A Christmas Box, or, a Little Bibliographic Holiday Mystery…

Some Early Holiday Books for Children Published by the Baldwins

Book publishers frequently reissue a variety of new versions of books around the holidays, many in “special holiday editions” or versions meant to make them suitable as gifts. Sometimes, these are indeed new books, but often they’re just reissues of prior editions, with colorful new covers or dust-jackets, designed to catch the eye of someone looking for a entertaining but educational gift.  This is especially true of many children’s books.  What adult hasn’t spent time looking for a last-minute gift or stocking-stuffer for a child?

We tend to think of this repurposing of content as a modern phenomenon—after all, isn’t this the era of marketing and targeted sales? But—as in many cases—children’s booksellers seemed to have caught on to this idea long ago—indeed, in the eighteenth century they seem to have been one of the early innovators of this practice.

In much the same spirit of entrepreneurial innovation, bookselling was perhaps the first trade to realize that the packaging for item—that is, books’ covers or paper wrappers—could be a marketing tool for helping attract purchasers. Books, which had been offered for sale unbound or in plain bindings or paper wrappers, were sold in increasingly attractive publisher’s bindings, some illustrated, some colored, and some in eye-catching materials.  Dutch gilt paper for instance, was used by Thomas Boreman and John Newbery to bind up entertaining books for young readers as a way of distinguishing them from school books or more serious titles.

The Three Baldwin variations (arranged earliest to latest from left to right, in their appealing Dutch Paper wrappers. (Cotsen New Acquisition)

The three R. Baldwin editions (arranged from earliest to latest, left to right, in their appealing (but quite different) Dutch gilt paper wrappers.
(Cotsen New Acquisition)


Title page of a Christmas Box (R. Baldwin, [after 1754] (Cotsen new acquisition)

Title page of A Christmas Box, 
(R. Baldwin, [after 1754])
(Cotsen new acquisition)

Cataloging several editions of a previously unrecorded eighteenth century children’s book brought home the idea of repurposing content to me. The first book I cataloged announced that it was a Christmas book in its title: A Christmas Box. The full title, as it appears on the title page is: A Christmass Box, or, Little Polite Tales, Fables, Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c.: in Easy Prose and Verse, with Other Lessons of Morality Equally Instructive & Entertaining for Little Masters and Misses: Adorned with Sculptures.  Quite a mouthful, compared to the current practice of keeping titles to single words.  (Note: “Christmass,” which I first thought must be a typo, turns out to be an early variation on the spelling, more widely used in the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century, but clearly still in use in the mid-eighteenth century. By the way, a “Christmas box” was a small clay container with a slot like a piggy bank and at the end of the year servants went around with them collecting tips from employers.  The term could also be used in the eighteenth century as a synonym for any present given during the extended Christmas holidays).

As the subtitle suggests, the book is miscellany of fables, tales, riddles, short Bible stories, short poems, precepts, and epitaphs. This broad range of material was consistent with prevailing eighteenth-century views that an anthology ought to mix up serious and humorous materials as a way of catching and holding the interest of children, so they might learn something useful from their pleasure reading. It’s still fairly typical of gift books.

But this book posed some small mysteries for a cataloger.  When was it published? (It’s undated, as the image of the title page shows.)  Also, who was the publisher “R. Baldwin”? There several booksellers and printers using the name “R. Baldwin” at about the same time.  Cotsen Library has no other book titled Christmas Box by Baldwin, nor did I find one in the WorldCat, the world-wide combined library catalog.  With so little information and no other similarly-titled book to compare, the plot thickened…

But the long alternate title turned out to be an important clue.  And Cotsen does have another Baldwin publication—in fact two copies of one—titled Little Polite Tales, Fables Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c.  Looking inside these books, I quickly realized that all three books had the same content, and the same number of pages (128, plus two leaves of engraved plates, the frontispiece illustration and the title page). Only the title pages were different—along with some other, relatively minor printing variations; take a look at the variations in the woodcut headpieces and the decorative capital letter “T” at the first selection in each book.

First page of text in all three books: actual text is the same but all three have different woodcut headpieces and decorative capital initial "T," among other smaller changes--suggesting different editions of similar content.

First page of text in all three books: actual text is the same, but note how all three have different woodcut headpiece ornaments and different printer’s device decorations around the initial “T,” among other smaller changes–suggesting different editions of similar content.


