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.  Through his collecting, Bill became a scholarly connoisseur of quacks–individual and corporate– and the illustrated promotional materials for nostrums and patent medicines.

It was John Newbery, popularly regarded as the father of the 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 afflicts 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, but he didn’t hold it against me (it has since been correctly dated).  Here was a kindred spirit to whom I could reveal my secret love for advertising ephemera pushing products for children like Scott’s Emulsion, full of horrible cod’s liver oil,or the Anodyne Necklace that quieted 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 make a selection of as many as I liked, the only caveat being he would review the lot for any on medical subjects that weren’t in his collection.  The one about children playing doctor on a doll below by Theodore Steinlen, I’m happy to say, 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.

 

Stop the Violence Against Dutch Dolls!

In the nineteenth century, French dolls in picture books were frequently subjected to harsh discipline at the hands of their not-so-loving owners.  In one extremely vivid illustration, the girl pulls up the doll’s petticoats and skirts over its neatly coiffed head and savagely whips its naked wooden bottom while her brother watches.

English dolls were not treated much better, especially if they happened to be Dutch [i.e. “Deutsch”] dolls.   By “Dutch dolls,” I don’t mean so-called character dolls, or figures dressed up in national costumes.   That kind of Dutch doll complete with clogs are readily available for sale on E-Bay or Etsy.   What I’m referring to are the cheap wooden joined dolls that used to be quite common in the nursery.  These curious objects, as often as not drawn undressed with their private parts exposed, seem to have brought out the latent sadistic impulses of authors and illustrators to a rather alarming degree.

Let’s take a look at one of the delightful cat books illustrated by Nicola Bayley, Fun with Mrs. Thumb by Jan Mark.  It’s obvious from the opening lines of Mark’s poem that Mrs.Thumb must be a doll living in a doll’s house, but the kind of doll is not specified.  It would be interesting to know whose idea it was to make Mrs. Thumb a Dutch doll– the author’s or the illustrator’s.

The narrator-cat eases up to the doll’s house to wreak havoc, or what it disingenuously calls playing with Mrs. Thumb.  It meows, ” Mrs. Thumb, / Mrs. Thumb! / Leave your chair / and cross the room. /Let me into / your house. / I will not eat you / –promise! / I am full of milk / and mouse.”

The Dutch doll’s expression is blank, but she knows the cat is up to no good when he tries to lure her out of her hiding place: “See what I have / brought today: / my lovely fur, / my lovely purr, / my lovely paws, / full of claws.”   Her options for eluding the monstrous velveteen paw are limited at best.

What if Mrs. Thumb were a mouse?  I would bet a bag of Greenies that Jan Mark’s poem would never have been published, because of the objections to exposing young children to pictures of a cat playing with its prey.  But because the cat is torturing an antique Dutch doll, which can’t feel anything, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh at the poor toy.  What if a Barbie doll were substituted in the illustrations?  Would our reactions to the story have been the same?

The poor defenseless Dutch doll has been subject to a lot worse in children’s picture books than being given a tumble by a cat waiting for someone to open a can of tuna for dinner.   I’d like to reassure you that the systematic mistreatment of Dutch dolls is symptomatic of our time’s coarsened sensibilities, but it was omnipresent in Edwardian picture books.  I decided against reproducing a photographic illustration of a car crash staged with Dutch dolls and chose instead a rather anodyne version of this favorite subject from the Uptons’ first book in the Golliwogg series.  It is bad enough.  The vehicle has no seat belts for its numerous passengers.  There are so many dolls crowded into the back that one of the tiniest of them has fallen into the road, with another one poised to topple over after her.  The driver seems blissfully unaware that an accident has taken place.  It’s impossible to say if it was because she had to concentrate on steering the contraption with the horse’s bridle or if she was listening to the doll behind her who seems to be urging her to speed up.

Perhaps the worst of the lot is The Book of the Little Dutch Dolls.   Don’t be fooled by the adorable title page vignette.  It’s a sinister foreshadowing of what follows–the cheerful Dutch dollies doing violence to their bodies, removing bits and pieces for the sheer fun of it. 

How jolly this all must have been once upon a time before our consciences were raised…  Now it’s a little hard to look at picture books featuring Dutch dolls without feeling somewhat guilty, conflicted and even a little queasy.  There’s probably an article here…