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.


Curator’s Choice: Pen Flourish Figures in a Dutch Boy’s Copybook ca. 1733

This week when I was retrieving some manuscripts, I got distracted and made a discovery.   I didn’t remember ever having looked at the materials on the shelf where the one manuscript lived and stopped to see what a few of the archive boxes near it contained.

One of the treasures was a eighteenth-century copybook that had been filled in between January and August 1733 by Jan Haverman, who lived in Amersfoort, a Dutch city on the river Een in Utrecht.

Jan Haverman’s signature on the leaf pasted down on the front marbled paper cover. Cotsen 91631.

Cotsen has quite a few American and British copybooks, but I wasn’t aware there were Dutch examples too, so I was eager to peek inside the marbled paper wrappers.  The pages are not ruled with carefully spaced lines that make it easy for the student to write the practice text across the page.  The margins of the odd numbered pages are decorated with highly stylized decorations composed of swirling lines and whoever calligraphed these beautiful figures was something of  an artist.

The woman with a cap and curls down her back on leaf 1. Cotsen 91631.

Jan Haverman signed the bottom of every page he copied out, but did he have the control of the pen to have drawn the figures in the margins as well?

The man in the feathered hat on page 3. Cotsen 91631.

The hissing snake on page 5. Cotsen 91631.

The dancing dog on page 19. Cotsen 91631.

The sly fox on page 21. Cotsen 91631.

The clever ape on page 67. Cotsen 91631.

The bird eating cherries on page 35. Cotsen 91631.

Maybe the fantastic people and creatures be the work of Jan’s writing teacher.  Scholars who study the history of writing instruction often call attention to the parts in an exercise that the student executed and the parts his instructor corrected.  Could the writing master done the drawings as Jan’s reward for having finished his lesson?

A sprig of flowers on page 27. Cotsen 91631.

There ARE some blots, misformed letters, and wobbly lines on this page, so perhaps the figure in the margin here was intended as an incentive to do better at the next lesson!