Thomas Boreman’s Tiny, Tiny “Gigantick Histories”

How a “tiny, dumpy volume” altered the concept of children’s books —

Title page and frontispiece of The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants… (London: 1740) Cotsen 20211

When Thomas Boreman issued The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants, and Other Curiosities in Guildhall, London in 1740, nobody would have expected that this “tiny, dumpy volume” would “alter the concept of ‘children’s books'”¹ and turn out to be a landmark in children’s book history.  Boreman himself included!  But it did.

First, a little background… Boreman, a London bookseller, was one of a number of English “dabblers” in children’s books during the 1720s and 1730s; in 1730, he published a book titled A Description of Three Hundred Animals, a whimsical combination of fact and fantasy in what was then the emerging genre of natural history books for children.  This book remained in print for almost a hundred years.

Title page of the 62 mm Curiosities in the Tower of London, Vol I, with a penny to indicate size.  Note the price!  In 1741, a buyer could purchase this book for just four (English) pence.

But The Gigantick History (along with nine subsequent titles in what became a series of the same name) is Boreman’s most significant legacy to children’s books —  one termed a “stroke of genius” by Brian Alderson.  The book incorporated a number of inspired innovations, many of which later became the norm in children’s books in the eighteenth century.

First, The Gigantick History was tiny: only 64 millimeters in height (about 2 ½ inches).  “Thumb Bibles,” Bible stories, and religious books aimed at children had been published in small sizes since the seventeenth century.  But Boreman seems to have been the very first to create a non-religious miniature book for children, a successful innovation he repeated in his other “Gigantick Histories” — and one that John Newbery and John Marshall would laterfollow too.  The irony of titling such tiny miniature books as “gigantick” must have been intentional, and this suggests the gentle humor that generally characterizes Boreman’s books — something that must have resonated with children, used to being lectured or “talked down to” in many books for children until that point.  Boreman realized that children had to be “amused” in order to give their full attention during “the infant age,” as he states explicitly in a prefatory comment to the Gigantick History illustrated below:

“During the Infant-Age … there is no fixing the attention of the mind, but by amusing it.”

Amusement and instruction, teaching and delighting — sentiments consistent with John Locke’s teachings on the education of children, and also those echoed later by Newbery and McLoughlin Brothers in their mottoes. While Boreman’s authorship of this text is never made explicit, it’s widely assumed that he was the author of the whole book, as well as of the other nine “Gigantick Histories,” in addition to being the creative force behind them and the bookseller.  As such, Boreman is really “the first to make, however briefly, a business out of publishing children’s books.”² Newbery is the one popularly credited with this accomplishment — with the caveat “successful” added to make it more precise though, since Newbery’s family printing and publishing house prospered for some time.

Boreman’s Dedication “to all the little masters and little misses” also anticipates the direct address to children by an author or book-creator, and even the same language — “little masters and misses”  — that Newbery and Thomas Carnan would soon adopt to good effect, sometimes even within their titles: Pocket Bible for Little Masters and Misses (Newbery, 1772) or The Drawing School for Little Masters and Misses (Carnan, 1774).  But Boreman really blazed the trail that they followed — and of course made broader and more far-reaching.

Another Boreman innovation in The Gigantick History was to include a list of child subscribers for his children’s book.

Last page of subscriber’s list facing the first page of the text in The Gigantick History.

Subscribers’ listings were common enough in adult publications at the time, but Boreman seems to have been first to do so in a book for children — and his list of “subscribers” is composed mostly of children (little masters and misses, again!), with some fanciful additions.  Paid subscribers made the printing and publication of a book less risky, of course, especially for a new type of book altogether that was aimed at a new market  The listing of children’s names must also have been an incentive for adult book-buyers to subscribe too.  What parent or gift-giver wouldn’t want to give a child a book with his or her own name actually printed in it?  And what child wouldn’t be delighted to see her or his name printed in the book?  Imagine a child delightedly showing that to friends? (“My book!)  And the demand that would tend to create among other children too.

