The last two volumes of the Catalogue of the Cotsen Children’s Library, a comprehensive index, have just been published, bringing this huge project to completion. This post will offer a survey of the pictures of children appearing in the preliminary pages of the eight volumes that illustrate the subject of teachers and pupils interacting in traditional and innovative classrooms.The frontispiece to vol. 1 of the pre-1800 imprints is a portrait of Margaret Bryan, a pioneering science educator for girls that appeared in her first such work, A Compendious System of Astronomy, in a Course of Familiar Lectures of 1797 (Cotsen 31780). The two young ladies are her daughters; this plate was engraved by William Nutter after a painting by Samuel Shelley. Bryan represents just one of many women writers for children whose works are described in the catalogue; she was unusual for attaching a likeness of herself in her book. Mothers are frequently portrayed in their role as their children’s first teacher. It is no surprise that the allegorical figures of instruction and grammar are also represented as females, as in this mezzotint print ca. 1720 engraved by J. Jacques Haid after a painting by Hans Rottenhammer (Cotsen 38458) used as the frontispiece to the second volume of the index. The rather masculine-featured woman solemnly shows a toddler a tablet of the letters of the alphabet, the first step towards literacy. The child seems engaged by the task he is being set.Children like the play the part of teacher. This little girl is too old for the alphabet blocks scattered on the floor, so perhaps she is preparing the doll in her lap for a lesson. This detail from a drawing in ink and gouache (Cotsen 18123) by British artist Helen Jacobs, possibly for Alice’s Alphabet.Jessie Wilcox Smith’s picture of a studious girl biting the end of her pencil from Carolyn Wells’s The Seven Ages of Childhood from 1902 (Cotsen 18997) was chosen as the frontispiece for the second volume of twentieth century imprints. We take for granted girls’ right to an education, but some illustrations in early modern school books are reminders that they were not welcome until comparatively recently, and if they were present, very much in the minority. The title page vignettes for the pre-1800 volumes, The Parents’ Best Gift: or, The School of Learning [between 1748 and 1776} (Cotsen 26265) and Edward Coote’s The English School-Master (1658) (Cotsen 34054).Documenting the history of visual learning was a subject very close to the donor Mr. Cotsen’s heart, so illustrations of learning spaces full of pictures were essential. If they really represent actual classrooms used for instruction, they were simply spectacular. This spacious room shown in the frontispiece to the second volume of the pre-1800 imprints comes from the picture dictionary Primitiva latinoe linguoe circa 1736 (Cotsen 1088).This one, which opens out into a formal garden,makes an extensive gallery and a collection of scientific instruments available to the pupils. It was taken from Sechzig eroefnete Wekstaette der gemeinnuezigstem kuenste und Handwerk fuer junge Leute of 1789 (Cotsen 91643). The illustration by Adrien-Emmanuel Marie of the father indulgently watching his son intent on assembling a jigsaw puzzle serving as the frontispiece to the L-Z volume of nineteenth-century imprints brings us back into the home, an important site for learning, especially in families that could afford novel aides to education. This came from Jules Jouy’s Le chanson de joujoux of 1892 (Cotsen 3253), as does the final picture in the post, a critical reminder that all work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy…Special thanks to Stephen Ferguson, Associate University Librarian for External Engagement and designer Mark Argetsinger, who together made Mr. Cotsen’s dream of a fabulously illustrated multi-volume catalogue of his collection a reality. As all of us who worked on this massive project can testify, along with the great children’s poet Kornei Chukovskii, “Ach! It’s no light task to pull a hippo from the marsh!” Thanks for persevering!
Reading any book of animal noises to the baby, where it is obligatory to squeal like a pig or roar like a lion, is one of the most enjoyable assignments of parenthood. It can chase away the fog of sleep deprivation, while it stealthily educates baby to connect pictures of creatures with their names and the characteristic sounds they make. This is “instruction with delight” that twenty-first century sophisticates can believe in after watching the pill go down practically by itself.Who was the first to think up such a clever strategy? The credit should go to Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), one of the greats in the history of Western education. The way he yoked the power of words and pictures in his masterpiece, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Nuremberg: J. Endter, 1658), reveals how seriously he took the earliest and least appreciated stage of education.
