Criers and Vendors: Street Life in Nineteenth-century Naples

One of the characters featured in Cotsen 55086. But who is he and what’s on his head?

Rare books — like most books — all have something distinctive about them.  Some present a famous story, usually in an early edition or unusual version.  Some have striking illustrations, often in a format that’s beautifully designed or rendered via an illustration process that’s a feat of artistic skill or technological innovation — or both.  Some are just lovely historical artifacts of print culture, and a delight to hold in your hands.  And some individual rare books have unique histories or one-of-a-kind metatextual aspects of annotation, marginalia, reader markings, or even inscriptions or dedications by their author or some other person of note.

Can you tell a book by its cover? (Cotsen 52086)

Some rare books combine several of these aspects.  A case in point is a book of nineteenth-century street vendors whose cover, however, embodies the old saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover: ordinary marbled paper-covered boards and a roan spine, both somewhat the worse for wear.

This book lacks a title page or a title — quite possibly issued that way, as several other similar books of cries apparently were.  Based on the contents, one bibliography by Karen F. Beall assigns the descriptive title “Neapolitan Street Cries.”1  Within the unprepossessing covers is a set of beautifully-rendered, hand-colored lithographs of an array of street vendors, most crying their wares in mid-nineteenth-century Naples. These provide a window into a past world of activities quite remote to us today. Adding to the book’s interest is a noteworthy, if somewhat puzzling, inscription by the renowned English Victorian artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Hey, Mr Tambourine Man… Tambourine seller with his wares balanced on his head

This book is essentially a bound collection of illustrated plates; the only “text” is an Italian-language caption below each illustration identifying the street vendor.  For instance, the “mystery” illustration of the man with the elaborate headgear featured at the head of this blog posting is a tambourine seller, shown with a range of tambourines somehow balanced on his head and captioned “Tamburraro.”  A reader has penciled in an English-language version of the title — “dealer in tambourines” — as has been done on most other illustrations in the book.  Was someone practicing their Italian, or (I think more likely) making the captions comprehensible to a non-Italian reader?

Several of the other hand-colored lithographs feature gravity-defying collections of objects balanced on vendors’ heads.  Take a look at the watermelon seller and the glass carafe vendor.

Glass Carafe Vendor

Watermelon Seller










Despite the wealth of apparently naturalistic detail, I have to think that art has enhanced life in these depictions.

The depictions of the Neapolitan vendors combine both men and women, a reflection of life at the time. Among the women are an egg merchant and a seat caner, the latter conducting her work not in a shop but right there in the street.  She has made herself comfortable for working by taking her shoes off; or perhaps that’s to aid in her work?

Egg Merchant, with her live supplier of eggs close at hand.

Caning seats with a supply of reeds readily at hand.










In an era of farmer’s markets and street fairs, we tend think of people selling actual products when we think of street vendors.  But nineteenth-century street vendors provided services as well as products, as some of these illustrations remind us.

Suppose you were a tourist, just having arrived in Naples.  How would you buy things?  What sort of currency would you use, and where would you get it?  Probably from a local money changer like the one illustrated, who is depicted with a stern seriousness, or perhaps just with extreme concentration, as she counts out coins from one of the moneybags on her street-side desk.  (The illustrator has gone beyond the purely representational and captured something of the role of a money changer at the time, and perhaps something about the inspiration’s own personality in his depiction, at least to me — a testament to skill and insight.)

“Cambio Monete” – a stern-looking money changer.

“Il Segretario” — a public scribe at work at a street-side office.










Likewise, the depiction of the public scribe in the midst of scrivening seems to capture something of the essence of the man at work, as he pauses in the middle of writing, perhaps somewhat absentmindedly, or perhaps in response to a client just out of view?  His expression, slightly grizzled face, and clothing — nineteenth-century business attire, but well worn, bordering on threadbare — all suggest a man who has seen better days.

Neapolitan sorbet seller

These days, it may be a little hard to imagine why anyone would be performing such a role in the first place.  But at a time when many people were illiterate, some literate but unable to write out a clear business letter or other grammatical, well-composed communication, and professionally-written letters in a clear hand were  needed for various reasons, professional scribes filled an important need.

Other characters depicted remind us of the pleasurable and entertainment aspects of Naples street vendors and performers. A sorbet seller — certainly not the friendliest-looking of the characters depicted! — holds up one his tiny cups of sorbet, apparently made for being enjoying while walking along the street. His other hand holds the ladle for the sorbet, placed within what looks like an ice-packed cooler. Next to him is a basket with a lot of little paper cups — apparently, he’s expecting good business!

