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.
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.