoming to his family. (The girl’s abruptly-dropped doll hitting the floor and the child’s drawing hanging on the wall add a couple of nice touches to the family reunion, which a great many families did not get to savor, due to heavy casualties in the Boer War’s protracted fighting.)
But most of the subject matter in the book — combining facing chromolithographs and uncolored versions to paint with alphabet rhymes — is not about patriotism or warfare, but about sick or injured children and the Victoria Hospital for Children, which the book was printed to benefit, as noted on the foot of the cover.
Accordingly, most of the illustrations depict injured children (with a sentimentality that would have made Dickens proud) or children in the hospital, injured or sick to be sure, but looking surprisingly happy against the backdrop of a very, very neat and tidy, altogether impressive-looking hospital with caring nurses. “The stately old home … is now a children’s hospital: the rooms are full of cots, each with its tiny sick child, and up and down go the nurses, busy with their work… It takes a lot of money to build such a hospital” (in the words of the accompanying two-page “Victoria Hospital Story” in the book). Who wouldn’t be moved to buy a book or donate money to support such a wonderful, caring institution for children?
The Victoria Painting Book was issued so that its sales proceeds might benefit the children’s hospital. The text of the book itself also asks child-readers to raise money themselves (“If each child who reads this book would collect twelve pennies towards it, that would go some way to pay for bricks and stones and mortar”). As if that’s not enough fund-raising inspiration, the book also advertises a painting competition on several pages inside, whereby children are solicited to “tear out” and mail in a completed version of the Prize Competition Picture from the book (a Christmas scene at the end), along with ten shillings (presumably in cash), in hopes of winning £5, 2£, or 1£ prizes. I have to wonder how many books were discarded after the picture and required entry form pages were torn out, the book perhaps fell apart as a result, and other pictures were colored in. Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s so rare now?
Multiple contest entries are explicitly encouraged, with a “special prize” (unspecified) to be awarded to the “competitor who sends in the largest number of paintings for competition” — buying multiple copies of the book in the process! Perhaps it’s the cynicism of our time, but this sort of thing reminds me a bit of Soupy Sales crossed with the old Chicago political machine (“Mail in those green bills in Daddy’s wallet and Mommy’s purse to Uncle Soupy,” and “Vote early, and often!”). As if anticipating such a jaundiced view of their charity efforts, the two-page Painting Competition rules and instructions has the heading: “Please remember that although you may not win a prize, you have done a good action in helping the hospital by competing.” The rules do specify that the “names of prize winners” will be published in “The Gentlewoman,” “The Queen” and the “Morning Post,” but I haven’t yet been able to verify that tidbit of information, or the names of the lucky winners.
The rules pages also list the mailing address for ordering additional copies of the book and its price: 1 shilling — placing the book in the same general price-range as chromolithographed “toy books” of the time, which usually had fewer pages than the twenty-four-leaf Painting Book, though. (The mailing address — the Hospital’s — suggests that this book may not have been sold via traditional children’s booksellers.)
“Added value” in the Painting Book is provided by four pages of illustrated, sepia-toned alphabet rhymes, customized for this book.
One of my favorite pair of rhymes is: F is for “funds, alas, almost nil; / Will nobody help us to fill up the till?” and “G is the gold we should like to see poured / In nice shining heaps, on the Hospital board.”
Note how the alphabet rhyme finesse the letters W, X,Y, Z — always-troublesome in terms of illustrative words and illustrations! Also worth noting is the number of children the rhymes specify as having been served by the Hospital over a period of some thirty years, — thirty thousand patients and a million outpatients — a staggering total, and numbers echoing those in the prose narrative “History.” Were these numbers meant to impress child-readers and be remembered by them, were they meant for their parents or other adults, or were they included by a harried copywriter just to fill out the rhymes?
The Victoria Painting Book is an unusual publication in lacking any information whatsoever about the date, publisher, or printer. Early books for children sometimes lacked this information, but by the nineteenth century, publishers realized this was a valuable source of advertising — and also protection of intellectual property. We can infer an initial publication date of about 1897 from the context of the contest.
But who was the publisher? I think it’s almost certainly Frederick Warne & Co. The Cotsen copy came into the collection along with a batch of books from the Warne Archive publisher’s archive copies. (But publishers did keep tabs on competitors and prior publishers; the Warne publisher’s archive contained some Routledge books, for instance, which also came into the Cotsen collection.)
The Victoria Painting Book looks a lot like many other Warne publications of the time, for instance the circa 1890 Railway ABC toy book (Cotsen 30407). Compare the chromolithographed upper wrappers of the two publications. Apart from the strongly patriotic motif (admittedly, not Warne’s exclusive province), the overall layout, cover design, and use of color seems “typically Warne.” Perhaps more importantly, several contemporary serial publications listing books in print include the Victoria Painting Book under Warne publications — and specify that the title is indeed the one issued to benefit the Victoria Hospital, thus eliminating possible ambiguities about similarly titled books. (These publications include “The Publisher’s Circular” from 1904 and “British Books in Print” from 1906.)
The fact that the Victoria Painting Book was still in print — and presumably available for purchase — in 1904 and 1906 raises questions about just how popular the title was (unless of course my date attribution of ca. 1897 is off).
Were copies of the book unsold and the title still “in print” over five years later? Or was it so popular that the book was reprinted again, possibly with Warne’s imprint? Lacking other copies to compare to Cotsen’s copy or further “books in print” information, I can’t answer those questions now. All I can say with relative certainly is that the Victoria Painting Book is one very, very rare book now, and one whose illustrations and overall design present a fascinating window into not only children’s book production in this era, but also the look of high Victorian life.