Fantasia on the Theme of Christmas Book Shopping Starring John Newbery

The Christmas season is most wonderful time of the year to pay tribute to the children’s bookseller and this one starts with..

John Newbery
who made a fortune selling Dr. James’ fever powder,
a patent medicine to which references were
strategically planted in his juvenile books.

One of Newbery’s diabolically clever publishing projects for the children’s market was to create a series of books that were suitable for purchase as presents for  any major holiday, whether Christmas, New Year’s, Twelfth Night, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Whitsuntide.   Could this series been the answer to the prayers of every brother, sister, papa, mama, uncle, aunt, godfather and godmother who needed a present at the last minute?   Thanks to Newbery, the philanthropic bookseller of St. Paul’s Church-Yard, perukes, product placement, and plum pudding go together like Macy’s, Santa, and Sedaris.

Digression on Critics which is optional Reading

Children’s literature critics have declared themselves shocked, shocked, at the unmistakable stench of commercial instincts burbling up in Newbery juveniles, even though it ought to be as plain as the nose on Rudolph’s muzzle that there would be no children’s literature as we know it if John Newbery had not created needs that could only be gratified on his premises.

A handful of modern writers have taken it upon themselves to explain to children the debt of gratitude they owe Mr. Newbery as the namesake of the American Library Association’s annual award for the best American work written for children.  There is Josephine Blackstock’s Songs of Sixpence: A Story about John Newbery (1955) and Russell Roberts’ John Newbery and the Story of the Newbery Medal (2003).  The latest entry in the field is Shirley Granahan’s John Newbery: The Father of Children’s Literature (2009).

For some reason, John Newbery (of whom no portraits survive) always bears a striking resemblance to Ben Franklin. Front board,  Songs of Sixpence: A Story about John Newbery (New York: Follett, 1955), (Private collection)

Quite by accident, I discovered in the Cotsen stacks what appears to be the earliest children’s book about John Newbery: A Book for Jennifer (1940) by Alice Dalgleish, founding editor of Scribner & Sons Children’s Book Division and author of well-regarded historical novels for children.  It was illustrated by Katharine Milhous, who is perhaps best known for the murals she painted for the Pennsylvania WPA and The Egg Tree, the picture book about Pennsylvania Dutch Easter traditions that won the 1950 Caldecott Medal.

If you are familiar with the dark urban landscape of Leon Garfield’s historical fiction set in the eighteenth century, the recreation of Dr. Johnson’s London by Dalgleish and Milhous in A Book for Jennifer is a bit prim and dull.   Milhous’s full-page color plates are paired with the line art based on cuts in eighteenth-century children’s books from the collection of Wilbur Macy Stone, which Dalgleish consulted so that her readers would have some idea of what Jennifer’s books actually looked like.

 A Digression which only Antiquarians and Bibliophiles  may Appreciate…

Dalgleish did not give credits to the actual sources of the illustrations she used, but I can vouch that only one or two were reproduced from actual Newbery titles.  There is one howler: the cut that is identified as a picture of John Newbery’s store front is actually an early nineteenth-century one, the Juvenile Library of William Godwin, which can be identified by the sculpture of Aesop over the door.

True to the spirit of her subject, Dalgleish has repackaged the Newbery myth of enlightened entrepreneurship as a Christmas book for American youngsters about a little girl named Jennifer getting not one, but two Newbery books as presents.  With that snow coming down, shouldn’t someone break into a song?

Plate facing page 3, (New York : Scribner, 1941), A Book for Jennifer, (Cotsen 7267)

Page 2, (New York : Scribner, 1941), A Book for Jennifer, (Cotsen 7267)

Here is the scene where Jennifer’s doting godmother gives her a copy of The Important Pocket-Book.   Her godmother is about to leave for America and she would like Jennifer to track her good and bad deeds and present the diary for inspection upon her return to England.  Jennifer looks underwhelmed by this thoughtful and useful gift, which was an actual Newbery publication that is now of legendary rarity.

