Looking at an Icon: A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)

John Newbery’s first children’s book, The Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) has long been famous for uniting amusement and instruction in a new, more modern way and its status has been taken for granted by generations of educators, collectors, and scholars.

Another reason the book is so famous is because of its extreme rarity.  No public collection or private collector can claim to have an early copy, that is, one from the 1740s or 1750s.  Of the seven surviving editions (all later), the British Library holds the lion’s share: the earliest surviving one of 1760, the ones of 1767 and 1770, plus an abridged reprint ca. 1790 by John Marshall,  who purchased the copyright and blocks from Francis Power, John’s grandson. The Lilly Library in Indiana University, Bloomington has a copy of the eleventh edition of 1763, while the Gdansk Academy of Sciences in Poland has the thirteenth edition of 1766 published in Edinburgh by D. Patterson.  The only relatively common edition is Isaiah Thomas’s 1787 Worcester, Massachusetts reprint, with some twenty copies recorded in the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue.  Cotsen’s Newbery collection has only the Thomas edition.  All the illustrations in this post were taken from the 1967 facsimile of the 1767 edition.

The Morgan Library’s copy of the 1787 Isaiah Thomas edition with one of the premiums and its little pouch. It may or may not be contemporary with the book.

A third reason the Pocket-Book is remembered, is for the ball and pincushion tie-in, which is considered among the most inventive promotional schemes any eighteenth-century entrepreneur devised—and they could be fiendishly creative. Jack the Giant-Killer’s letters to his young friends Tommy and Polly describes a novel moral regimen to help them be “as good as possible.”  They are to track their deeds by sticking pins into a parti-colored object: the bad ones on the black half, the good on the red half.  Tommy is to use the gender-appropriate ball, and Polly the pincushion.  Newbery tried to make it as easy as possible to follow the friendly giant’s advice making balls or pincushions available for purchase for an additional two pence at his shop.

The pencil markings were made by the author on a print-out of the newspaper advertisement, not the actual copy!

The advertisements for the book’s first year in print, however, show that the celebrated come-on was short-lived.  The ads that appeared between May and August 1744 give the price of the book with and without a ball or pincushion.  By October 22, the one for the second edition in the General Advertiser mentioned the ball-and-pincushion scheme in the book, but nothing about being able to buy real ones.  That information was dropped from subsequent advertisements in London and provincial papers.   Enticing as the offer sounded,  probably not enough mamas and papas took the bait and laid out the extra money for the premiums, balls being such common toys and pincushions so frequently made at home.  Newbery’s next promotional scheme was worthy of his genius, but did not require customers to lay out additional cash for premiums.  His penny pamphlet Nurse Truelove’s New Year’s Gift (1750) stated on the title page that only good children would be allowed to purchase it and those lucky boys and girls would get the book for free, provided they chipped in a penny for the Dutch gilt paper wrappers.  Other booksellers copied the idea to give their little books that Newbery touch.

The ball-and-pincushion scheme of moral accounting, for better or worse, has  deflected attention  from the book’s grab bag of uncredited bits and pieces–with the exception of the first illustration of a baseball game in progress, which sports historians have long treasured.  While the contents of the Pocket-Book are miscellaneous, as was common in many eighteenth century children’s books, the selection was not haphazard.  Let’s look at the two poems at the end about time’s power and passage.  Because it was important to persuade children to learn how to use their time well while they were young, those subjects were de facto appropriate for them.  Is it possible to trace them back to their authors? Yes, thanks to databases like Eighteenth Century Collections On-Line.   “A Poetical Description of the Four Seasons” was an imitation of Book VII, canto VII of Spenser’s Fairy Queene by James Ralph, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, which was first published in 1729.  “Time’s Address to Plutus and Cupid by Way of Application,” following it was abridged from John Gay’s Fable XII “Plutus, Cupid & Time” in his second set of fables (1738).  Gay’s best-known fable was “The Hare and Many Friends,” which many eighteenth-century children committed to memory and recited out loud.

These poems were never intended to rival the song-book described on the title page as “A new Attempt to Teach Children the Use of the English Alphabet by Way of Diversion.”   The promise of such a one may have been Newbery’s attempt to capitalize on the success of his competition’s Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book,  the first collection of nursery rhymes, issued within weeks of each other.  The Pocket-Book offered something rather different, as the advertised song book had been folded somewhat haphazardly into the alphabet–at least according to now familiar conventions for pictured alphabets.

The alphabet was off to a promising start with its introduction of the capital and lower-case letters inserted into the formulaic running heads “The Great A Play, “The little a Play” for pages [21]-[68] instead of via tables.  Each letter “played” at a familiar sport or game described in a little illustrated moral emblem, but subjects did not alliterate with the letters. “All the Birds in the Air” is paired with Great O, not  Great A.   The famous sequence of games concludes with little q, so the ditties were paired with Great R through little w. This seems to be the extent of the song book, only a few of which are  nursery rhymes or riff off characters in them.  Their first lines also do not alliterate with the headings.  Fables with applications by Jack the Giant Killer comprise the subjects of Great X through little z, with the last fable left hanging outside the running head alphabet.   Structurally the alphabet is a bit of a mess, although its lack of transitions between sections in the alphabet may not have mattered to its audience at all.

The way the sports and games were presented in the Pocket-Book  suggests that some sanitizing had been done.  Only boys take part in activities such as fishing, shooting, riding, birds’ nesting, dancing around the may pole, or play at “Knock Out and Span,” “Pitch and Hussel, “ cricket, leap frog, etc. Girls appear in just two illustrations: “Boys and Girls come out to Play (not the familiar nursery rhyme);” and “I sent a Letter to my Love.” Yet other contemporary sources indicate that a number of the games shown here were not the exclusive property of children, but frequently played by young adults in mixed groups.  Hoop and Hide, a variation on Hide and Seek, is one of the more interesting examples of such a game.  It could be played out of doors, as shown here, but also in the house.  Players were allowed to hide anywhere, but if someone was discovered under or in a bed, then he or she would have to submit to being kissed by the seeker.  That the game could lead to harder stuff was confirmed by Ned Ward in the London Spy (1700), Sir Richard Steele in the Tatler no. 5 (1712), and in Round about  Our Coal Fire (1730).

So this has just scratched the surface of The Little Pretty Pocket-Book.  What d’ye think of it?

2 thoughts on “Looking at an Icon: A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)

  1. Pingback: 8 Rare Children's Books Published in English - Rarest.org

  2. Excellent introduction to the wonders of John Newbery’s “The Little Pretty Pocket-Book.” Thanks for including all great images.

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