More Pretty Little Pocket Books for Children

A woman’s hanging pocket in the collection of the V & A.

The word “pocket book” was a term for a wallet or small purse for money and personal objects in the eighteenth century.  That wasn’t its only meaning, however.  It also referred to books– especially memorandum books (i.e. “diaries” in British English) or vade mecums, compilations of useful information– that could be comfortably stowed in a weskit pocket  or the hanging bag attached to a tape that tied around a woman’s waist.   Related to almanacs, they were revamped for adults by enterprising publishers in the 1740s, among them John Newbery, more famous for his children’s books.  Twenty years later he went back to the drawing board and reconceptualized the pocket book for younger customers.  Newspaper advertisements confirm that the publisher really was its compiler. .The Important Pocket-Book or Valentine’s Ledger (ca. 1765), which was also a tie-in to The Valentine’s Gift, may be the first of its kind and a good model for the genre as a whole, whether or not  Continental children’s books publishers were influenced by it.

Cotsen 5354.

The more famous Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which could be carried on its owner’s person without any trouble, was not meant for ready reference or record keeping. The Important Pocket-Book was, with its  tables of money, weights, and measures and a  calendar for recording daily expenses over a twelve-month period that was not keyed to a particular year, making it saleable over a long span of time.  On the facing pages Newbery added a second calendar for tracking good and bad deeds, a feature which does not seem to have caught on.  He also selected stories from classical literature such as Cornelia, mother of the Graecci, and combined them with anecdotes from modern history, and short fiction reprinted from others of his juveniles. Selections were accompanied by both copperplate engravings and wood cuts. Shown below is the cut of Father Time illustrating a story about a time-wasting school boy and an opening from the moral ledger that was marked up for about a month.  Someone tried to erase the notes, but “Bad” is still visible on the right hand side.  The entire package of material was attractively bound in boards covered with Dutch floral paper shiny with gilt.Prentjes Almanach voor Kinderen, a charming Dutch pocket book bound in pale apple-green printed boards (Cotsen 3466), is much smaller than The Important Pocket-Book  and appears to have been issued annually by its publisher W. Houtgraaf. In 1799, the contents featured a page of information about eclipses, which was probably suggested by the three forecast between April and October, culminating in a total solar eclipse. The selection of literature was somewhat lighter in character than the stories in the Newbery book.  Prominently featured was a series of illustrated poems about children’s pastimes,  itinerant street vendors, and strolling players.  English street cries for children often portray as many sellers of foodstuffs as small commodities, whereas the Almanach shows just one vendor tempting children with sweet teeth with a basket of “china apples, i.e. oranges.”  A somewhat unusual subject is the man crying umbrellas, a convenience that was still something of a novelty in  Europe. Children were surely more likely to flock around the bagpiper with his trained animals than the seller of useful objects, especially when the musician undoubtedly would perform for anyone with pennies burning in their pockets.  While it was a well-established practice to draw vendors full-length,  I can’t help but wonder if it was deliberate that the attractive nuisance is shown without an audience, whereas the ink vendor has a customer that looks like a school boy to his left.The daintiest of the three pocket books is, of course, French, but it may come as a surprise that Reveries orientales (Coten 65141) was issued in by Louis Janet in 1794 during the French Revolution.   I did look at a near contemporary catalogue of moral, instructive, and amusing children’s books issued in Lyons by Bohaire  (Cotsen in process)  to see what pocket books he stocked and found three or four for ladies with elegant engravings and bindings that sound as fashionable as this one in embroidered cloth with tiny drawings under isinglass (or horn) with a little pocket lined with rose paper on the inside of the rear board.  The tiny engraved plates are based on the ones by famous Roccoco artists for the celebrated Cabinet des fees, a multivolume anthology of French fairy tales and stories from the Thousand and One Nights.  The rather perfunctory monthly calendars of accounts surely could not compete with the illustrations, like the one for the tale of the miserly merchant Abou Cassem.John Newbery probably would not have approved of this frivolous approach to a kind of children’s book that he believed ought to help form good habits and regular self-examination, but the French and Dutch examples here suggest that the conventions for pocket books were just as fluid as they were stable.


