Pussy’s Wedding Planned Perfectly

Weddings of animals have been solemnized in picture books since the mid-nineteenth century, even though it can be difficult to draw the bride or groom in their finery when they have tails, wings, or more than two legs.  The toy-book Pussey’s Wedding (and yes, that is the correct spelling)  has plenty of amusing illustrations of well-dressed toms and tabbies by Percy Cruikshank, the nephew of George.  What makes this particular title interesting is the way the very slender story was used by its down market publisher Read, Brooks & Co. to shamelessly promote London retail emporiums.

The product placement begins on the cover illustration, which shows Miss Tortoiseshell whipping up a dresser runner on the new Singer sewing machine she received as a gift.  Apparently the interior decorators Rose, Wood & Co. mentioned in line four cannot be trusted entirely to make the newly weds’ villa a home!  (I wasn’t able to determine if Rose, Wood & Co was a London general furnishing company, but it may have been, even with that generic name.)  Read, Brooks & Co. reinforced the notion that no young wife should be without a sewing machine by running additional advertisements on the front endpaper for not one, but two other brands of the machine, neither of them Singer.

Above the advertisements for the sewing machines are two others for Read, Brooks & Co: one as a general printer,  the other as a publisher of toy books printed in color, which were also available in untearable editions.  Next to the advertisement for the Monarch sewing machine is one for “pretty little clocks” to be had at Marriott & Co. at 386 Oxford Street.  Guess where  the groom Tom takes Miss Tortoiseshell to purchase a clock for the house and watch for her?  Surely salesmen didn’t show customers merchandise on the street in front of the display windows, but I suppose the brave show of different clocks, none higher than 4/6, suggests why Marriott’s was Tom’s first stop.Then there was the all-important matter of the fabrics for the wedding gown… The cats’ destination?  Peter Robinson’s Silks on Oxford Street, of course.   I don’t think Tom or Miss Tortoiseshell appears in the scene below, although it is possible that their visit to Robinson’s was on another day when they wore different outfits.   The white cat in yellow talking to the salesman is leaning against the counter in front of all the bolts of silk for wedding gowns are stacked, awaiting inspection by discerning ladies who must have every detail right.   Like Marriott’s, Peter Robinson Silks was a real shop on Oxford Street.Does Pussey’s Wedding  reflect the values of a particular moment in the history of nineteenth-century consumption?   Even with all the clues scattered in the book, it’s a question without a neat and clear answer.

Parameters for the publication date can be established.  Read, Brooks & Co. are known to have been trading at 25 and 26 New Street near Cloth Fair in West Smithfield between 1877 and 1885. Other tidbits of information suggest this toy book might have been first issued earlier than that.  References to Peter Robinson’s Silks turn up as early as 1866 and by 1874 the business was sufficiently well-established so that a reference in a satirical piece in Belgravia Magazine could serve as an indication of a young Marchioness’s extravagance.

This, and the information that Singer sewing machines had been manufactured in the United Kingdom only since 1867, could push the publication date back to the early 1870s, but that doesn’t square with the dates of Percy Cruikshank’s activities.  Old information floating around the web has him working as an an illustrator and wood engraver between 1840 and 1860.  Percy isn’t sufficiently  important to get an article in Grove’s Artists or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  but Robert Patten’s authoritative biography of George Cruikshank has a telling anecdote about him and his uncle.   In 1868, the  irascible old man tangled with Percy’s publisher over some toy books of fairy tales whose illustrations credited to just plain “Cruikshank,” which was not, strictly speaking, a lie.   They were the work of a Cruikshank, just not the really famous one.   Patten doesn’t identify the precise titles, but the advertisements above for the Grandmama Goodsoul series and the front wrapper of Pussey’s Wedding credit the illustrator just as he stated.

Only additional research can resolve the quandary authoritatively.  Perhaps Percy executed the illustrations in the late 1860s, when the shops on Oxford Street were becoming a destination for fashionable consumers. Another possibility is that Cotsen’s copy of Pussey’s Wedding is not an early issue, but a later one, something which could be determined by more detective work about the businesses of the  advertisers who appear  on the endpapers and rear wrapper. It makes sense that  Read, Brooks & Co might have reprinted individual titles of Grandmama Goodsoul’s series as called for and found new advertisers as appropriate.

This doesn’t clarify Read, Brooks & Co.’s motive was for promoting businesses on Oxford Street, when its premises in West Smithfield were a good two miles east of Oxford Street.  It’s unclear how this would have benefited a publisher in a less posh neighborhood.  Perhaps Reads, Brooks and Co. was trying to play the marketer of dreams for the little girl reader, who wanted to fantasize about her wedding and project upon the unknown Prince Charming a willingness to grant her every desire and cater to any whim that would allow her to appear before her friends and family as a stunningly beautiful and fashionable bride…

Rosamund’s Dilemma: A Purple Jar or A Pair of Shoes?

