A Very Rare Book, or, “Paint the Picture and Tear it out of the Book”

What’s a “rare book”?

Cover of the first edition of Harry Potter (Cotsen 36550).  Note the British version of the title.

That’s a question that’s often asked of people who work with rare books and special collections. Publications like the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio come to mind (although some might argue that the First Folio isn’t all that “rare” in rare-book terms, since some 234 copies are known to remain in existence to this day (out of an initial print run variously estimated between 750 and 1200 copies).

What about rare children’s books?  A first edition of Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, signed by the author, might come to mind.  Or a signed copy of the very first 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland (properly titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), withdrawn from circulation after some 48 copies had been given away, mostly by Lewis Carroll, because of John Tenniel’s dissatisfaction with the printing of the illustrations.  Only a handful of copies remain in existence today.  How about the very first edition of a Harry Potter book — titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when first issued in England — printed for a then-unknown writer named J.K. Rowling in an initial issue of some 300 copies, most donated to libraries to see if young readers liked the book.  (You know the answer to that question!)  Cotsen Library has copies of all these books, by the way — a real testament to the breadth of the collection!

So, not all “rare” books are old; not all are elaborately printed, bound, or illustrated; and not all are even meant for adults.  It’s also with pointing out that not all “rare” titles  are household names today or written by famous authors; some aren’t even “books” at all in the technical sense of the term.  Many of the rarest items in Cotsen’s collection are books almost nobody remembers now, or books published anonymously; who would want to go out of their way to treasure, read, or even keep things like that?  (Apart from a rare book library, or course!).  How many people today are clamoring to own, or even read, books like Bertha’s Visit to her Uncle in England, Frank Netherton, Nedra, or Elsie Dinsmore?  How many people have even heard of them?  Not me, I have to admit, until I found them in the the library catalog.  Yet those books once had their day and were read by children.

The History of Thomas Thumb, 1797 (Cotsen 1346). Upper cover of a chapbook-style children’s book with “self wrappers.”

Many now-rare children’s books are cheap ephemeral publications, such as chapbooks or pamphlet books, issued without bindings in the usual sense of the term, sometimes in colored-paper wrappers or even using using their own first and last pages as wrappers of sorts for the reading matter continued inside.  They were inexpensive  (often costing only a penny or two apiece), cheaply constructed, and reading matter that people often seem to have read and discarded, or literally read to death and then tossed away.  A book costing a penny is a lot less likely to have been regarded as important to hold onto and preserve than was a book costing, say, $1, £1, or $10, a purchase sometimes representing a decent chunk of a buyer’s disposable cash. But they filled an important niche for readers.

In terms of other types of children’s books that can often be rare today, some were issued in connection with a particular event — an Arctic expedition or Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, for instance.  Once the resonance of the event faded, a publication that it prompted might well seem like yesterday’s news, and who wants yesterday’s papers?  And some children’s books might well entail marking up, painting in, or even cutting apart the illustrations or the pages themselves to make paper toys or pictures to hang on the wall by a happy parent or even to mail in to a contest. Such books become literally “self-consuming artifacts” in the process of being read or used by children.

Upper wrapper of the Victoria Painting Book [ca. 1897?]. (Cotsen 30251)

A case-in-point is the Victoria Painting Book, issued in connection with a 1897 painting contest for British children, but lacking a publication date, author or illustrator name, or even any indication of the publisher.  This book fulfills a number of the “criteria” for rarity outlined above, and a quick search online suggests that Cotsen’s copy may be the only one to be found in a library now. (Not to be confused with Cassell’s 1897 Victoria Painting Book for Little Folks!)

The blatantly patriotic — and brightly chromolithographed — cover of the book depicts a Boer War veteran having returned home, his helmet tossed on the ground, and his daughter sitting on his lap reading to him, with his sailor-suited son standing next to them, holding a large Union Jack.  One facing pair of illustrations inside the book — captioned “Home Again” — depicts the happy moment of the veteran’s homecoming to his family.  (The girl’s abruptly-dropped doll hitting the floor and the child’s drawing hanging on the wall add a couple of nice touches to the family reunion, which a great many families did not get to savor, due to heavy casualties in the Boer War’s protracted fighting.)

“Returning Home”: Chromolithograph and facing illustration to paint.

But most of the subject matter in the book — combining facing chromolithographs and uncolored versions to paint with alphabet rhymes — is not about patriotism or warfare, but about sick or injured children and the Victoria Hospital for Children, which the book was printed to benefit, as noted on the foot of the cover.