Street theater featuring Pulcinella.

Although the “Pulcinella” street theater actor’s depiction looks a little less than comical, at least to my eye, Pulcinella was a much-loved stock character in Neapolitan puppetry.  The baggy white outfit, conical hat, and mask were all part of his standard appearance, as was some sort of a stick or cudgel, a horn-like version which he seems to be wielding here.

He’s related to the character of Punch in English Punch and Judy puppet shows, which were tremendously popular street theater in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England.  Pulcinella, like Punch, had aspects of the “all-licensed fool,” who could say and do outrageous things with impunity that members of the audience could not.  He would have been a fixture in Naples streets whenever street theater and street vendors were at work, and where shoppers or tourists were passing by.  A reader has captioned this illustration as “Punch & Judy,” an annotation that is not really accurate but quite understandable — and possibly a way of of contextualizing Pulcinella for an English reader?

The beautifully-rendered lithographed illustrations and the lost world they depict are reason enough, I think, to find this book interesting. Further interest — and at least one more question — is added by Rossetti’s gift inscription to his sister Maria on the book’s front free endpaper.  (The poet, Christina Rossetti was another, more famous, sister, whose work included children’s poetry.)

Inscribed: Dante C.G. Rossetti / to his sister Maria. 1837 1841.

Born in 1828, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a major Victorian artist, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, in 1848.  At the time of this inscription (either 1837 or 1841), Rossetti would still have been a school-boy. His father was Italian, and his mother was the English daughter of an Italian exile, so a childhood interest in Italy — and books about Italy — is no surprise.  But was is perplexing is why Rossetti changed the date of his gift inscription.  Did he first get the date wrong?  Unlikely, even for an otherworldly character such as Rossetti. Did he inscribe the book in 1837 and somehow forget to give it to his sister then?  Again, unlikely.  Did he write his name in his own book in 1837 and then decide to give it to Maria in 1841, inserting a gift inscription line and changing the date?  Possibly, but the ink and hand look remarkably the consistent throughout.  Or did Rossetti decide to give the book to Maria a second time in 1841 for some reason, and simply update the gift inscription?  That may be the most plausible explanation, as unusual as it sounds.  Perhaps there’s some other, better explanation, which has something to do with the relationship between Rossetti and his sister and their personal libraries?  Something to investigate, but for now, a puzzle of sorts about Cotsen’s unusual copy of this interesting title.

  1. Karen F. Beall, Kaufrufe und Straßenhändler: Eine Bibliographie  / Cries and Itinerant Trades: A Bibliography: Hauswedell & Co., Hamburg (p.346).

A Very Rare Book, or, “Paint the Picture and Tear it out of the Book”

What’s a “rare book”?

Cover of the first edition of Harry Potter (Cotsen 36550).  Note the British version of the title.

That’s a question that’s often asked of people who work with rare books and special collections. Publications like the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio come to mind (although some might argue that the First Folio isn’t all that “rare” in rare-book terms, since some 234 copies are known to remain in existence to this day (out of an initial print run variously estimated between 750 and 1200 copies).

What about rare children’s books?  A first edition of Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, signed by the author, might come to mind.  Or a signed copy of the very first 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland (properly titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), withdrawn from circulation after some 48 copies had been given away, mostly by Lewis Carroll, because of John Tenniel’s dissatisfaction with the printing of the illustrations.  Only a handful of copies remain in existence today.  How about the very first edition of a Harry Potter book — titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when first issued in England — printed for a then-unknown writer named J.K. Rowling in an initial issue of some 300 copies, most donated to libraries to see if young readers liked the book.  (You know the answer to that question!)  Cotsen Library has copies of all these books, by the way — a real testament to the breadth of the collection!

So, not all “rare” books are old; not all are elaborately printed, bound, or illustrated; and not all are even meant for adults.  It’s also with pointing out that not all “rare” titles  are household names today or written by famous authors; some aren’t even “books” at all in the technical sense of the term.  Many of the rarest items in Cotsen’s collection are books almost nobody remembers now, or books published anonymously; who would want to go out of their way to treasure, read, or even keep things like that?  (Apart from a rare book library, or course!).  How many people today are clamoring to own, or even read, books like Bertha’s Visit to her Uncle in England, Frank Netherton, Nedra, or Elsie Dinsmore?  How many people have even heard of them?  Not me, I have to admit, until I found them in the the library catalog.  Yet those books once had their day and were read by children.

