Looking at an Icon: A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)

John Newbery’s first children’s book, The Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) has long been famous for uniting amusement and instruction in a new, more modern way and its status has been taken for granted by generations of educators, collectors, and scholars.

The second reason the book is so famous is its extreme rarity.  No public collection or private collector can boast of a truly early copy, that is one from the 1740s or 1750s.  Of the later seven surviving editions , the British Library holds the lion’s share: the earliest surviving one of 1760, the ones of 1767 and 1770, plus an abridged reprint ca. 1790 by John Marshall,  who purchased the copyright and blocks from Francis Powers,  John’s grandson. The Lilly Library has a copy of the eleventh edition of 1763, while the Gdansk Academy of Sciences in Poland has the thirteenth edition of 1766 published in Edinburgh by D. Patterson.  The only relatively common edition is Isaiah Thomas’s 1787 Worcester, Massachusetts reprint, with some twenty copies recorded in the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue.  Cotsen’s Newbery collection has only the Thomas edition.  All the illustrations  were taken from the 1967 facsimile of the 1767 edition.

The Morgan Library’s copy of the 1787 Isaiah Thomas edition with one of the premiums and its little pouch. It may or may not be contemporary with the book.

The third thing the Pocket-Book is remembered for is the ball and pincushion tie-in, which is considered among the most inventive promotional schemes any eighteenth-century entrepreneur devised—and they could be fiendishly creative. Jack the Giant-Killer’s letters to his young friends Tommy and Polly describes a novel moral regimen to help them be “as good as possible.”  They are to track their deeds by sticking pins into a parti-colored object: the bad ones on the black half, the good on the red half.  Tommy is to use the gender-appropriate ball, and Polly the pincushion.  Newbery tried to make it as easy as possible to follow the friendly giant’s advice making balls or pincushions available for purchase for an additional two pence at his shop.

The pencil markings were made by the author on a print-out of the newspaper advertisement, not the actual copy!

The advertisements for the book’s first year in print, however, show that the celebrated come-on was short-lived.  The ads that appeared between May and August 1744 give the price of the book with and without a ball or pincushion.  By October 22, the one for the second edition in the General Advertiser mentioned the ball-and-pincushion scheme in the book, but nothing about being able to buy real ones.  That information was dropped from subsequent advertisements in London and provincial papers.   Enticing as the offer sounded,  probably not enough mamas and papas took the bait and laid out the extra money for the premiums, balls being such common toys and pincushions so frequently made at home.  Newbery’s next promotional scheme summoned his genius without requiring the outlay of additional cash and other booksellers copied it to give their little books the Newbery touch.  The penny pamphlet Nurse Truelove’s New Year’s Gift (1750) stated on the title page that only good children would be allowed to purchase it and those lucky boys and girls would get the book for free, provided they chipped in a penny for the Dutch gilt paper wrappers.

The ball-and-pincushion scheme of moral accounting , for better or worse, has  deflected attention  from the book’s grab bag of uncredited bits and pieces–with the exception of the first illustration of a baseball game in progress, which sports historians have long treasured.  While the contents of the Pocket-Book are miscellaneous, as was usual with many eighteenth century children’s books, the selection was not haphazard.  Let’s look at the two poems at the end about time’s power and passage.  Because it was important to persuade children to learn how to use their time well while they were young, those subjects were de facto appropriate for them.  Is it possible to trace them back to their authors? Yes, as is frequently the case, thanks to databases like Eighteenth Century On-Line.   “A Poetical Description of the Four Seasons” was an imitation of Book VII, canto VII of Spenser’s Fairy Queene by James Ralph, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, which was first published in 1729.  “Time’s Address to Plutus and Cupid by Way of Application,” following it was abridged from John Gay’s Fable XII “Plutus, Cupid & Time” in his second set of fables (1738).  Gay’s best-known fable was “The Hare and Many Friends,” which many eighteenth-century children committed to memory and recited out loud.

These poems were never intended to rival the song-book described on the title page as “A new Attempt to Teach Children the Use of the English Alphabet by Way of Diversion.”   The promise of such a one may have been Newbery’s attempt to capitalize on the success of his competition’s Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book,  the first collection of nursery rhymes, issued within weeks of each other.  The Pocket-Book offered something rather different, as the advertised song book had been folded somewhat haphazardly into the alphabet–at least according to now familiar conventions for pictured alphabets.

The alphabet was off to a promising start with its introduction of the capital and lower-case letters inserted into the formulaic running heads “The Great A Play, “The little a Play” for pages [21]-[68] instead of via tables.  Each letter “played” at a familiar sport or game described in a little illustrated moral emblem, but subjects did not alliterate with the letters. “All the Birds in the Air” is paired with Great O, not  Great A.   The famous sequence of games concludes with little q, so the ditties were paired with Great R through little w. This seems to be the extent of the song book, only a few of which are  nursery rhymes or riff off characters in them.  Their first lines also do not alliterate with the headings.  Fables with applications by Jack the Giant Killer comprise the subjects of Great X through little z, with the last fable left hanging outside the running head alphabet.   Structurally the alphabet is a bit of a mess, although its lack of transitions between sections in the alphabet may not have mattered to its audience at all.

The way the sports and games were presented in the Pocket-Book  suggests that some sanitizing had been done.  Only boys take part in activities such as fishing, shooting, riding, birds’ nesting, dancing around the may pole, or play at “Knock Out and Span,” “Pitch and Hussel, “ cricket, leap frog, etc. Girls appear in just two illustrations: “Boys and Girls come out to Play (not the familiar nursery rhyme);” and “I sent a Letter to my Love.” Yet other contemporary sources indicate that a number of the games shown here were not the exclusive property of children, but frequently played by young adults in mixed groups.  Hoop and Hide, a variation on Hide and Seek, is one of the more interesting examples of such a game.  It could be played out of doors, as shown here, but also in the house.  Players were allowed to hide anywhere, but if someone was discovered under or in a bed, then he or she would have to submit to being kissed by the seeker.  That the game could lead to harder stuff was confirmed by Ned Ward in the London Spy (1700), Sir Richard Steele in the Tatler no. 5 (1712), and in Round about  Our Coal Fire (1730).