Plate facing page 12

Pages 11, A Book for Jennifer

When Jennifer falls ill on Christmas day, her two brothers are driven down to Newbery’s shop to find something to cheer her up while confined to quarters until the plum pudding is ready for flaming.  Tempted by John-the-Giant-Killer’s Food for the Mind, a collection of riddles which the boys mistake for a version of the famous gory English folk tale, they think better of their first choice and unselfishly select The History of Goody Two-Shoes as perfect for girls, who should not be upset by anything too stimulating (apparently they missed the bit where that the heroine’s father dies because he didn’t get a dose of Dr. James’ Fever Powder in time).  Newbery himself makes a cameo appearance.

Plate facing page 26

Page 25, A Book for Jennifer

“Quaint” was the verdict of the anonymous reviewer in Kirkus.

A final Digression for Christmas Shoppers that should not be Skipped

I would be doing my gentle readers a disservice if this tribute to the great-grandaddy of  children’s booksellers did not close with a puff for three marvelous independent booksellers in the Princeton area, who could give the old man some stiff competition.  To wit…


The Bear and the Books on Broad Street in Hopewell has over 4000 titles lovingly and knowledgably selected by Bobbie Fishman, who was the long-time children’s book buyer at Micawber’s and Labyrinth before going out on her own.


Jazam’s on Palmer Square has a small but choice selection of books—many signed by the authors or illustrators—complementing with all the wonderful toys and games.  


Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street has a cozy nook in the back with everything from board books to YA fiction.  Buyer Annie Farrell has real bookish creds as the daughter of librarian and a rare books curator and a mother of two.


Yes, it’s supposed to be more convenient  and cheaper to order from Amazon, but why not visit stores where people who are passionate about children’s literature want to put the best of the best in hands of their customers’ children?   In Princeton we are really lucky to have easy access a truly priceless resource, great children’s booksellers…

Martin Engelbrecht’s Kleines Bilder-Cabinet: A Gift to Cotsen from Pamela K. Harer

Cotsen’s relationship with Pamela K. Harer, the noted children’s book collector, dates back to the late 1990s, when she was still practicing law in Southern California.  As a collector, Pamela was attracted to English-language material from the 19th and 20th centuries, but was also intrigued by propaganda produced for the young between the two World Wars and early Soviet picture books as well.

Pamela’s first gift to Cotsen comprised over fifty eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English, American, and French books and it was described in the “New and Notable” in the Autumn 2000 Princeton University Library Chronicle.  When downsizing for a move to Seattle in 2004, Pamela presented Cotsen with a second big stash, this time illustrated pamphlets mostly published by the Dean firm. Just recently Cotsen Rare Book Cataloger Jeff Barton used some of them as the basis for a lecture on the toy book’s early history at the Children’s Books History Society May 2014 study day.

Educational books were not Pamela’s thing per se, but there were some choice hornbooks, a copy of the Mohawk Primer, and two editions of the Orbis Sensualium Pictus in the first sale catalog of her collection sold at PBA Galleries November 6th of this year. Luckily not everything in Pamela’s collection will go to the rooms: she held back the Thomas Malin Rodgers copy of the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen (ca. 1740?) she had acquired at Bonham’s in 2012. This book consists of one hundred leaves of engraved plates, each with nine hand-colored images arranged in three rows of three.   This wonderful surprise was presented to Cotsen this fall. Like Pamela’s previous two gifts, this had also been selected with the collection’s strengths in mind. It was both touching and impressive that she knew about Cotsen’s cache of early modern texts for teaching foreign languages.


Title page, Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen. Gift of Pamela K. Harer


Plate 24, Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen .

The book’s publisher was Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), one of the most important engravers working in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, which was a major center for print production during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately no one took credit for the book’s contents or signed the illustrations. Children’s book collectors associate Engelbrecht with the charming engraved dioramas or miniature theaters,  that are the forerunners of the nineteenth-century toy theater the produced from the 1730s on. The standard reference books on 18th century German-language children’s books don’t offer much evidence that Engelbrecht was a major player in the juvenile book market, so this is a wonderful addition to Cotsen’s Engelbrecht collection, which consists of this illustrated polyglot school book, a small section of the fancy prints, and over twenty examples of the dioramas.

