Writing an Alphabet for Ages 9 to 90: Billy Blew-away’s Alphabetical Orthographical & Philological Picture Book

Alliterative illustrated alphabets in a novel format have become a mainstay of children’s literature and as tempting as it would be to offer a history of the genre from the 1740s on, instead I’ll show some common pitfalls of creating them.

Last week I discovered Billy Blew-away’s Alphabetical Orthographical & Philological Picture Book. For Learners (Boston: James R. Osgood, c.1882), which seemed to have had two important things going for it—a clever concept backed by a reputable publisher.  James R. Osgood was not the best businessman in the industry, but in the early 1880s he had Mark Twain and Walt Whitman in his stable.   This picture book was printed entirely in vivid Prussian blue on white paper in a style associated with architectural blueprints.  I wonder if this was supposed to “blow you away….”  The unusual format and the mock-serious alliterative title seems designed to catch the eye of an adult book browser.    It was also the first (and only) volume in The Lazy Hours Series, which held out the promise of more entertainment than instruction.

The pre-publication notices did nothing to discourage the assumption that Billy Blew-away would please readers from nine to ninety who were not really in the market for instruction in orthography or philology.  Useful moral ideas were presented in an amusing and memorable way instead.  The letter D “Depravity” is typical of the author’s somewhat scattershot approach.    The concept to be defined and associated with the letter misfires by offering a circular definition using polysyllabic words and the illustration does n’t help clarify it.  Is the figure on the left thumbing his nose at the industrious trademan and the dignified gentleman an unmistakable illustration  “depravity” or is he simply disrespectful?

The letter E has the same faults, but at least it shows the unhappy effects the couple’s behavior may have on a third party on the right, caught in the act of staring at their extravagant display of affection.  Overall the tone is unapologetically unserious, rather like the long-winded title.

Ethnic stereotypes of indigenous and Black people are inserted in the illustrations as instantly recognizable personifications of vices like drunkenness and pride in clothes. The caption to the letter I reads “Inebriates imagine impossible “Injuns.”  Whatever it means, it goes without saying that this kind of cringeworthy humor dates the book. It is indicative, however, of how difficult it can be to avoid stereotypes in any alphabet picture book which features human types.  The problem crops up all the time in alphabets of cultural geography in which the author is tasked with hitting on a series of twenty-six reasonably true and recognizable concepts of foreign lands symbolized by a characteristic inhabitant explained in strictly limited number of words.  Stereotypes are perpetuated because they offer an out to the creator.

Writers of alphabets often resort to another trick, which at least is not especially ignoble.  When inspiration flags, the  author lumped  X, Y, Z  with W the into one picture to dodge the embarrassing want of words in the English language starting with those letters.  At least W waves goodbye to the reader, as he leads the other figures running across top of the letters. 

Who wrote Billy Blew-away?  Omitted from the publicity materials, it appears in the copyright statement at the lower edge of the title page.  G. F. Godfrey was George Frederick Godfrey, born 23 October 1840 in Bangor, Maine to Judge John Edwards Godrey and  his wife Elizabeth.  The 1897 obituary in the Boston Globe reveals that George died comparatively young.  He spent the early part of his career raising sheep in South America before coming home to run a lumber business until an early retirement, which freed him to pursue literary and scholarly pursuits.  None of his published works, including the history of Bangor, Maine for which he is remembered, are listed in the obituary.

The birth of his son George Henry in 1876 may have inspired Billy Blew-away: the copy at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University is inscribed to the six-year-old.  The verdict?  That is not especially easy to answer because it means considering the tricky issue of whether the content is age-appropriate, along with its presentation.  There are not many adorable pictures of nursery naughtiness for an alphabet designed for readers from nine to ninety.  More illustrations show topics of interest to readers tilting to the high end of the age range like  courtship, drinking, and wild dancing, which raises the question if it is really a children’s book for adults.

Standards of age-appropriateness change over time and Billy Blew-away is over 150 years old.   Godfrey might have tested the book on his own boys and felt satisfied that the heavily ironic captions helped
distinguish the acceptable behavior from the unacceptable in the illustrations.   Still there are enough jokes about heavy drinking to raise eyebrows in   families who approved of temperance.  Establishing the range of contemporary attitudes on exposing children to the subject would require looking at a lot of other alphabets…

The second question about presentation is problematic because we don’t know whose idea the blue print illustrations were.  They are striking because at first glance they look like cyanotypes, an expensive photographic process frequently used in architecture books.  James Osgood would have had access to professionals with the technical knowledge as the publisher of American Architect magazine, but that doesn’t really explain if silhouettes in Prussian blue instead of black were integral to Godfrey’s concept, except as a point of departure for the goofy title.  The illustrations must be imitation blue prints for several reasons: an entire book of cyanotype illustrations would cost more than 75 cents; cyanotypes are usually not printed on thick white paper; there are a few faint blue smudges made by finger prints on the blank backs of the leaves.

Billy Blew-away reads like a book by someone who hadn’t given much thought to the challenges of writing an illustrated text for children.  Maybe he went into the project assuming that some imagination and a sense of fun would be enough carry through to the end, a misapprehension that might have been deflated by the process of putting the book through the press.   I strongly suspect he was writing more for himself than for small people and was never inspired to try a second time.

Thanks to Julie Mellby and Molly Dotson, my colleagues in graphic arts, plus Susan Liberator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum for help with this post!

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.