“Street Accident”: A child hit by a carriage is rescued by a friendly-looking London copper, while a crowd (comprised of mostly children) looks on.

“Morning Round”: A friendly-looking nurse in the Children’s Hospital attends to a smiling child, who is also surrounded by flowers and toys.

Accordingly, most of the illustrations depict injured children (with a sentimentality that would have made Dickens proud) or children in the hospital, injured or sick to be sure, but looking surprisingly happy against the backdrop of a very, very neat and tidy, altogether impressive-looking hospital with caring nurses.  “The stately old home … is now a children’s hospital: the rooms are full of cots, each with its tiny sick child, and up and down go the nurses, busy with their work… It takes a lot of money to build such a hospital” (in the words of the accompanying two-page “Victoria Hospital Story” in the book). Who wouldn’t be moved to buy a book or donate money to support such a wonderful, caring institution for children?

“Paint the picture … and tear it out of the book…”

The Victoria Painting Book was issued so that its sales proceeds might benefit the children’s hospital.  The text of the book itself also asks child-readers to raise money themselves (“If each child who reads this book would collect twelve pennies towards it, that would go some way to pay for bricks and stones and mortar”).  As if that’s not enough fund-raising inspiration, the book also advertises a painting competition on several pages inside, whereby children are solicited to “tear out” and mail in a completed version of the Prize Competition Picture from the book (a Christmas scene at the end), along with ten shillings (presumably in cash), in hopes of winning £5, 2£, or 1£ prizes.  I have to wonder how many books were discarded after the picture and required entry form pages were torn out, the book perhaps fell apart as a result, and other pictures were colored in.  Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s so rare now?

Prize Competition Picture: Chromolithographed model illustration for contestants to copy with their painting.

Multiple contest entries are explicitly encouraged, with a “special prize” (unspecified) to be awarded to the “competitor who sends in the largest number of paintings for competition” — buying multiple copies of the book in the process!  Perhaps it’s the cynicism of our time, but this sort of thing reminds me a bit of Soupy Sales crossed with the old Chicago political machine (“Mail in those green bills in Daddy’s wallet and Mommy’s purse to Uncle Soupy,” and “Vote early, and often!”).   As if anticipating such a jaundiced view of their charity efforts, the two-page Painting Competition rules and instructions has the heading: “Please remember that although you may not win a prize, you have done a good action in helping the hospital by competing.” The rules do specify that the “names of prize winners” will be published in “The Gentlewoman,” “The Queen” and the “Morning Post,” but I haven’t yet been able to verify that tidbit of information, or the names of the lucky winners.

The rules pages also list the mailing  address for ordering additional copies of the book and its price: 1 shilling — placing the book in the same general price-range as chromolithographed “toy books” of the time, which usually had fewer pages than the twenty-four-leaf Painting Book, though.  (The mailing address — the Hospital’s — suggests that this book may not have been sold via traditional children’s booksellers.)

“Added value” in the Painting Book is provided by four pages of illustrated, sepia-toned alphabet rhymes, customized for this book.

First two pages of facing alphabet rhymes in the Victoria Painting Book

One of my favorite pair of rhymes is: F is for “funds, alas, almost nil; / Will nobody help us to fill up the till?” and “G is the gold we should like to see poured / In nice shining heaps, on the Hospital board.”

“M is for our Matron… N speaks for the Nurses… O, the Out-patients, who throng to the door… P the patients, who each had a bed…

Note how the alphabet rhyme finesse the letters W, X,Y, Z — always-troublesome in terms of illustrative words and illustrations!  Also worth noting is the number of children the rhymes specify as having been served by the Hospital over a period of some thirty years, — thirty thousand patients and a million outpatients — a staggering total, and numbers echoing those in the prose narrative “History.”  Were these numbers meant to impress child-readers and be remembered by them, were they meant for their parents or other adults, or were they included by a harried copywriter just to fill out the rhymes?

Railway ABC, Warne, 1890. (Cotsen 30407)

The Victoria Painting Book is an unusual publication in lacking any information whatsoever about the date, publisher, or printer.  Early books for children sometimes lacked this information, but by the nineteenth century, publishers realized this was a valuable source of advertising — and also protection of intellectual property.  We can infer an initial publication date of about 1897 from the context of the contest.

But who was the publisher?  I think it’s almost certainly Frederick Warne & Co.  The Cotsen copy came into the collection along with a batch of books from the Warne Archive publisher’s archive copies. (But publishers did keep tabs on competitors and prior publishers; the Warne publisher’s archive contained some Routledge books, for instance, which also came into the Cotsen collection.)