The History of Thomas Thumb, 1797 (Cotsen 1346). Upper cover of a chapbook-style children’s book with “self wrappers.”

Many now-rare children’s books are cheap ephemeral publications, such as chapbooks or pamphlet books, issued without bindings in the usual sense of the term, sometimes in colored-paper wrappers or even using using their own first and last pages as wrappers of sorts for the reading matter continued inside.  They were inexpensive  (often costing only a penny or two apiece), cheaply constructed, and reading matter that people often seem to have read and discarded, or literally read to death and then tossed away.  A book costing a penny is a lot less likely to have been regarded as important to hold onto and preserve than was a book costing, say, $1, £1, or $10, a purchase sometimes representing a decent chunk of a buyer’s disposable cash. But they filled an important niche for readers.

In terms of other types of children’s books that can often be rare today, some were issued in connection with a particular event — an Arctic expedition or Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, for instance.  Once the resonance of the event faded, a publication that it prompted might well seem like yesterday’s news, and who wants yesterday’s papers?  And some children’s books might well entail marking up, painting in, or even cutting apart the illustrations or the pages themselves to make paper toys or pictures to hang on the wall by a happy parent or even to mail in to a contest. Such books become literally “self-consuming artifacts” in the process of being read or used by children.

Upper wrapper of the Victoria Painting Book [ca. 1897?]. (Cotsen 30251)

A case-in-point is the Victoria Painting Book, issued in connection with a 1897 painting contest for British children, but lacking a publication date, author or illustrator name, or even any indication of the publisher.  This book fulfills a number of the “criteria” for rarity outlined above, and a quick search online suggests that Cotsen’s copy may be the only one to be found in a library now. (Not to be confused with Cassell’s 1897 Victoria Painting Book for Little Folks!)

The blatantly patriotic — and brightly chromolithographed — cover of the book depicts a Boer War veteran having returned home, his helmet tossed on the ground, and his daughter sitting on his lap reading to him, with his sailor-suited son standing next to them, holding a large Union Jack.  One facing pair of illustrations inside the book — captioned “Home Again” — depicts the happy moment of the veteran’s homecoming to his family.  (The girl’s abruptly-dropped doll hitting the floor and the child’s drawing hanging on the wall add a couple of nice touches to the family reunion, which a great many families did not get to savor, due to heavy casualties in the Boer War’s protracted fighting.)

“Returning Home”: Chromolithograph and facing illustration to paint.

But most of the subject matter in the book — combining facing chromolithographs and uncolored versions to paint with alphabet rhymes — is not about patriotism or warfare, but about sick or injured children and the Victoria Hospital for Children, which the book was printed to benefit, as noted on the foot of the cover.

“Street Accident”: A child hit by a carriage is rescued by a friendly-looking London copper, while a crowd (comprised of mostly children) looks on.

“Morning Round”: A friendly-looking nurse in the Children’s Hospital attends to a smiling child, who is also surrounded by flowers and toys.

Accordingly, most of the illustrations depict injured children (with a sentimentality that would have made Dickens proud) or children in the hospital, injured or sick to be sure, but looking surprisingly happy against the backdrop of a very, very neat and tidy, altogether impressive-looking hospital with caring nurses.  “The stately old home … is now a children’s hospital: the rooms are full of cots, each with its tiny sick child, and up and down go the nurses, busy with their work… It takes a lot of money to build such a hospital” (in the words of the accompanying two-page “Victoria Hospital Story” in the book). Who wouldn’t be moved to buy a book or donate money to support such a wonderful, caring institution for children?

“Paint the picture … and tear it out of the book…”

The Victoria Painting Book was issued so that its sales proceeds might benefit the children’s hospital.  The text of the book itself also asks child-readers to raise money themselves (“If each child who reads this book would collect twelve pennies towards it, that would go some way to pay for bricks and stones and mortar”).  As if that’s not enough fund-raising inspiration, the book also advertises a painting competition on several pages inside, whereby children are solicited to “tear out” and mail in a completed version of the Prize Competition Picture from the book (a Christmas scene at the end), along with ten shillings (presumably in cash), in hopes of winning £5, 2£, or 1£ prizes.  I have to wonder how many books were discarded after the picture and required entry form pages were torn out, the book perhaps fell apart as a result, and other pictures were colored in.  Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s so rare now?