Engelbrecht’s Kleines Bilder-Cabinet is a genuinely rare book, as is so often the case with school books. A quick search revealed that it survives in a copy of the forty-seven-leaf 1708 edition in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek and an undated one with ninety leaves in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Hague. Cotsen has an uncolored, undated copy of the one hundred leaves of plates in a somewhat later binding. Someone else is welcome to solve the little mystery I uncovered about it: another important Augsburg engraver, Johann Andreas Pfeffer, issued a book under the same title in 1734 and 1735 with what look like the same plates, but it has only ninety-six. There are copies at the University of Groningen, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the Staats- und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg, and the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles.


The plate on the left is reproduced from the Pfeffer edition of the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet reproduced on p.58 of the exhibition catalog Deutsche Kinderbücher des 18. Jahrhunderts, (Cotsen Reference Z1035.3 .D52). It faces the same plate in the uncolored copy of Engelbrecht edition (Cotsen 21019).

Given the interest in educational reform during the early modern period, I was curious how the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet would compare to others from the period, so I lined up some more polyglot school books on my desk.  The Kleines Bilder-Cabinet has been described as a picture dictionary, but that turns out to be something of a misnomer.  Here’s a contemporary example of a picture dictionary, Primitiva Latinae linguae, which was published by Peter Conrad Monath in Nurnberg in the 1730s.  It is quite easy to see that one book is an apple, and the other an orange.


Title page, Primitiva latinae linguae, (Cotsen 1088)


Page 1 and plate 1, Primitiva latinae linguae.

In the Primitiva Latinae linguae, the vocabulary is arranged alphabetically by the Latin word, followed by its German and French equivalents. The words are numbered sequentially, so that it is easy to find the corresponding pictures on the plate opposite.   But there are more words on the page than there are illustrations on the plate.  Quite logically, the words that are unillustrated like “acerbus” and “adulter” are also unnumbered, so the student knows not to go hunting for a picture.   One of the students who owned the book made neat additions to text pages in the right hand and lower margins throughout the book.   So the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet really can’t be considered a pictionary, if only because the content isn’t arranged in alphabetical order. Only the name of the thing is provided, I suppose, because the picture makes a verbal description unnecessary.

And it’s not a direct descendant of Johann Amos Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus,  where the author gave considerable thought as to how to best visualize a thing, a category, a process, a concept, etc. and then provided a pithy description of the illustration in order to give the reader a clear idea of it. Comenius’ inspired pedagogy is nicely reflected in the section on the bedroom, where he succeeds in demonstrating how the objects’ interrelated functions are determined by their location in a particular space.


Title page, (London : J. Kirton, 1659.) Orbis sensualium pictus, reproduced from Cotsen Ref LT101.C6 1659a.


Pages 148-9, Orbis sensualium pictus

And the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet isn’t a hybrid text like J. G. Seybold’s Teutsch-Lateinisches Worterbuchlein (Nurnberg: J. F. Rudiger, 1733), which is part dictionary, part encyclopedia.   Seybold classified some 6000 words into categories and each one is illustrated with a block about the size of a man’s thumbnail.  The page is laid out in six columns, three of images, and three of words, so a lot of information can be packed into a small page.  Even though it can be difficult to make out the thumbnails or read the words,  the page looks legible overall rather than cluttered because of all the white space.


Title page, Teutsch=Lateinisches Wörterbüchlein zum Nutz und Ergötzung der Schul=Jugend… (Cotsen 90784)


Pages 116-7, Teutsch=Lateinisches Wörterbüchlein .

Where Comenius described the ship in a double-page spread illustrated with one block, Seybold offered the reader five pages covered with dozens of blocks showing all the ship’s parts.  The student who used Seybold would certainly acquire a much more extensive nautical vocabulary than he would from the Orbis Pictus, but it would come at the expense of a basic understanding of the interconnection of parts.

The Kleines Bilder-Cabinet represents yet another approach to impressing foreign-language vocabulary on school-boy brains. The model for the book may be a mid-seventeenth-century French work for teaching Latin, with which Engelbrecht might have been familiar: Louis Couvay’s set of plates based on the work of fifteenth century Belgian grammarian Johannes de Spater, Method nouvelle et tres-exacte pour enseigner et apprendre la premiere partie de Despautaire (1649).  Couvay was related to the engraver Jean Couvay, who executed the handsome plates. The volume was subsequently issued under the more pithy and accurate title, Le Despautaire en tables. It seems to have been in circulation until the 1700s, although it has to be said that the surviving copies are not easy to date with much precision.