How a Young Woman Writer Got Her First Book Published: Lucy Peacock and The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon (1785)

Very few classic eighteenth-century children’s books have an origin myth, or story about how an adult came to write for a real child because the book he or she imagined didn’t exist and decided the manuscript should be published for others’ enjoyment.  The only one I can think of is Mrs. Barbauld’s brief account of Lessons for Children (1788): “amidst the multitude of books professedly written for children, there is not one adapted to the comprehension of a child from two to three years old …This little publication was made for a particular child [i.e. her nephew and adopted son Charles], but the public is welcome tit.”

The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon (1785) is not in the same league as Lessons for Children, but it stands out because we know the author’s name, how she got her first book in print, and something about her later career.   Miss Lucy Peacock described herself modestly as young and not possessed of advantages, but must have been a rather determined person.   She had written for young ladies a book-length imitation of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene entitled The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon, which is an original allegory about the passions, not a juvenile abridgment of Spenser, as is usually claimed.  Perhaps no bookseller would do business with this unknown writer and with no prospect of newpaper advertisements of the book and so she decided to try subscription publication instead, which the Oxford Companion to the Book defines as:

A system of obtaining orders (and sometimes payment) in advance to enable publication of a book. Worthy books have often been declined by publishers as poor commercial risks. Financial responsibility for their publication then falls on the author, who generally invites others to share the costs.

Bound into the first editions is a list of subscribers, or the names of people who signed up to reserve  copies of The Six Princesses of Babylon. Actually, there are three different versions of the list and the differences between them contribute new information to the story of her campaign.   The first one is the shortest, still Peacock’s tactics for garnering subscribers is clear. She had success attracting the custom of fashionable, titled ladies: at the head of the Ds is “Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire,”   none other than the showy and notorious Georgiana Spenser Cavendish, a devoted mother after her fashion, put down for seven copies. Peacock also signed up a number of celebrated London musicians, the best known being Dr. Charles Burney, father of novelist Fanny Burney, who also took a copy.  Then there was the Queen of the Blue-Stockings, Elizabeth Montagu.  Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, marine painter, designer of the Eudophusikon, a miniature mechanical theater, the inventor of spectacular stage effects, and his wife both subscribed.  Philanthropist, opponent of tea-drinking, and eventual champion of chimney sweets, Jonas Hanway can be found on the list. And she also landed Lady Charlotte Finch, royal governess to the children of George III and his consort Charlotte.

Could Lady Charlotte had something to do with Peacock obtaining permission to dedicate the Six Princesses to nine-year-old Princess Mary, the eleventh child of George and Charlotte, and their fourth daughter?  The subscribers’ list was reset with the dedicatee’s name at the head of the names in all caps.   Princess Mary’s approbation seems to have swelled the list with enough new names that it had to be reset a third time to fit in another two pages of names.Coaxing members of the London elite was hardly a novel tactic.  What was original about Peacock’s approach was that she solicited subscribers in girls’ schools from the very beginning. There are twenty-two described as such, with the names of the pupil-subscribers set down, giving some indication of the school’s size. The appendix of girls’ schools in Nicholas Hans’ New Trends in Education in the Eighteenth Century (1951) does not record any of them.  But it is possible that there are more schools there. A few of the heads of school put down for multiple copies but did not give the pupils’ names.  Could some of the subscribers who took more than three copies but do not seem to be members of the book trade have been educators?  Peacock’s list of subscribers could be a good jumping off point for further research  on girls’ education.

Who was this enterprising young lady who signed the end of every copy?  Her exact identity has yet to be established from perusing Ancestry Library can be trusted.   We do know that she continued to write for young people—original works, including several featuring Black and Creole characters, translations from the French, and reference works.  She also took charge of their sale and marketing from her Juvenile Library on Oxford Street.  She edited The Juvenile Magazine (1788) for John Marshall.  Did a male relative or friend help her get started on her interesting career in the literary world?  That is yet to be determined, but perhaps a strong entrepreneurial streak surfaced as early as her drive to write.