So this has just scratched the surface of The Little Pretty Pocket-Book.  What d’ye think of it?

The First Alphabets of Animal Noises: Gobble, Growl, Grunt!

Peter Spier. Gobble, Growl, Grunt. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday and Company, Inc., c1971. Cotsen 85048.

Reading any book of animal noises to the baby, where it is obligatory to squeal like a pig or roar like a lion, is one of the most enjoyable assignments of parenthood.  It can chase away the fog of sleep deprivation, while it stealthily educates baby to connect pictures of creatures with their names and the characteristic sounds they make.  This is “instruction with delight” that twenty-first century sophisticates can believe in after watching the pill go down practically by itself.

Johann Amos Comenius, Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Second English edition. London: Printed by T. R. [i.e. Thomas Roycroft] for S. Mearne, 1672. Cotsen 127, copy 2, liberally marked up by former owners.

Who was the first to think up such a clever strategy?  The credit should go to Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), one of the greats in the history of Western education. The way he yoked the power of words and pictures in his masterpiece, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Nuremberg: J. Endter, 1658), reveals how seriously he took the earliest and least appreciated stage of education.

Comenius insisted that “whatever is taught and learned be not obscure or confused, but apparent, distinct, and articulate, as the fingers on the hands.”  This could be accomplished by  introducing new ideas through the senses, “the main Guide of Childhood, because therein the mind doth not as yet raise up itself an abstracted contemplation of things.”  Beginning with actual objects children already know will capture their wandering attentions so that  they  “grow merry, wax lively, and willingly suffer themselves to be fastened upon them, till the thing be sufficiently discerned.”

He directed educators to begin at the beginning  and teach the student “the Plain sounds, of which mans speech consisteth, which living Creatures know how to make” with a “Symbolical Alphabet,” or what we would call much less grandly, an alphabet of animal noises.   By engaging the eyes and ears of the “young A b c scholar,” the “lively and vocal” alphabet would create mental connections with pictures, words, and letters.  “By looking upon the Creatures, till the imagination being strengthened by use,” the child would be ready to graduate to the next challenge, making sense of  pictures keyed to the descriptions: “And thus the whole Book being gone over by the bare Titles of the Pictures, Reading cannot but be learned; and indeed too, which thing is to be noted, without using any ordinary tedious spelling[ [i.e. recitation of tables of syllables] that most troublesome torture of wits, which may be wholly avoided by this Method.”  Comenius suggested that teachers encourage children to identify things they saw around them or to use the illustrations as models for drawing to reinforce the book lessons.  This “School of Things obvious to the senses,” he declared, would be “an Entrance to the School Intellectual.”

The “Symbolical Alphabet” was not perfect, however, as the translator Charles Hoole, himself a highly regarded schoolmaster, pointed out.  Animals did not speak a universal language, for one thing.  Ducks may say “kha kha” in Latin (or German, which was the second language in the original edition), but in English they have said “quack, quack” at least since 1570, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Dogs do growl “Rrrrr,” but  they make other sounds as well.  How many seventeenth-century English children had seen as much as a picture of a hoopoe, a showy bird that ranges across Africa and Asia?  Another problem is the sloppy typesetting–the spacing and placement of the captions for the letters I through M, for example, are noticeably out of alignment.

Comenius’s “Symbolic Alphabet” was retooled by another schoolmaster in the 1690s.   Like any teacher trying to use a colleague’s lesson plan, Joseph Aickin felt it necessary to make modifications.  He simplified the concept by adapting it for instruction in one, not two languages in his English Grammar ( London: Printed for the author by J. Lawrence, 1693). He also tinkered with the presentation.  He rewrote the bilingual picture caption as a question and set it to the left of the picture, which he had moved to the center of the page. To the right of it was the letter representing the animal’s cry and a phonetic transcription in two separate columns.  He also improved  some of the examples:  Comenius had the hare cry “va” for the letter W, while Aickin substituted, “What’s French for yea? wWw Wee” (admittedly the link between that and the cut of a man playing bowls is confusing).  He replaced the letter I symbolized by the mouse chirping “I I I” in Comenius with “What do we see with? i I i  Eye” accompanied by a cut of a beam of light shooting out from an wide open eyeball.

Reproduced from the Thomason copy on Early English Books On Line.

Some people in the mid-eighteenth century may have recalled the “Symbolic Alphabet” with nostalgia.   It was revived with little modifications and illustrated with rather elegant engravings printed in red and black, as “The Sound of the Letters represented by sensible Objects”  in The Pretty Play-thing for Children of all Denominations (Alexandria [i.e. London]: Printed for the Booksellers of Egypt and Palmyra [i.e. John Newbery], ca. 1759).   Here are the pages for the letters A-D and W-Z:

I recognized Comenius’ “Symbolical Alphabet” in its new dress a few weeks ago after dipping into the Orbis Sensualism Pictus for a different reason.   What is most striking is the way the systematic sequence of links in Comenius between thing with picture, the picture with the thing’s sound, the thing’s sound with the letter of the alphabet, and the letter with its pronunciation has been broken and replaced with something much simpler in the Newbery adapatation.  Comenius’s brilliant strategy was perhaps too complicated to prove as “distinct and articulate as the fingers on the hand:”  Newbery’s clever repackaging showed the way for future pictorial alphabets for very young learners.