Comenius insisted that “whatever is taught and learned be not obscure or confused, but apparent, distinct, and articulate, as the fingers on the hands.” This could be accomplished by introducing new ideas through the senses, “the main Guide of Childhood, because therein the mind doth not as yet raise up itself an abstracted contemplation of things.” Beginning with actual objects children already know will capture their wandering attentions so that they “grow merry, wax lively, and willingly suffer themselves to be fastened upon them, till the thing be sufficiently discerned.”
He directed educators to begin at the beginning and teach the student “the Plain sounds, of which mans speech consisteth, which living Creatures know how to make” with a “Symbolical Alphabet,” or what we would call much less grandly, an alphabet of animal noises. By engaging the eyes and ears of the “young A b c scholar,” the “lively and vocal” alphabet would create mental connections with pictures, words, and letters. “By looking upon the Creatures, till the imagination being strengthened by use,” the child would be ready to graduate to the next challenge, making sense of pictures keyed to the descriptions: “And thus the whole Book being gone over by the bare Titles of the Pictures, Reading cannot but be learned; and indeed too, which thing is to be noted, without using any ordinary tedious spelling[ [i.e. recitation of tables of syllables] that most troublesome torture of wits, which may be wholly avoided by this Method.” Comenius suggested that teachers encourage children to identify things they saw around them or to use the illustrations as models for drawing to reinforce the book lessons. This “School of Things obvious to the senses,” he declared, would be “an Entrance to the School Intellectual.”
The “Symbolical Alphabet” was not perfect, however, as the translator Charles Hoole, himself a highly regarded schoolmaster, pointed out. Animals did not speak a universal language, for one thing. Ducks may say “kha kha” in Latin (or German, which was the second language in the original edition), but in English they have said “quack, quack” at least since 1570, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Dogs do growl “Rrrrr,” but they make other sounds as well. How many seventeenth-century English children had seen as much as a picture of a hoopoe, a showy bird that ranges across Africa and Asia? Another problem is the sloppy typesetting–the spacing and placement of the captions for the letters I through M, for example, are noticeably out of alignment.
Comenius’s “Symbolic Alphabet” was retooled by another schoolmaster in the 1690s. Like any teacher trying to use a colleague’s lesson plan, Joseph Aickin felt it necessary to make modifications. He simplified the concept by adapting it for instruction in one, not two languages in his English Grammar ( London: Printed for the author by J. Lawrence, 1693). He also tinkered with the presentation. He rewrote the bilingual picture caption as a question and set it to the left of the picture, which he had moved to the center of the page. To the right of it was the letter representing the animal’s cry and a phonetic transcription in two separate columns. He also improved some of the examples: Comenius had the hare cry “va” for the letter W, while Aickin substituted, “What’s French for yea? wWw Wee” (admittedly the link between that and the cut of a man playing bowls is confusing). He replaced the letter I symbolized by the mouse chirping “I I I” in Comenius with “What do we see with? i I i Eye” accompanied by a cut of a beam of light shooting out from an wide open eyeball.
Some people in the mid-eighteenth century may have recalled the “Symbolic Alphabet” with nostalgia. It was revived with little modifications and illustrated with rather elegant engravings printed in red and black, as “The Sound of the Letters represented by sensible Objects” in The Pretty Play-thing for Children of all Denominations (Alexandria [i.e. London]: Printed for the Booksellers of Egypt and Palmyra [i.e. John Newbery], ca. 1759). Here are the pages for the letters A-D and W-Z:
I recognized Comenius’ “Symbolical Alphabet” in its new dress a few weeks ago after dipping into the Orbis Sensualism Pictus for a different reason. What is most striking is the way the systematic sequence of links in Comenius between thing with picture, the picture with the thing’s sound, the thing’s sound with the letter of the alphabet, and the letter with its pronunciation has been broken and replaced with something much simpler in the Newbery adapatation. Comenius’s brilliant strategy was perhaps too complicated to prove as “distinct and articulate as the fingers on the hand:” Newbery’s clever repackaging showed the way for future pictorial alphabets for very young learners.