Pussy Plans Her Wedding: Product Placement in Victorian Toy Books

Weddings of animals have been solemnized in picture books since the mid-nineteenth century, even though it can be difficult to draw the bride or groom in their finery when they have tails, wings, or more than two legs.  The toy-book Pussey’s Wedding (and yes, that is the correct spelling)  has plenty of amusing illustrations of well-dressed toms and tabbies by Percy Cruikshank, the nephew of George.  What makes this particular title interesting is the way the very slender story was used by its down market publisher Read, Brooks & Co. to shamelessly promote London retail emporiums.

The product placement begins on the cover illustration, which shows Miss Tortoiseshell whipping up a dresser runner on the new Singer sewing machine she received as a gift.  Apparently the interior decorators Rose, Wood & Co. mentioned in line four cannot be trusted entirely to make the newly weds’ villa a home!  (I wasn’t able to determine if Rose, Wood & Co was a London general furnishing company, but it may have been, even with that generic name.)  Read, Brooks & Co. reinforced the notion that no young wife should be without a sewing machine by running additional advertisements on the front endpaper for not one, but two other brands of the machine, neither of them Singer.

Above the advertisements for the sewing machines are two others for Read, Brooks & Co: one as a general printer,  the other as a publisher of toy books printed in color, which were also available in untearable editions.  Next to the advertisement for the Monarch sewing machine is one for “pretty little clocks” to be had at Marriott & Co. at 386 Oxford Street.  Guess where  the groom Tom takes Miss Tortoiseshell to purchase a clock for the house and watch for her?  Surely salesmen didn’t show customers merchandise on the street in front of the display windows, but I suppose the brave show of different clocks, none higher than 4/6, suggests why Marriott’s was Tom’s first stop.Then there was the all-important matter of the fabrics for the wedding gown… The cats’ destination?  Peter Robinson’s Silks on Oxford Street, of course.   I don’t think Tom or Miss Tortoiseshell appears in the scene below, although it is possible that their visit to Robinson’s was on another day when they wore different outfits.   The white cat in yellow talking to the salesman is leaning against the counter in front of all the bolts of silk for wedding gowns are stacked, awaiting inspection by discerning ladies who must have every detail right.   Like Marriott’s, Peter Robinson Silks was a real shop on Oxford Street.Does Pussey’s Wedding  reflect the values of a particular moment in the history of nineteenth-century consumption?   Even with all the clues scattered in the book, it’s a question without a neat and clear answer.

Parameters for the publication date can be established.  Read, Brooks & Co. are known to have been trading at 25 and 26 New Street near Cloth Fair in West Smithfield between 1877 and 1885. Other tidbits of information suggest this toy book might have been first issued earlier than that.  References to Peter Robinson’s Silks turn up as early as 1866 and by 1874 the business was sufficiently well-established so that a reference in a satirical piece in Belgravia Magazine could serve as an indication of a young Marchioness’s extravagance.

This, and the information that Singer sewing machines had been manufactured in the United Kingdom only since 1867, could push the publication date back to the early 1870s, but that doesn’t square with the dates of Percy Cruikshank’s activities.  Old information floating around the web has him working as an an illustrator and wood engraver between 1840 and 1860.  Percy isn’t sufficiently  important to get an article in Grove’s Artists or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  but Robert Patten’s authoritative biography of George Cruikshank has a telling anecdote about him and his uncle.   In 1868, the  irascible old man tangled with Percy’s publisher over some toy books of fairy tales whose illustrations credited to just plain “Cruikshank,” which was not, strictly speaking, a lie.   They were the work of a Cruikshank, just not the really famous one.   Patten doesn’t identify the precise titles, but the advertisements above for the Grandmama Goodsoul series and the front wrapper of Pussey’s Wedding credit the illustrator just as he stated.

Only additional research can resolve the quandary authoritatively.  Perhaps Percy executed the illustrations in the late 1860s, when the shops on Oxford Street were becoming a destination for fashionable consumers. Another possibility is that Cotsen’s copy of Pussey’s Wedding is not an early issue, but a later one, something which could be determined by more detective work about the businesses of the  advertisers who appear  on the endpapers and rear wrapper. It makes sense that  Read, Brooks & Co might have reprinted individual titles of Grandmama Goodsoul’s series as called for and found new advertisers as appropriate.