The Victoria Painting Book looks a lot like many other Warne publications of the time, for instance the circa 1890 Railway ABC toy book (Cotsen 30407).  Compare the  chromolithographed upper wrappers of the two publications.  Apart from the strongly patriotic motif (admittedly, not Warne’s exclusive province), the overall layout, cover design, and use of color seems “typically Warne.”  Perhaps more importantly, several contemporary serial publications listing books in print include the Victoria Painting Book under Warne publications — and specify that the title is indeed the one issued to benefit the Victoria Hospital, thus eliminating possible ambiguities about similarly titled books.  (These publications include “The Publisher’s Circular” from 1904 and “British Books in Print” from 1906.)

Victoria Children’s Hospital as depicted on lower wrapper of the Painting Book.

The fact that the Victoria Painting Book was still in print — and presumably available for purchase — in 1904 and 1906 raises questions about just how popular the title was  (unless of course my date attribution of ca. 1897 is off).

Were copies of the book unsold and the title still “in print” over five years later?  Or was it so popular that the book was reprinted again, possibly with Warne’s imprint?  Lacking other copies to compare to Cotsen’s copy or further “books in print” information, I can’t answer those questions now.  All I can say with relative certainly is that the Victoria Painting Book is one very, very rare book now, and one whose illustrations and overall design present a fascinating window into not only children’s book production in this era, but also the look of high Victorian life.

Victoria Painting Book: High Victorian fashion as exemplified by the Hospital’s benefactors.

Cotsen Research Report: Feodor Rojankovsky’s Alphabet Books Part II

This winter Research Grant winner JoAnn Conrad spent a month in Rare Books and Special Collections reading room poring over dozens and dozens of early twentieth-century books in Cotsen and in Graphic Arts.  Her project, “Women’s Work: Magazines, Advertising and Children’s Books in the ‘Golden Age’ of Illustration in the United States,” is one piece of a more ambitious one about the role of early twentieth-century artists who worked across media in graphic design, advertising, and children’s book illustration played in disseminating the visual language of modernism.  Joann’s survey of Feodor Rojankovsky’s  ABCs will be in two parts: today’s second post discusses work he created in the United States.

The A Б Cs of Feodor Rojankovsky

By JoAnn Conrad

In 1925, Vassar graduate Esther Averill moved to Paris, where many young, college-educated American women were seeking to understand their place as writers, artists and as women in a more socially liberating scene. In 1930 Averill and business partner Lila Stanley had a new venture with an American client looking to modernize his line of stationary. Averill turned to Rojan whose drawings enchanted them: “They had color, gaiety and humor, and revealed how thoroughly he understood the graphic possibility of the medium.”[1] The stationary endeavor fell through, but Rojankovksy, eager to enter into the new market in children’s picturebooks proposed they collaborate. The result was the 1931 Daniel Boone,[2] a fauvist-inspired series of brightly colored lithographs celebrating the American hero as he fought Indians and settled the wilderness — a fantasy of the American West shaped, in part, on Rojankovksy’s own childhood fascination with the works of Fenimore Cooper. But Rojankovsky’s experience in modern advertising layout and illustration was also major influence on the book, especially his use of brightly colored graphics to create a feeling of a fantastic West above and beyond the text. The plates were visually stunning but prohibitive to print, and Averill could find no American publisher willing to take it on. She and Stanley therefore established their own Domino Press, which would specialize in children’s picture books illustrated by gifted young artists and reproduced by means of the excellent color processes that were available in Paris,”[3] and published Daniel Boone themselves. Rojankovsky would go on to illustrate four more Domino books, published in French and English versions and distributed in France and the U.S.,  preceding Rojankovsky’s own immigration by almost a decade.

Illustration from Daniel Boone. (Paris: Domino Press, 1931) Cotsen 16819,

In 1933, on the basis of this impressive start in children’s book illustration and advertising work, Rojan was hired by visionary French children’s book innovator Paul Faucher, creator of Les Albums du Père Castor. Faucher’s radical pedagogy was based on the concept of “hands on,” participatory learning that sought to elicit children’s creative responses to the real world. Faucher’s first team of illustrators consisted primarily of Russian expatriate artists — Nathalie Parain, Alexandra Exter, Hélène Guertik, and Rojankovsky, all of whom had adopted the forms and techniques of the avant-garde, constructivism, and Cubo-Futurism which had been their common experience in the Russian art milieu in the early 1900s. Using elemental shapes, and primary colors to evoke a synesthetic, multi-sensory experience, and deploying non-representational and minimalist images, they sought to establish an unmediated, visceral, and emotional engagement with the viewer. In Paris in the 1930s, they redirected this towards Faucher’s new vision for a modern, interactive picturebook. Decoupled from any Socialist message, these artists, in various ways, extended the modernist experiment into his new pedagogical and commercial enterprise; their attempts at viewer engagement aligned with Faucher’s participatory pedagogy.

