The French Popular Prints William H. Helfand Gave Cotsen

In 2008, Cotsen received a gift of 250 French popular prints from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from William H. Helfand, a great collector–but not of children’s books.  The story of how the prints found their way from Paris, to Sutton Place in New York City, and finally to Princeton is worth remembering this week to mark Bill’s passing at age ninety-two.

The son of a pharmacist, Bill began his career in the pharmaceutical industry in the marketing division at Merck and eventually became a senior vice president.  This was a shrewd career choice for someone who knew he wanted to collect art, but would never have the means to buy paintings.  It did give him ample opportunities to travel, which meant increased time to establish a network of dealers who could provide him with prints on medical and pharmaceutical subjects.   The field was a very congenial one for someone with as an acute sense of humor and an eye for human fraility as Bill had.  Through his collecting, he became a scholarly connoisseur of quacks–individual and corporate–and illustrated promotional materials for nostrums and patent medicines.

It was John Newbery, the father of the modern children’s book, that brought Bill to Firestone.   He wanted to see Cotsen’s packet of Dr. James’ Fever Powder, the patent medicine that was supposed to cure all kinds of fevers, the gout, scurvy, “distempers in cattle,” and practically any other complaint that afflicted the human body.

This preparation, and not the little gilt books like The History of little Goody Two-Shoes, was the real foundation of John Newbery’s fortune and by far the most valuable part of his estate.  Bill was disappointed to discover that the Newbery packet of fever powders dated from the late nineteenth century.   I was embarrassed to discover it was wrongly dated in Voyager (now corrected), but he didn’t hold it against me.  Here was a kindred spirit to whom I could reveal my secret love for advertising ephemera that pushed products to children like Scott’s Emulsion, a horrible preparation of cod’s liver oil with additives that surely did nothing to improve the taste or the Anodyne Necklace guaranteed to quiet teething babies with who knows what toxic ingredient….

A few years later, Bill inherited a huge print collection on medical subjects amassed by an old friend in Paris, whose children had no interest in keeping it.  That collection was so large and duplicated many things in Bill’s that he had to find homes for large categories of materials.  And so I received the first of several invitations to come to his New York apartment and look over the children’s prints and select as many as I liked, the only caveat being he would review them for any on medical subjects that weren’t in his collection.  The one about children playing doctor on a doll below by Theodore Steinlen is one he didn’t need. It was a crash course in the subject, of which I knew almost nothing.  But it became clear soon enough that these prints, many of them from the famous firm in Epinal, had not been studied by scholars of French popular prints and represented unknown territory for research.These French prints were contemporary with the better known German Bilderbogen and I could imagine that a Princeton faculty member interested in the history of the comic strip, the cartoon, or graphic novel, could show students their ancestors in two countries that were major producers of nineteenth-century prints for children.  And of course, a selection of the prints would and did make a wonderful exhibition to acknowledge Bill’s great generosity.  Twelve were reproduced in a portfolio as a keepsake, which is still available. Had the blog existed then, Bill’s gift would have been first announced in a heavily illustrated post.   But it’s never too late to pay another tribute to a great friend.

 

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