Little Polite Tales, R. Baldwin, Jr, (1751) (Cotsen new acquisition)

Title page of Little Polite Tales,
R. Baldwin, Jr,  (1751)
(Cotsen new acquisition)

Only one book was dated, the 1751 edition of Little Polite Tales. Was it the first one printed, or was one of the other books printed first?  How to tell?  One potential clue—or point of confusion—seemed to be in the variation in the publisher’s name, “R. Baldwin, Jr.” (on both Cotsen copies of Little Polite Tales), as opposed to “R. Baldwin” (on the Christmas Box).  But was this the same person or two different people, perhaps a father and son?  (Publishing in this era was often a family affair.)  To make things more confusing, there were at least five R. Baldwins issuing books in London at this time, three Richards and two Roberts, two brothers and their three sons!

To make a long story short, it seems that “R. Baldwin, Jr” was Richard Baldwin, 1724-1770, son of Richard, brother of Robert, and both nephew and cousin of two Roberts. He first issued books under the name “R. Baldwin, Jr.” to distinguish himself from his father, but gradually dropped the “Jr.” once he became more established himself; the last book he issued as “R. Baldwin, Jr.” was in 1754.¹

Title page of Little Polite Tales, R. Baldwin, Jr, ([between 1751 & 1754?]) (Cotsen new acquisition)

Title page of Little Polite Tales,
R. Baldwin, Jr,  ([between 1751 & 1754?]) 
(Cotsen new acquisition)

What does all this mean in terms of dating our books? Remember, one copy of Little Polite Tales was dated 1751. So the other copy of Little Polite Tales, the one with no date, seems likely to have been issued sometime between 1751 and 1754—that is, between the date of the first (dated) edition and the date when Richard Baldwin dropped the “Jr.” from his imprint.  This conclusion seems supported by an interesting change to the title page of this undated edition, the addition of the text: “A Pretty Present as a Christmas Box, or New Year’s Gift.”  This suggests the original Little Polite Tales was reissued as a holiday gift book. (Perhaps the printing of the frontispiece and title page in red ink was meant as a festive touch?)

The book titled Christmas Box, then, must date from sometime after 1754, since Baldwin identified himself just as “R. Baldwin.”  Cotsen’s copy of this book also has an inscription dated “1774,” so we can use 1774 as the last possible date the book could have been issued. So the Christmas Box seems to date from between 1754 and 1774 and it is apparently the last of the three books to be published.

Inscription, dated Jan1774, in Christmas box, which suggests a 1774 terminal date

Inscription, dated Jan, 7, 1774, in A Christmas Box, which suggests 1774 as a terminal date for publication: thus a date of [between 1754 & 1774].  The January 7 inscription also suggests that this book was indeed given to Jos. Phillips as a Christmas or New Year’s holiday book.

This sequence of publication also makes sense, I think, in terms of how the title of the book seems to have evolved: 1) Little Polite Tales; 2: Little Polite Tales…A Christmas Box…; 3) A Christmas Box. The idea that Baldwin took a “regular” book and reissued it at least twice seems to make sense too, in terms of the general publishing “model” I talked about at the beginning of this piece—it seems unlikely that Baldwin took a Christmas book and reissued it as a non-seasonal piece (but technically, that remains a possibility).

And what sort of Christmas delights could be expected by the “masters and misses” to whom Baldwin dedicated each version of his book?  “A Short Essay on the Nature and Beauty of Fable,” and “An Alphabet in Verse, containing Rules of Life,” lead off the book, followed by fables each followed by an explicitly didactic moral “application.”  Next come the riddles, and after them, the Bible stories, such as “A History of the Creation of the World, and the Fall of Man,” “The History of Cain and Abel” (accompanied by a woodcut of Cain braining Abel with a huge club), and “ The History of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” Following these Bible stories, comes the seven-page “Filial Ingratitude: the Ancient History of King Lear and his Three Daughters,” which at least follows the eighteenth-century editors’ practice of having Lear and Cordelia survive “for some years afterwards,” instead of meeting the tragic ends Shakespeare provided.  (Dr. Johnson, for one, thought the original ending of King Lear was just too horrific for adults, not to mention for children.)

Concluding all three of the “Christmas Box” books and its kin are “serious” and “humorous” epitaphs, the last reading:

An Humorous Epitaph

On Little Stephen, a noted fiddler, in the Country of Suffolk.
Stephen and Time
Are how both even;
Stephen beat Time,
And Time beat Stephen.

So, while these eighteenth-century books are quite different from earlier religious instruction, primers, and alphabet catechisms aimed at “miniature adults,” as they’re sometimes termed, publishers clearly had quite a different idea of what an “instructive and entertaining book for little masters and misses” was than we have now.

