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…

The History of Christmasses Past: A Christmas Tree Made of Yew Boughs

Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, is now believed to have introduced the custom of displaying indoors decorated yew branches at Christmas from her native Mecklenberg-Strelitz in northern Germany, not her grandson Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.  What exactly Charlotte’s Christmas “trees” looked like is harder to document.  The nicely illustrated articles on-line show many versions of Victoria’s family gathered around a table-top tree in a brilliantly illuminated room, but none of Charlotte’s holiday decorations.

What might be a variation on the decorated yew bought appears in an early nineteenth-century German book of plates about domestic life, which was added to collection some time ago. The caption and note at the end for the 12th plate describes Christmas as a special time for children, who look forward to receiving presents.   There are indeed gifts in evidence—someone will be receiving a new dress–but they are laid out on a table around which the family has gathered.   The little ones have edged closer to the tree in the corner to admire it.  Look closely, and you’ll see that the “tree” is actually several boughs arranged in a container resting on a stool.The book in which the plate appears is something of a mystery.   It has no title page or names of the publisher or engraver on the plates and the dealer who sold it to Mr. Cotsen was unable to find any record of it.  Luckily it was signed and dated 1813 by a girl, but it could be a little earlier.   Cotsen has other German plate books illustrating scenes from children’s lives from this period and many are bound in wrappers of glazed colored paper, which serve as the title pages.   If this book was issued in that format, one of its owners could have removed the wrappers and rebound it in the pretty paste paper boards.   A big patch of paper covers up more writing on the pastedown endpaper.  Perhaps if it were lifted, it would be possible to find more clues about who owned it and what its title might be.

None of this is going to scotch the legend that table-top trees were around in Martin Luther’s day…