Boreman also included publisher’s advertisements in later “Gigantick Histories,” and was not above incorporating self-promotion into the text of some of them too, another practice that Newbery and other children’s book issuers would follow. Boreman’s uses the Preface here to tout a planned second volume: “Then, very soon / I’ll print another, / Which for size, / will be its brother.”  “Product placement” and “affiliated content” were not invented by “Mad Men” or online media!

Detail of the two laurel wreath-crowned Guildhall giants — Gogmagog and Corineus.

Although Boreman couldn’t have known it at the time, The Gigantick History provided the basic model for the later books in the series — and for later books by publishers, such John Marshall’s Infant’s Library and Book-case of Instruction & Delight. The book features a full-page woodcut frontispiece of the two eponymous Guildhall “giants” — Gogmagog and Corineus (sometimes known as Gog and Magog) — whose statues stood in the Great Hall and included another full-page cut placed within the text. The book contains a total 128 pages (numbered xvi, 112), printed on a single sheet of paper in 64mo format, and it’s bound in Dutch paper-covered boards.

The subsequent “Gigantick Histories” are similarly comprised of 128 pages (sometimes including unnumbered or blank pages) printed on a single sheet of paper in 64mo, include a woodcut frontispiece and at least one other full-page cut within the text (with the exception of Vol. II of Gigantick History, about the Guildhall itself, but with some later titles adding even more more cuts), and were originally issued for sale bound in Dutch paper-covered boards (of varying colors, as evidenced by Cotsen’s ten titles in the set).

The Gigantick History devotes most of its text to a fantastical, folk-tale based narrative about the bravery and honor of the two Guildhall giants, Gogmagog and Corineus. They use their strength and considerable force to defend England and London, thus earning statues in the Guildhall (whose members thereby aver that they will defend the honor of their nation and the freedom of their city). Corineus and Gogmagog then engage in a single-combat match between themselves, in the course of which Corineus heaves a shattered Gogmagog off a cliff into the sea.  Despite the giants’ exemplification of bravery and loyalty, this part of the Gigantick History’s content is not far from the whimsical tales of marvels and adventures in ancient England found in chapbooks of the time.

The second part (“Book II”) of The Gigantick History begins to discuss the Guildhall itself and some of its actual “curiosities.  With an eye to aspects that would resonate with children, Boreman highlights a lock-up for unruly apprentices under the Guildhall, called “Little Ease,” which features a ceiling “so rough and low” that a consignee cannot stand upright and is forced to “bow” — a source of both discomfort and enforced humility. The charming “Little Ease” also features “rats, mice, and other vermin.”  “Stubborn” boys who remain unrepentant can expect to be hauled off to Bridewell Prison, where even worse could be expected.  To add a visual aspect for his little readers, Boreman adds a woodcut that depicts a naughty boy being manhandled into the dark maw of “Little Ease.”

“Of that horrible place call’d Little ease”

Boreman concludes The Gigantick History with the comment: “For the rest, I must refer my reader to my 2d [i.e. “second”] volume.”  Having used up his allotment of 128 pages in the book, Boreman hopes he has sufficiently interested his readers in his content that they will return for ” Volume 2.”

In somewhat the same way, I hope that you will stay tuned for next week’s Part 2 of my story about the rest of Cotsen’s copies of the “Gigantick Histories” series.  Individually, they’re quite rare books, and a collection of all ten books in the series is even rarer.  Included among the books is another one about a giant, Cajaus, a “Swedish giant,” a book about more Guildhall curiosities, and volumes about The Tower of London (and the menagerie living there in the 18th century), Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  You can preview them all below, as housed in their modern, custom clam-shell box, which lives within the stacks of Cotsen’s “Wall of Books.”

Cotsen’s complete set of all 10 volumes of Boreman’s “Gigantick Histories.”

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  1. Brian Alderson & Felix De Marez Oyens, Be Merry and Wise (London and New Castle, Del., 2006), p. 45.
  2. Pierpont Morgan Library, Early Children’s Books & Their Illustration (New York, 1975), p. 191.
    In addition, I’ve also made use of “The Gigantick History,” Entry 10, in the Grolier Club’s One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature (New York, 2014) by Chris Loker and Jill Sheffrin, p. 98.

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