And on that note, Cotsen Library wishes all of you–children and grown-ups alike–a very Merry Christmas!

 Note:  1) C.Y. Ferdinand, “Richard Baldwin Junior, Bookseller,” in Studies in Bibliography, Vol 42 (1989), p. 259.

A is for Apple … Adam … King Alfred … Abolitionist…

Alphabet Books: Some Variations on a Theme

The Pictured Alphabet, Front wrapper (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

The Pictured Alphabet (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

Language—and how learning about language can be presented in children’s books—was on my mind this past week, while cataloging three new ABC books here at the Cotsen Library. Before I began working with Cotsen books, I would have said that books about language or the alphabet–especially children’s books–would have been more or less “content neutral.” After all, what could be more straightforward than teaching letters of the alphabet, syllables, short words, and basic reading, right?  Wrong…as I’ve discovered–and enjoyed discovering.  Since letters, syllables, and words may seem to be just there on the page, it’s easy to overlook how language acts as a provider of meaning(s), in addition to being a container for meaning.

The anti-slavery alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849) Cotsen new accession

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)
Cotsen new accession

But language is inherently charged with meaning, and its use full of cultural values and ideology, as various writers have observed. Language’s potential for both clarity or ambiguity can be used—or manipulated—by a writer or speaker.  Sometimes the way we use language is conscious and sometimes our use of language reflects our education, culture, and formative influences. Sometimes it’s both intended and unconscious.

In a book, meaning can also be shaped, extended, or modified by visual elements. This is particularly evident in children’s illustrated books, where the balance of text and illustrative elements can be more equal—or the visual can even take precedence over the text that it “accompanies.” Take early alphabet books, for instance. The New England Primer, the first primer (or ABC teacher and elementary reader) first issued in the United States in the 1670s, famously begins its alphabet rhymes with the verse:

In Adam's Fall... Detail (Cotsen 32844)

“In Adam’s Fall…” Detail
(Christopher Sower, 1764)
The New England Primer, (Cotsen 32844)

New England Primer, First page of alphabet rhymes (Cotsen 32844)

New England Primer,
First page of alphabet rhymes (Cotsen 32844)

Accompanying this verse is a woodcut showing Adam and Eve standing under the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, apparently just before eating the apple. Apart from the mnemonic aspect of the rhyme itself–making it easy to remember (and recite)—the illustration complements the cautionary nature of the text in a pretty vivid way that likely stayed in young reader’s minds.

Language is being presented as more or less inseparable from religion and moral teaching: A is for Adam, the original co-sinner, for the eating of the Apple. Other illustrative examples in the Primer include Job, Queen Esther, and the whale that swallowed Jonah—along with a cat, a dog, and an “idle fool” with a dunce cap, everyday object-examples presumably readily accessible to children at the time. This is consistent with Locke’s recommended use of familiar, everyday objects—and pictures of them—as learning aids for educating children and for fixing concepts more vividly in their minds.

A is for Apple Aunt Lely's Picture Alphabet (McLougliin Bros., [between 1863 and 1866]) Cotsen 4393

“A is for Apple…”
Aunt Lely’s Picture Alphabet
(McLougliin Bros., [bet. 1863 and 1866]) Cotsen 4393

I’ve always found it interesting that some later alphabet books replace Adam with Apple. For a reader in this Age of Irony, it’s hard not to find this a little ironic, but it’s hard to tell if this would have seemed so to a nineteenth-century reader.  Perhaps it was ironic to some readers, but not to others. It’s always dangerous—although tempting—to view the past through the filter of our implicit present-day values and attitudes or to make sweeping, “historicizing” generalizations about what “everyone thought” at the time from our vantage-pont long after the original audience’s reception.

If nothing else, this change from Adam to Apple seemingly reflects an relatively increasing secularization in the mid-1800s, compared with the 1670s (nineteenth-century people were still generally religious, of course, but religion had been complemented, or diffused, by other spiritual and cultural influences).  Merely one of many ABC books using “A is for Apple” is McLoughlin Brothers’ Aunt Lely’s Picture Alphabet (New York, [between 1863 and 1866]).  McLoughlin Brothers, the preeminent American popular children’s book publisher of their time, was a master at providing books—and content—that people wanted to buy, so “marketability” must also have been at least a partial factor in the content they selected here.  Maybe fire and brimstone didn’t sell as well in the mid- and latter-1800s and early 1900s? Perhaps Apple was a little more “up-to-date” and familiar to children then too? Likely, some combination of all these factors factored into the text and illustration of this “A is for Apple” book.

