Lively Letters in The Jolly Kids Alphabet by Thomas B. Lamb, “The Handle Man”

The letter “B” from Tom Lamb’s The Jolly Kid Alphabet. Cotsen 28644

Tom Lamb (full name Thomas Babbit Lamb, 1896-1988) doesn’t show up in major studies of American illustrated books like Barbara Bader’s American Picture Books from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (1976) or Leonard Marcus’s Minders of Make-Believe (2008).  Lamb’s picture books aren’t included in major exhibition catalogues like  the 1996 Myth, Magic and Mystery by Michael Hearn, Trinkett Clark, and H. Nichols B. Clark either.  None of this is very surprising because he wasn’t a prolific book illustrator.

His picture books were done as a free-lancer for the Chicago publisher P.F. Volland.  The company hired many notable talents, such as Lucille and Holling C. Holling, Johnny Gruelle, creator of Raggedy Ann, Maginel Wright Enright Barney, sister of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Hillary Knight’s mother, Katherine Sturges, but very few became canonical figures in the picture book genre.  Like a number of  Volland illustrators, Tom Lamb’s artistic practice was not limited to children’s books and spilled over into other lucrative forms of commercial media.   Eventually Lamb struck out in a new direction after World War II that was, in a curious way, foreshadowed by his illustrations for The Jolly Kid Alphabet.

Art and physiology fascinated the teenaged Lamb, who hoped to become a physician until it became clear his family couldn’t afford medical school.  At age fourteen, he was working in a textile design business on weekdays, studying figure drawing and painting evenings at the Art Students League, and trading medical drawings with a plastic surgeon for anatomy lessons on weekends.  He started his own textile design firm when he was seventeen.  Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Sak’s Fifth Avenue sold his bedspreads, draperies, and linens in the 1920s, the decades he was also trying his hand at picture book illustration.   The success of Runaway Rhymes (1931) won him a contract with Good Housekeeping to draw cartoons for young readers for the magazine and his Kiddyland series was so popular that the brand expanded to include soaps, talcum powder, handkerchiefs, and other accessories for children like this Mother Goose tin to the right.

The 1940s saw a radical change in Lamb’s design philosophy which resulted in him undertaking new kinds of artistic projects. World War II awakened his patriotism and determined to help the war effort, he designed a line of Victory Napkins and Adolf the Pig bank to help sell war bonds.  The bright yellow piggy had a caricatured haircut and mustache, and “Save for Victory. Make Him Squeal” was hand written around the slot. Whenever a coin was dropped in, the device inside made a noise.

Watching the returning disabled veterans making do with inadequate crutches, Lamb’s interest in human physiology was channeled in a new direction. For the rest of his career, he strove to  improvement of the design of handles for a range of tools from cutlery to surgical instruments, wedgelocks to sports equipment.  His pioneering attempts at functional design was the subject of a 1948 show on at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and of a New Yorker profile of May 29, 1954 by E. J. Kahn junior.  Affectionately dubbed “Tom Lamb the Handle Man, he is now considered a founder of the Universal Design movement to honor his passion to help the differently abled relieve pressure on their hands.

All this activity looks back to The Jolly Kid Alphabet, an oblong book of  thick cardboard pages hinged with white linen.  Lamb signed the individual illustrations with a “T. L.” monogram and a second, larger one with a leaping lamb appears on the back cover.  The text is an alliterative alphabet acted out by highly energetic animated letters interacting with merry animals.  When the illustrations are carefully inspected, the letters’ hands are posed in ways that reflect how dynamic those five fingers attached to the palm, connected to the wrist and arm can be.  Below  D, precariously balanced on the terrier’s front paws, trims the terrier’s whiskers, his left hand firmly but gently steadying the dog’s muzzle, his right hand wielding the scissors.  A rides the  alligator, the reins in his right hand.
For a finale, A, B, and C use their hands and feet to create a living sculpture

while B, O, and K join hands to form the word “Book.”

Creative people whose careers don’t conform to the gallery artist model are make for puzzles because without biographical information, it is difficult to connect all the activities with the person.  This is not the case with Lamb, because his papers survive at the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware.  Visit the informative on-line exhibition if you’d like to learn more about him.

Marks in Books 16: A Valentine’s Day Gift from Husband to Wife

Fancy chocolates, a dozen red roses, and cards expressing seasonal sentiments are the perfect traditional gifts for Valentine’s Day, having replaced the true lover’s knots of ribbon that used to be exchanged decades and decades ago.

Books have been promoted as more useful than sweets and frippery long before Sir Henry Cole put the first commercial printed valentine on the market.  Pioneering children’s book publisher John Newbery tried to reform the observance of Valentine’s Day in the 1760s by urging the purchase of two: The Valentine’s Gift, which recommended that valentines should monitor each other’s behavior for a year by taking notes in the moral ledger conveniently provided in The Important Pocket-Book.  Stories in The Valentine’s Gift showed children and adults just how this could be done to reform the proud, the lazy, and habitual liars.  Copies of both Newbery books are very rare, but it’s unclear if the small number of surviving copies reflect  sales less robust than the publisher anticipated or the rate at which they were discarded after being filled up.Long before the donor Mr. Cotsen acquired editions of Newbery’s Valentine’s Gift and Important Pocket-Book, he gave his wife JoAnn a Valentine’s present of children’s books in 1968.  JoAnn recorded that  title and title were his’ gift to her on the occasion on copies of the blue family bookplate pasted into each book. The couple had been collecting children’s books for several years and his selection reflects two of their long-standing interests.The rhymes with the sweet illustrations by Ruth Hamlin in Baby’s Plays and Journeys (Garden City: Doubleday, Page, & Co, 1923; Cotsen 15334) probably caught Mr. Cotsen’s eye.  It is one of several volumes compiled by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Nora Archibald Smith for the family library.  The “journeys” in the title refer to toys or constructions made for riding off in the imagination.The other book Mr. Cotsen gave his wife was a nineteenth-century primer of graded reading lessons, John Epy Lovell’s Young Pupil’s Second Book   (New Haven: S. Babcock, 1841; Cotsen 11057).  While nowhere as whimsical as Baby’s Plays and Journeys, the sturdy black and white cuts illustrating a good number of the selections are more than competent.   The ones of the sagacious elephant and ferocious tiger are especially appealing.For real book collectors like the Cotsens, these two little books are true love’s tokens…