Marks in Books 16: A Valentine’s Day Gift from Husband to Wife

Fancy chocolates, a dozen red roses, and cards expressing seasonal sentiments are the perfect traditional gifts for Valentine’s Day, having replaced the true lover’s knots of ribbon that used to be exchanged decades and decades ago.

Books have been promoted as more useful than sweets and frippery long before Sir Henry Cole put the first commercial printed valentine on the market.  Pioneering children’s book publisher John Newbery tried to reform the observance of Valentine’s Day in the 1760s by urging the purchase of two: The Valentine’s Gift, which recommended that valentines should monitor each other’s behavior for a year by taking notes in the moral ledger conveniently provided in The Important Pocket-Book.  Stories in The Valentine’s Gift showed children and adults just how this could be done to reform the proud, the lazy, and habitual liars.  Copies of both Newbery books are very rare, but it’s unclear if the small number of surviving copies reflect  sales less robust than the publisher anticipated or the rate at which they were discarded after being filled up.Long before the donor Mr. Cotsen acquired editions of Newbery’s Valentine’s Gift and Important Pocket-Book, he gave his wife JoAnn a Valentine’s present of children’s books in 1968.  JoAnn recorded that  title and title were his’ gift to her on the occasion on copies of the blue family bookplate pasted into each book. The couple had been collecting children’s books for several years and his selection reflects two of their long-standing interests.The rhymes with the sweet illustrations by Ruth Hamlin in Baby’s Plays and Journeys (Garden City: Doubleday, Page, & Co, 1923; Cotsen 15334) probably caught Mr. Cotsen’s eye.  It is one of several volumes compiled by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Nora Archibald Smith for the family library.  The “journeys” in the title refer to toys or constructions made for riding off in the imagination.The other book Mr. Cotsen gave his wife was a nineteenth-century primer of graded reading lessons, John Epy Lovell’s Young Pupil’s Second Book   (New Haven: S. Babcock, 1841; Cotsen 11057).  While nowhere as whimsical as Baby’s Plays and Journeys, the sturdy black and white cuts illustrating a good number of the selections are more than competent.   The ones of the sagacious elephant and ferocious tiger are especially appealing.For real book collectors like the Cotsens, these two little books are true love’s tokens…

Magic Lantern Slides of  Avant-garde Soviet Children’s Books: Marshak, Lebedev, Chukovskii, Konashevich, and More…

A hand-colored slide of an illustration by Vladimir Konashevich for Kornei Chukovskii’s Tarankanische, a poem about a cockroach who wants to rule the world manufactured by Edward van Altena.

Thanks to a generous gift from Sibylle Fraser, Cotsen now has a delightfully mysterious group of magic lantern slides of illustrations from some of the most famous Soviet picture books of the 1920s.  No book is reproduced in its entirety, but there are samples from  Samuil Marshak ‘s Vladimir Lebedev’s Tsirk [Circus} and Bagazh [Baggage] illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev, Kornei Chukovskii’s Moidodyr [Wash ‘em Clean] illustrated by Yuri Annenkov, published by Raduga, and Chukovskii’s Tarankanishche [Cockroach] illustrated by Vladimir Konashevish, to mention just a few.

The title page by Yuri Annenkov for Chukovskii’s Moidodyr.

The glass slide for the first page of Lebedev’s first set of illustrations for Samuil Marshak’s Bagazh followed by the color-printed page from the book.

The glass lantern slides were produced by photographer Edward van Altena (1873-1968) at his studio on 71-79 West 45th Street in New York City, but there is no hint on the slides for whom he made them.   The photographs might have been taken as documentation of a private or institutional  collection of 1920s Soviet children’s books, but it seems much more likely they were used for lectures by someone.  The superb reproduction of the artwork would have been perfect for educational purposes, and slides were stored in the kind of case sold to lecturers.

Copy stand photography, on the other hand, is not the kind of work usually associated with van Altena, a minor celebrity in the history of photography.  Over the course of his long career, which began at age 15, were the song slides, or hand-colored magic lantern slides for sing-along entertainment between films in vaudeville theatres, a market he and his partner John Duer Scott dominated from 59 Pearl Street between 1904 and 1919.  Whether the subjects of Scott and van Altena song slides were sentimental or surreal, their production values were superb. The Princeton Graphic Arts Collections holds some wonderful examples.

After the dissolution of Scott and van Altena, the partners went their separate ways.  When van Altena moved into the premises at 71-79 45th Street and how long he did business there I was not able to discover.   The Soviet picture books he photographed were published during the 1920s, but they could have been shot in the 1930s or even into the 1940s, when glass slide technology was on its way out.  He seems to have had plenty of work, judging by the examples held in the archives of the Garden Society of America, Wintherthur, the Yale University Divinity Library, the Eastman Museum, Theodore Roosevelt papers, Brooklyn Historical Society (to mention a few), and for sale on the Internet.   The trail goes cold in the 1940s, after which he seems to have disappeared as a professional photographer.

Many thanks to Sibylle Fraser, for this most unusual and intriguing gift to the collection.  Perhaps it will inspire a researcher to try and learn more about who was preaching the gospel of the Soviet avant-garde’s great creators of picture books for children.

Sources consulted included Terry  Bolton, “Outstanding Colorists of American Magic Lantern Slides, Magic Lantern Gazette, 26:1 (Spring 2014), 3-23, Elizabeth Carlson, “Five Cent Fantasies: Photographic Experimentation in Illustrated Song Slides,” History of Photography, 41:2 (May 2017), 188-203, and Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern, co-edited by David Robinson, Stephen Herbert, and Richard Crangle (London: Magic Lantern Society, 2001).