From Apple to Apple Pie... Chromolithographed illustration from Aunt Lely's Picture Alphabet (McLougliin Bros., [between 1863 and 1866]) Cotsen 4393

From THE apple, to apples, to apple pie… Chromolithographed illustration from A, Apple Pie (Warne, & Co., [after 1885) Cotsen 31090

Apples are also nicely colorful objects, suited to the sort of chromolithographed color illustration that McLoughlin pioneered in the mid- late-1800s. So printing technology would seem to have played a part in this changeover too. Even though Aunt Lely’s Alphabet (pictured above) doesn’t have colored illustrations, many of McLouglin’s books did, and you can readily imagine how strikingly visual the large apple shown in Aunt Lely’s Alphabet would be if it was colored in bright red. (Chromolithographs are often notable for their extra-vivid, slightly surreal colors.)  Sometimes, the Apple even found its way onto an apple pie, as in Warne’s A is for Apple Pie, thus moving us all the way from a cautionary Garden of Eden to a veritable kitchen cook-book.

Three Recently-cataloged Alphabet Books

The Alphabet Ladder, Frontispiece pastedown (G. Martin , [bet. 1817 and 1839]), new accession

The Alphabet Ladder, Frontispiece pastedown (G. Martin, [bet. 1817 and 1839]), Cotsen new accession

The Alphabet Ladder, or Gift for the Nursery (London, after 1817) provides a relatively early example of a colored alphabet book; it dates from some time after 1817 (when its publisher George Martin began publishing) and features hand- or stencil-colored engravings.

The front wrapper of this sixteen-page book has a paper onlay depicting a Britannia-like Fame (name printed on her shield) standing atop a structure of alphabet letters—the alphabet ladder, perhaps?—and some fashionably-dressed children (the target audience for this not inexpensive one shilling book?); the frontispiece-like front pastedown provides a similar illustration, a striking visual presentation, I think.  (Compare the illustration shown on the right with the cover label shown at the bottom of this posting.)

The letter A is illustrated here by a (boy-like) King Alfred, instead of by Adam or an Apple, an interesting complement to the Bullfinch pictured below, a bird that would probably have been familiar to a child-reader at the time.

A is for King Alfred, The Alphabet Ladder, (G. Martin , [bet. 1817 and 1839]), new accession

“A is for King Alfred,” The Alphabet Ladder, (G. Martin, [bet. 1817 and 1839]),
Cotsen new accession

English history is being used along with familiar objects perhaps to add a touch of history to visual examples making letters more vivid. Generally accepted as the first king of a united England, Alfred the Great would have a strong patriotic connotation to an English boy or girl, especially about this time, the era of the Napoleonic Wars, in which England and France of course figured large. So it’s not so very surprising that another illustrative colored engraving presents a sword-flourishing Frenchman, looking very much like Napoleon himself, complete with a bicorne hat tucked under his arm.  Parodic mockery of a vainglorious Napoleon was a staple of English satirists at the time and can be observed in a number of English children’s books.

Pictured above the Frenchman is a brightly-colored Egg Plum, another object familiar to children, as was the Bullfinch. This juxtaposition of historical personages and everyday items or animals may seem a bit strange to us now.

F is for Frenchman, The Alphabet Ladder, Cotsen new accession

“F is for Frenchman…”
The Alphabet Ladder,
Cotsen new accession

But such combinations are not all the unusual in children’s ABCs, and it was also quite common for a publisher to “update” a book with some “new” or topical illustrations or textual content. A quick and dirty way to provide a “revised edition” perhaps and encourage some new sales? And what better way to entice a young reader than blatantly patriotic and relevant contemporary examples in wartime?  Offhand, I’d say that The Alphabet Ladder—and it’s illustrative examples—would appeal more to a boy that a girl; apart from the warlike soldiers, almost all of the children pictured inside the book are boys—adding an interesting gendered aspect to the  presentation of the actual alphabet, which is belied by the cover and frontispiece featuring two boys and two girls.

We find a similar juxtaposition of commonplace illustrative examples and patriotic ones in another new Cotsen title: Solomon King’s: The Pictured Alphabet (New York, ca. 1820). K is for Kite, another familiar object to a child then, but N is for…Napoleon, somewhat surprisingly perhaps in an American book of the time.

K is for Kite, N is for Napoleon, The Pictured Alphabet, (Solomon King, 1820) Cotsen new accession

K is for Kite, N is for Napoleon,
The Pictured Alphabet
, (Solomon King, ca. 1820)
Cotsen new accession

Another pair of facing illustrative wood-engravings shows a Dunce to illustrate the letter D and a Guard the letter G, the latter looking distinctly English (and I think grenadier guards were generally a European type of soldier).