Prize Competition Picture: Chromolithographed model illustration for contestants to copy with their painting.

Multiple contest entries are explicitly encouraged, with a “special prize” (unspecified) to be awarded to the “competitor who sends in the largest number of paintings for competition” — buying multiple copies of the book in the process!  Perhaps it’s the cynicism of our time, but this sort of thing reminds me a bit of Soupy Sales crossed with the old Chicago political machine (“Mail in those green bills in Daddy’s wallet and Mommy’s purse to Uncle Soupy,” and “Vote early, and often!”).   As if anticipating such a jaundiced view of their charity efforts, the two-page Painting Competition rules and instructions has the heading: “Please remember that although you may not win a prize, you have done a good action in helping the hospital by competing.” The rules do specify that the “names of prize winners” will be published in “The Gentlewoman,” “The Queen” and the “Morning Post,” but I haven’t yet been able to verify that tidbit of information, or the names of the lucky winners.

The rules pages also list the mailing  address for ordering additional copies of the book and its price: 1 shilling — placing the book in the same general price-range as chromolithographed “toy books” of the time, which usually had fewer pages than the twenty-four-leaf Painting Book, though.  (The mailing address — the Hospital’s — suggests that this book may not have been sold via traditional children’s booksellers.)

“Added value” in the Painting Book is provided by four pages of illustrated, sepia-toned alphabet rhymes, customized for this book.

First two pages of facing alphabet rhymes in the Victoria Painting Book

One of my favorite pair of rhymes is: F is for “funds, alas, almost nil; / Will nobody help us to fill up the till?” and “G is the gold we should like to see poured / In nice shining heaps, on the Hospital board.”

“M is for our Matron… N speaks for the Nurses… O, the Out-patients, who throng to the door… P the patients, who each had a bed…

Note how the alphabet rhyme finesse the letters W, X,Y, Z — always-troublesome in terms of illustrative words and illustrations!  Also worth noting is the number of children the rhymes specify as having been served by the Hospital over a period of some thirty years, — thirty thousand patients and a million outpatients — a staggering total, and numbers echoing those in the prose narrative “History.”  Were these numbers meant to impress child-readers and be remembered by them, were they meant for their parents or other adults, or were they included by a harried copywriter just to fill out the rhymes?

Railway ABC, Warne, 1890. (Cotsen 30407)

The Victoria Painting Book is an unusual publication in lacking any information whatsoever about the date, publisher, or printer.  Early books for children sometimes lacked this information, but by the nineteenth century, publishers realized this was a valuable source of advertising — and also protection of intellectual property.  We can infer an initial publication date of about 1897 from the context of the contest.

But who was the publisher?  I think it’s almost certainly Frederick Warne & Co.  The Cotsen copy came into the collection along with a batch of books from the Warne Archive publisher’s archive copies. (But publishers did keep tabs on competitors and prior publishers; the Warne publisher’s archive contained some Routledge books, for instance, which also came into the Cotsen collection.)

The Victoria Painting Book looks a lot like many other Warne publications of the time, for instance the circa 1890 Railway ABC toy book (Cotsen 30407).  Compare the  chromolithographed upper wrappers of the two publications.  Apart from the strongly patriotic motif (admittedly, not Warne’s exclusive province), the overall layout, cover design, and use of color seems “typically Warne.”  Perhaps more importantly, several contemporary serial publications listing books in print include the Victoria Painting Book under Warne publications — and specify that the title is indeed the one issued to benefit the Victoria Hospital, thus eliminating possible ambiguities about similarly titled books.  (These publications include “The Publisher’s Circular” from 1904 and “British Books in Print” from 1906.)

Victoria Children’s Hospital as depicted on lower wrapper of the Painting Book.

The fact that the Victoria Painting Book was still in print — and presumably available for purchase — in 1904 and 1906 raises questions about just how popular the title was  (unless of course my date attribution of ca. 1897 is off).

Were copies of the book unsold and the title still “in print” over five years later?  Or was it so popular that the book was reprinted again, possibly with Warne’s imprint?  Lacking other copies to compare to Cotsen’s copy or further “books in print” information, I can’t answer those questions now.  All I can say with relative certainly is that the Victoria Painting Book is one very, very rare book now, and one whose illustrations and overall design present a fascinating window into not only children’s book production in this era, but also the look of high Victorian life.

Victoria Painting Book: High Victorian fashion as exemplified by the Hospital’s benefactors.