The family resemblance between the two books isn’t hard to see. Each plate in Couvay is devoted to the particular Latin declension identified in the heading. The picture plane is divided into a grid and each box contains a small picture with a caption. Note that the size and number of the boxes varies considerably from leaf to leaf, as does the quantity and placement of explanatory text.


Plate 14, Methodus nova et accurata docendi ac ediscendi Primam Despauterii (Cotsen 133).


Plate 17, Methodus nova.


Plate 49, Methodus nova.

Engelbrecht did not copy Couvay religiously, however, designing a regular grid of nine boxes all the same size. The plate has a heading for the Latin declension it illustrates, but no text beyond the captions.  Inside each box, the Latin word ought to come first, but perhaps because the book was produced in Germany, the German translation precedes it in large type, and after the Latin comes the French and Italian translations.  It’s hard to know if the change in order was confused or helped students, but it could have been dictated more by marketing than pedagogy.   Books or toys produced in Germany with polyglot texts — the content usually radically simplified to so that captions in three or four languages can be squeezed into a small space — I tend to regard as evidence for plans to distribute in German and abroad on the Continent.


Plates 29 and 30, Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen. Gift of Pamela K. Harer.

Engelbrecht was not the only engraver who preferred a simpler layout: Nurnberg engraver Christoph Weigel stripped it down even more radically in the Neuer Lust-Weg.  Here the grids have just six boxes and they are large enough to allow for a clear and legible layout of the Latin, German, French, Italian captions within (the German words at the bottom of the boxes are written in Sutterlin script).  All attempt to integrate grammar and visuals has been abandoned and the pictures are arranged on the plates in random order.  While it makes for an undeniably attractive presentation, it is harder to imagine how the teacher used the book during lessons.


Title page, Neuer Lust-Weg zum ziel nützlicher Künste und Wissenschaften (Cotsen 86).


Plates 60-1 Neuer Lust-Weg.

It struck me that the engraved grids in the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet, Couvay, and the Neuer Lust-Weg  resemble wall charts that have been  part of school room décor since the early nineteenth century. Or at least that is what histories of education that cover the subject tell us.  And I couldn’t help but notice that the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet and the Primitiva latinae linguae  both have frontispieces showing classrooms decorated with floor-to-ceiling grids of pictures. Could illustrations like these be one of the few sources we have for this alternative to wall charts?Somewhere has a school room wall decorated in this manner survived miraculously?


On the left is the frontispiece for the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernung der Vier Sprachen and on the right is the frontispiece to the Primitiva latinae linguae.

Should the these books I’ve been comparing in this post be thought of  as  collections of miniature charts that students could have at hand where ever they happened to be working on their lessons?  Of course such books have to have been expensive, but even so, would they have been accessible to more students than those fortunate enough to live where there were dedicated school rooms with painted walls, or walls hung with tables painted on fabric or glazed prints?

This attempt to learn more about Pamela’s gift turned out to be a fascinating exercise:  the descriptions in the Princeton on-line catalogue suggested that they all might be different attempts to further the pedagogy of visible language pioneered by Comenius, but it turns out that there was no consensus as to the best way to integrate the pictures with the text.  Different books offered different solutions to the very real problem of how to impress the thing, the word, and its representation on the student’s memory.

Pamela will not see this post. I’m sorry to have to close this with the sad news that the small world of American collectors of early children’s books was reduced and diminished by her death at age eighty-one in September 2014. Pamela was one of a kind and her sharp mind, engaging curiosity, and high energy will be missed.

Special thanks go to Pamela’s daughter Cynthia Gibbs and Pamela’s beloved husband of sixty-one years, W. Benson Harer MD, a distinguished collector in the field of Egyptology, for donating this splendid book to Cotsen as a final remembrance of Pam.

 Benjamin and Pamela K. Harer

Benson and Pamela Harer