Lively Letters in Thomas B. Lamb’s The Jolly Kids Alphabet

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 don’t turn up either in major exhibition catalogues like  the 1996 Myth, Magic and Mystery by Michael Hearn, Trinkett Clark, and H. Nichols B. Clark.  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.”

“Once Upon New Times”: An Exhibition of Retold Classics in the Cotsen Gallery Through March 2024

Tenniel's 's original illustrations from "Alice in Wonderland"

One of John Tenniel’s original illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland” (Cotsen 657)

The best stories have always lent themselves to retelling, reillustration, or transformation into new formats and there’s a new display of some wonderful reimaginings–some of them surprises, some old friends–on display in Cotsen now through March.  It’s the first exhibition in the gallery since the pandemic, so please come see magic lantern slides of Barrie’s Peter Pan, a very early set of Walt Disney’s figurines of Snow White and the seven dwarves based on the famous animated film, Beatrix Potter’s unpublished version of Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, a new take on Humpty Dumpty by Dan Santat, a growth chart inspired by the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Bremen Town Musicians,” a “Stone Soup” card game, a “Jack and the Bean Stalk” Lego set,  and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland adapted for kamishibai, a form of Japanese street theater and “translated” into the author’s cipher code and reillustrated by school children.  The last item was on exhibition in the 2016 show “Alice after Alice,” which was curated by Jeff Barton, Cotsen’s rare book cataloger.  Here’s his post about about how children redrew famous characters in Alice.

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Alice in Wonderland has been delighting children and grown-ups for over 150 years now. In addition to Lewis Carroll’s text, the illustrations by John Tenniel and other, later illustrators have been a major source of readers’ delight.

Try to imagine Alice without any illustrations of the famous characters and scenes, either by Tenniel or other illustrators. Virtually impossible isn’t it? Carroll himself provided very, very little descriptive detail, if you actually look at his text. So our sense of how Alice and all the inhabitants of Wonderland look is strongly conditioned by illustration, when you stop to think about it. Textual and visual elements of Alice seem inseparably intertwined, with the illustrations shaping meaning, extending it, and sometimes commenting ironically on the text. Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts and Mad Hatter look comically absurd, rather than menacing or hostile, illustration leavening the tone of the words, which can be quite edgy, or even scary, all by themselves.

Professional illustrators have been reimagining Alice in new versions since the nineteenth century, including names like Arthur Rackham, Willy Pogány, Ralph Steadman, or Salvador Dali. (Yes, Dali did have a go at illustrating Alice, in his own distinctive style! More on that “curiosity” in a later posting.). The flood of the new illustrations shows no sign of abating in the twenty-first century either, based on recent editions.

Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young

“Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young (Cotsen 20836).

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Another “Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lee MacArthur & David Dansey (Cotsen 20836).

But it’s worth remembering that adults haven’t been the only illustrators of Alice. Generations of children have reimagined Alice in their own pictures, mostly unpublished, but some have found their way into various publications. For instance, the Cipher Alice — a coded version of the story based on the Telegraph Cipher devised by Carroll — credits some twenty-six ten- and eleven-year old children as illustrators (in addition to twenty-nine named “code checkers” for the coder cipher text), all of whom were students at the Edward Peake Middle School in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England in 1990, when the book was printed by L & T Press, Ltd.

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Alice & the “Drink Me” bottle, by Louise Lawson.

The students’ graphic renderings vary in style and sophistication, but all display the obvious pleasure that children have taken in Alice since 1865. Louise Lawson, for instance, pictures Alice as a smiling little girl with huge bow on her hair, wearing a variation of Alice’s traditional pinafore emblazoned with a super-hero’s “W” (“Wonderland”) and the name “Alice” added on her apron, just for good measure. She chooses to depict Alice theatrically holding up the “Drink Me” bottle at the beginning of her Wonderland adventures.

The book’s Preface, by supervising grown-up, Edward Wakeling, notes that the Cipher Alice was produced for the Alice 125 Project of the Carroll Foundation, Australia, which attempted “to set a world record for the number of different languages version of the same book.” Interest in Alice was indeed world-wide in 1990, and if anything, it has become even more so in 2016 (Alice 150), with the book having been translated into more than 170 languages in countless editions!

But as in so many editions of Alice, I think the illustrations in the Cipher Alice are “the thing” (with apologies to Hamlet), so I’d like to share some others with you. It’s one my very favorite editions, since it shows how child-readers responded to Alice. I also like the way that different children sometimes imagined quite different depictions of the same scene — there’s no one, “right” way to depict Alice, as the many different versions over the last 150 years have shown us! The illustrations are simply terrific fun to see too! (Click on any thumbnail image to see a larger version.)

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom... Past curious things on the way

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom… past curious things on the way.

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Descending into Wonderland via a bucket in a well… Past dinosaur fossils on the way!

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Alice and the White Rabbit “after the fall” — Alice looks distinctly unhappy (and wears a name-tag).

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Alice (wearing a “Cool” tee-shirt) as she shrinks, becoming too small to reach the key on the table.

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Tiny Alice after shrinking too small to reach the door key on the (now giant-sized) table.

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The Mad Hatter (price tag in his hatband) with a hot-dog, a coke, and an earring!

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Alice and a mustachioed caterpillar, who also wears a monocle and smokes a gentleman’s pipe.

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Alice (with a name-tag), an unusual-looking White Rabbit, and the Court of the Queen of Hearts.

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“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” –Alice. (And how about the Hatter’s outfit shown here?)