This doesn’t clarify Read, Brooks & Co.’s motive was for promoting businesses on Oxford Street, when its premises in West Smithfield were a good two miles east of Oxford Street.  It’s unclear how this would have benefited a publisher in a less posh neighborhood.  Perhaps Reads, Brooks and Co. was trying to play the marketer of dreams for the little girl reader, who wanted to fantasize about her wedding and project upon the unknown Prince Charming a willingness to grant her every desire and cater to any whim that would allow her to appear before her friends and family as a stunningly beautiful and fashionable bride…

Books and “Fancy Articles” for Sale at Richard Miller’s in Old Fish Street, London

An engraver by trade, Richard Miller was also a publisher and the proprietor of a “juvenile library” (aka a children’s book store) at 24 Old Fish Street in early nineteenth century London.   His shop was quite close to the church of St. Mary Magdalen, shown in the engraving to the left, and south and east of Paul’s Church Yard, long a center of book trade activity. Miller was pretty small fry compared to John Harris, successor to the Newberys and a major publisher in his own right, or the Darton firm, with two bustling businesses at two locations in the city.   By the 1820s, the children’s book market had grown so large that there was plenty of room for miultiple shops catering to customers with different tastes and values.

Miller engraved attractive sets of illustrated cards  that were sold for school and Sunday school rewards.  The same sets of sheets were also sold bound as neat little volumes in marbled paper with colored roan spines.  The bound volumes seem to have survived at a higher rate than the cards and certain titles still turn up fairly often on the antiquarian book market.

Cotsen has seven Miller publications and they were probably published in the 1820s (he did not date his title pages as a rule).  There are four little books of engraved plates: The History of Birds, The History of Goody Two Shoes, Pastimes or Amusements for a Girl, and Twenty-Six Poetical Extracts. In the collection of educational cards there’s the Miller Pence Table in forty-eight hand-colored engraved illustrated cards.  The 126-page The Panorama of the World, or An Enquiry into the Manners and Customs of the Principal Foreign Inhabitants of the Globe, illustrated with nine hand-colored engraved plates, is the only proper book in the group.

That leaves Military Heroes That Have Distinguished Themselves During the Late Wars (that is, the Napoleonic wars)  I like it less for the fourteen hand-colored engraved equestrian portraits of great generals like Alexander the Great, Prince Blucher, and the Duke of Wellington, than for the twelve-page catalog of “Books and Fancy Articles” at the end.  In the catalog this book listed under the title “Memoirs of Military Heroes.”  With plain engravings, Military Heroes  cost a shilling and with colored plates (which Cotsen’s copy has) two shillings.  The portraits could also be purchased individually on superfine paper for two pence  or as a set for two shillings.  It was a fair price for such a things then, but not cheap.

Cotsen 35443.

Cotsen 35443.

Overall there are plenty of indications in the catalog that Miller was more than a very clever packager of his own content.  The opening below offers a delicious selection of novelty parlor games and educational flash cards.  The packs of conversation cards include one called “Pop the Question,” which probably had nothing to do with the conclusion of a courtship.  But maybe not, given the close proxmity to The Ladder of Matrimony  and The Map of Matrimony.  Obviously The Map  represents an imaginary place, like the “country of sighs.”   Still it was available as well as a jigsaw puzzle in a neat box as if it were something for teaching the geography of South America.  Prints had been sold for centuries for sticking on walls as decorations and Miller obliged with the series “Cottage Ornaments” or hand-colored prints for two pence on such edifying subjects as the drunken man or the death of the Earl of Rochester.  Certainly good enough for the parlour   The best of the “Fancy Articles” Miller sold has to be the “Satin Medallion Pincushions” for a shilling that feature  the portraits of the royal family and other famous people from Lord Nelson to worthy divines copied from the subjects on the preceding list of prints.  Do any survive in textile collections?This double-page spread offers more evidence that Miller didn’t rely completely on his own wares to stock his shelves.  He must have sold books by his competitors.  W. F. Sullivan was a school master who wrote many early examples of what would now be considered young adult novels.  He published with a variety of firms over the years, but none by Miller, as far as I can tell.  The roster of eighteenth-century classics like Gay’s Fables and Chesterfield’s Advice to His Son were probably also not Miller publications.  Tthe last title in that list is an edition of James Janeway’s Token for Children, one of the most famous and enduring of all seventeenth century juveniles.  It is not out of place here, because there are quite a few religious titles sprinkled throughout the catalogue.The last page in the catalogue features lots of old favorites–II see two different editions of Dick Whittington and Blue Beard, based on the George Colman dramatic remake.  What’s interesting even more interesting is the use of the term “picture book” to describe a work where the pictures dominate the words text.  It seems that the term must have been in wider use earlier than the OED entry suggests (there is appearances of the term between 1699 and 1847).

Nobody would claim that Richard Miller’s catalogue can compete with one from American Girl, Hearth Song, or any other modern company sells by mail or on the web.   Even though he lacked the technical resources to illustrate every item in his stock with color pictures, he managed with just words to make his merchandise look enticing enough for the  owner of Military Heroes to consider paying a call at the juvenile library on Old Fish Street.