Celebrated children’s book author and novelist Maria Edgeworth is the young lady with the long curls and pretty hat at the left of Adam Buck’s famous group portrait of Richard Edgeworth and nine of his twenty-two children.

Maria Edgeworth’s most famous (or infamous) short story  is “The Purple Jar,” the first in the series of the Rosamund stories, which began appearing in The Parent’s Assistant (1796).   Why has this story overshadowed the series showing how a lively seven-year-old girl developed into an intelligent,thoughtful, and engaging young woman?  Possibly because so many readers have been somewhat taken aback by the behavior of  Rosamund’s mother on the shopping trip in London.  During an awkward moment with her daughter, she might have exercised her authority gently to avoid an unpleasant outcome, but instead she chose to treat it as a teachable moment and let things take their course.

Rosamund might have seen a display something like this when she went to the apothecary shop with her mother. Plate 6 from General Knowledge made Easy, or the Child’s First Step to Mechanics, Mineralogy, Agriculture, Sculpture… (London: D. Carvalho, ca. 1830) Cotsen 26558.

When Rosamund and her mother visit the apothecary’s shop, the little girl is captivated by a jar she wrongly assumes to be made of  deep purple glass.  She begs her mother to buy it for her, but her mother sensibly explains why she will not.   When it is clear that Rosamund is unlikely to change her mind, her mother gives her the choice of the jar or a new pair of shoes, but not both.  After some more thought, Rosamund decides she will take the jar. When the precious jar is delivered to the house, Rosamund discovers almost immediately that the luscious color comes from the nasty-smelling liquid it contains.  Once the liquid has been poured out,  an ordinary clear glass container remains.  Her mother holds her to her decision and will neither return the jar nor purchase the new shoes for another four weeks.

Of course Rosamund should not have ignored the evidence from her senses that her shoes were completely worn out.  Stones were getting in through the tattered soles, which made walking even a short distance rather painful.  But her lively imagination presented such a glorious image of that purple jar filled with flowers on the mantel that she ignored her mother’s suggestion to inspect the jar, just in case it was not what it seemed.  Possession of the jar, Rosamund convinced herself, would bring her a  degree of happiness that no pair of shoes could.

Rosamund’s second fatal mistake is the more intriguing of the two because it involved a different kind of intelligence.  Like a fairy, her mother promised to grant her one wish and one wish only.   Rosamund should have realized (maybe) that she was in exactly same situation as a heroine in a fairy tale and o course, no fairy is not obliged to sit down and review the pros and cons of a wish on offer. Another reason why Rosamund should have been more cautious before she leapt.  By choosing the purple jar instead of the shoes, she ended up with the equivalent of a sausage hanging where her nose should be, just like the silly wife in  Charles’ Perrault’s “The Three Wishes,” but without the luxury of one more wish to put things to rights again.

Be careful what you wish for–you might get a sausage that is two yards long attached to your face… French popular print of Charles Perrault, “Les souhaits ridicules” [The ridicious wishes.”

What Rosamund realizes during her month of stumbling around in down-at-the-heel shoes, is how difficult it is to anticipate where you will need to go.  Her shoes were so disgraceful that her father left her at home while the rest of the family visited a glass house, a sight she very much wanted to see.    No shoes, no outing.    Rosamund’s journey in “The Purple Jar” was not as long as Dorothy’s on the Yellow Brick Road, but it was no less arduous for having taken place inside of her head, being the first step on the road to maturity.  While Rosamund wanted to be a sensible, intelligent and independent person, she also sensed that it would be good to hold on to the capacity for magical thinking that got her in trouble in the first place: “Oh mamma, how I wish that I had chosen the shoes–they would have been of so much more use to me than that jar: however, I am sure–no not quite sure, but I hope, I shall be wiser another time.”

A pair of girl’s shoes ca. 1790 in the collection of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The soles are not very thick, so it’s easy to imagine that they would wear thin with use. Once they got well-worn and stretched out, they look as if they would fall off the feet very easily, there being no straps.

“The Purple Jar” looks like nothing more than a realistic story in easy language for young children.   Yet the way Edgeworth skillfully weaves fairy tale elements into an everyday incident underscores its importance in her life.   It implies that there is no learning without curiosity, imagination, or chance of making mistakes.

A artfully arranged collection of colored glass can be dazzling, so Rosamund can be forgiven for being seduced by the display in the apothecary shop…

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mitzi Myers, who loved and understood Rosamund perhaps better than anyone except Edgeworth herself.