D is for Dunce, G is for Guard, The Pictured Alphabet, (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

D is for Dunce, G is for Guard,
The Pictured Alphabet
Cotsen new accession

Yet another pair of illustrations shows a tankard—Quenching thirst, I guess—to illustrate the letter Q, which faces the letter T’s Trumpet, here having been affixed with the letters “US,” adding both a topical and patriotic military touch to the American publication.  (And while a tankard was more of an all-purpose drinking cup in 1820 then than it is now, the association with beer and ale must have been apparent when this book was published.  Imagine a children’s alphabet featuring anything like a beer mug now!)

Q is for Quench, T is for Trumpet The Pictured Alphabet, (Solomon King, ca. 1820) Cotsen new accession

Q is for Quench, T is for Trumpet,
The Pictured Alphabet,
Cotsen new accession

Some of these combinations suggest that the printing blocks may have either come from Europe, or been adaptations of European ones; 1820 is relatively early in American printing and publishing development, with type and book-printing blocks still often being imported from Europe rather than being manufactured domestically. King’s book is a fairly simple production—even a somewhat primitive one—small in size (just 3 ½ inches tall) with simple illustrations and no text other than the alphabet letters themselves; after all, it is a one penny book, as the publisher’s advertisement on the lower wrapper tells us. (In contrast, the relatively deluxe Alphabet Ladder has a cover price of a full English shilling for the “coloured” version.)  But The Pictured Alphabet is also quite a rare book now, no copy other than Cotsen’s being found in OCLC’s combined libraries catalog.  Sometimes, cheap books in wrappers must have been used and then discarded once their condition deteriorated—unlike more expensive books, which were often more likely to be retained.

And they sighed by reason of their bondage... The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, Cotsen new accession

“And they sighed by reason of their bondage…”
Title page vignette The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)
Cotsen new accession

"For indeed, I was stolen out of the land," The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849) Cotsen new accession

“For indeed, I was stolen out of the land,”
Vignette on title page verso
The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849)
Cotsen new accession

Another intentionally topical alphabet book—and one with a clearly moral didactic goal—is the Anti-Slavery Society’s: The Anti-Slavery Alphabet (Belfast, 1849). Apart from the very title and didactic approach of the text, there’s a striking wood-engraved title-page vignette depicting a slave sale, and another illustration on the verso side depicting a slave telling a seated white man and woman: “For indeed I was stolen out of the land.”

Even without the caption text beneath them, these two illustrations make their meaning clear. These illustrations are the only ones in this twelve-page book, somewhat unusual for the time perhaps, and the gathering of printed pages comes within plain paper wrappers with no text, advertising, or illustration on them. Perhaps this is a function of cost? Or perhaps the publisher like the Anti-Slavery Society didn’t think that such “marketing” aspects were appropriate (or needed) for a book presumably sold or given away by/to people of strong conviction? These conjectures are just a couple of the possible explanations.

A is for Abolitionist... The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, (Belfast, Anti-Slavery Society, 1849) Cotsen new accession

A is for Abolitionist…
The Anti-Slavery Alphabet,
Cotsen new accession

But the four-line alphabet rhymes for each alphabet letter speak compellingly to the book’s underlying moral purpose: to teach children about the evils of slavery and move them to moral awareness, in part by making them aware of their own potential complicity for enjoying sweet treats made from slave-produced sugar. Apart from the A,B,C rhymes pictured at right, some other verses read:

I is the Infant, from the arms
Of its fond mother torn,
And, at a public auction, sold
With horses, cows, and corn.

S is the Sugar, that the slave
Is toiling hard to make,
To put in your pie and tea,
Your candy, and your cake.

U is for Upper Canada,
Where the poor slave has found
Rest after all his wanderings
For it is British ground!

Why “Upper Canada” and “British ground”?  While this book may seem directed at American audiences, it was printed in Belfast, Ireland. Escaped slaves often tried to reach Canada, via the Underground Railroad and other means, because slavery had been outlawed in most of the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.  Canada was then part of the British Empire, and Upper Canada was the area what we now know as Southern Ontario, bordering New York State (Lower Canada being Quebec).

So, looking at this batch of three new Cotsen alphabet books, I think we can understand some of the many, wide-ranging “educational” goals that ABC books subserved, teaching language mechanics being just one.

Three Recently-cataloged Cotsen Library Alphabet Books Cotsen new accessions

Three Recently-cataloged Cotsen Library Alphabet Books
Cotsen new accessions