Rojankovsky often illustrated for Faucher’s wife, the author Lida who shared her husband’s philosophy, and with her he produced a series of books with naturalistic images of animals in their habitats. But in 1936 Rojankovsky collaborated with Faucher himself on an ABC book/game,[4] the cover of which harkens back to the frontispiece of Zhivaia Azbuka, with animals spilling out from their containment. But whereas in the 1936 book the animals featured inside are consistent with those on the cover, in Zhivaia Azbuka the cover and frontispiece feature wild, exotic animals in contrast to the more ordinary and familiar animals accompanying Chernyi’s verse. Faucher’s ABC is also a game, in this case several bingo-type games of increasing difficulty. Thus, while the ideological thrust of Zhivaia Azbuka had been conservative and preservationist, Faucher’s is clearly pedagogical. Zhivaia Azbuka’s intended audience was Russian émigré children, who most likely spoke Russian at home and in the community, but whose language of instruction in their new home was French. That is, the goal of the book was to expose children who likely knew how to read in French, but who also spoke Russian, to the Cyrillic alphabet and thereby to written Russian; a context which better explains Chernyi’s complex couplets. This is not a beginning reader, or a “Baby’s first ABCs.” In contrast, Faucher’s ABC specifically links letters to sounds, and illustrates these sounds through the initial phonemes of individual illustrations of animals. There are no vignettes, either visual or verbal. Faucher’s is a classic ABC book, with one large, capital letter, its corresponding lower-case cursive letter, and a representative animal on a blank background. The presumptive learning process necessitates a prior knowledge of the represented animal from which the relationship between the initial sound and the letter can be suggested. This process breaks down when the animals are exotic and perhaps unknown to the child.

Front cover of Paul Faucher’s ABC / jeux du Père Castor. ([Paris]: Flammarion, 1936). Cotsen 21253

Frontispiece to Zhivai︠a︡  Azbuka. (Paris: N. P. Karbasnikov, 1926) Cotsen 9209.

Tearable cards from ABC / jeux du Père Castor.  Cotsen 21253

back free endpaper game board from ABC / jeux du Père Castor.  Cotsen 21253

Word-Letter associations that work in Faucher’s ABC. Cotsen 21253

Word-Letter associations that don’t work in Faucher’s ABC. Cotsen 21253

ABC books such as Faucher’s, with their one-to-one correspondence of letters and sounds illustrated by images of single words were extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 1920s,[5] and reflect an early pedagogical approach to reading, one which would be displaced by phonics by mid-century. In 1936, the popularity of this type of ABC book was on the wane, but Rojankovsky, long after settling in the U.S. would return to this format one last time with his Animals in the Zoo, in 1962.[6] The page layout is reminiscent of Faucher’s book from over 25 years earlier, but what is even more notable is the cover, which features a giraffe in an old-fashioned zoo enclosure, whose ‘spots’ are made out of letters. Rojankovsky would again use this technique in his final ABC book in 1970.[7] Interestingly, this technique of constructing an animal’s body out of letters in an ABC book was used in a 1917 ABC book by Sybil Rebman, published by the Chicago-based P.F. Volland Company. But rather than just filling the animal’s outline with random letters, in Rebman’s book each animal associated with a letter in the alphabet is constructed out of letters which also spell out the word for that animal. Although neither Rebman nor Volland have the name recognition of Rojankovsky, in 1917 her illustrations and concept are artistically innovative (albeit pedagogically dubious), whereas in 1962 Rojankovksy’s repetitive wild-life images and simplistic format look dated. Nonetheless, Rebman’s use of letters is conventional in that they spell out a word, while Rojankovsky’s use of letters decouples them from any corresponding sound or meaning.

Animals in the Zoo (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1962).

Inside pages of Animals in the Zoo. 

ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. (New York: Golden Press, 1970). Cotsen 152493

Sybil Rebman’s Animal Alphabet. (Chicago.: P.F. Volland Company, 1917). Cotsen 21871

In addition to the English editions of his books for Domino Press, by 1936 many of Rojankovsky’s books in Les Albums du Père Castor were translated into English and distributed in the U.S., brokered by the director of the Artists and Writers Guild, Georges Duplaix. Thus well in advance of his arrival in 1941, his work was well received. Duplaix would be a critical player in Rojankovsky’s life and work, facilitating safe passage out of southern France ahead of Hitler’s army in exchange for a long-term exclusive contract. When Duplaix launched his new commercial venture The Little Golden Books series in 1942, Rojankovsky joined a stable of other émigré artists, including Gustaf Tenggren and Tibor Gergely, to produce some of the most widely published children’s books of the 20th century. Of the over 35 books Rojanksovsky illustrated for the Golden Books from 1943 to 1970, there are none that fit the classic ABC book format. Instead, Rojankovsky’s work focuses mostly on animal stories. His second Golden Book – Animal Stories, written by Duplaix,[8] links animal stories to the alphabet in what seems to have been Rojankovsky’s main interest in ABCs all along– experiments in typography.  In the heart of the book, in between fanciful tales of animals and a display of Rojankovsky’s illustration styles, there are 6 pages of illustrated block letters, each accompanied by a small verse  (21-26). These were later issued as a set of nesting blocks.[9] Even more interestingly, these letters were used in a series of magazine advertisements for Puss n’ Boots cat food during the 1940s.[10]

Georges Duplaix and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Stories. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944). Cotsen 7370

Playschool Golden Book Nested Blocks. Golden Press, Inc. Licensed by Playschool, 1958.

Rojankovsky illustrated “Puss n’ Boots” cat food advertisement, Saturday Evening Post, [1949]

Golden Books had not abandoned the ABC-book concept or format, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, this task had already been taken over by a new group of illustrators – Richard Scarry, Garth Williams, and Cornelius DeWitt. The format also changed: No longer single letters with a single representative figure on a white background, the emphasis had switched to filling the pages with as many representative images as possible. Rojankovsky replicated this in his final book, which fittingly was an ABC book — Alphabet of Many Things (1970), but the end papers again reveal his fascination with typography.

Page spread from ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. Cotsen 152493

Endpapers from ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. Cotsen 152493

Rojankovsky’s use of foliage to construct letters of the alphabet appears in many titles to many of his books, which are otherwise unrelated to Alphabet books: Animals on the Farm (Knopf, 1967), and Frog Went A-Courtin (1955), to cite two, and the 1950s-style ABC book format is replicated in the 1960 Animal Dictionary for the Little Golden Books,[11] but, with the exception of Frog Went A-Courtin these are rather joyless, perfunctory endeavors, displaying none of the wit and innovation of Rojankovsky’s other work. Rojankovsky was working under exploitative terms both for Paul Faucher and for Duplaix and the Golden Books. His compensation was low, and the demands of such large-scale publishing operations limited his artistic freedom. Much of his later work seems to be re-assemblages of previous pieces, and one might wonder whether his “recognizable style” is more a function of images he repurposed for his own self-preservation, particularly when his entire oeuvre is examined. A revisitation of his work through the lens of ABC-books reveals its range and variety even when working with the constraints of publishing houses, during political turmoil, and across continents.

Watson, Jane W, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Dictionary. New York: Golden Press, 1960.

[1] Allen, Irving, Polly Allen, and Koly T. Rojankovsky. Feodor Rojankovsky: The Children’s Books and Other Illustration Art, 2014. Kindle edition, location 893.

[2] Averill, Esther Holden, Lila Stanley, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Daniel Boone: Historic Adventures of an American Hunter Among the Indians. Paris: Domino Press, 1931.

[3] Esther Averill Biography from the “Jenny Linsky and the Cat Club” page: http://www.93950.com/cat_club/bio.htm

[4] Faucher, Paul, and Feodor Rojankovsky. ABC / jeux du Père Castor ; dessins de F. Rojan.

[5] The Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton has a digital archive of historical ABC books with many examples https://etc.princeton.edu/abcbooks/. Two of the most prolific publishers during the turn of the century period were Raphael Tuck (London), and the McLoughlin Brothers (New York).

[6] Rojankovsky, Feodor. Animals in the Zoo. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1962.

[7] Rojankovsky, Feodor. ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. Golden Press, 1970.

[8] Duplaix, Georges, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944.

[9] Playschool Golden Book Nested Blocks. Golden Press, Inc. Licensed by Playschool, 1958.

[10] Coast Fishing Company, Wilmington, Ca. The one-page ads with a featured animal, accompanied by a letter of the alphabet inscribed by Rojankovsky, ran in the Saturday Evening Post from 1947 to 1948. These were compiled into a promotional book in 1949.

[11] Watson, Jane W, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Dictionary. Racine, Wis: Golden Press, 1960.