Dutch Dolls and Their Dangerous Lives in Picture Books

In the nineteenth century, French dolls in picture books were frequently subjected to harsh discipline at the hands of their not-so-loving owners.  In one extremely vivid illustration, the girl pulls up the doll’s petticoats and skirts over its neatly coiffed head and savagely whips its naked wooden bottom while her brother watches.

English dolls were not treated much better, especially if they happened to be Dutch [i.e. “Deutsch”] dolls.   By “Dutch dolls,” I don’t mean so-called character dolls, or figures dressed up in national costumes.   That kind of Dutch doll complete with clogs are readily available for sale on E-Bay or Etsy.   What I’m referring to are the cheap wooden joined dolls that used to be quite common in the nursery.  These curious objects, as often as not drawn undressed with their private parts exposed, seem to have brought out the latent sadistic impulses of authors and illustrators to a rather alarming degree.

Let’s take a look at one of the delightful cat books illustrated by Nicola Bayley, Fun with Mrs. Thumb by Jan Mark.  It’s obvious from the opening lines of Mark’s poem that Mrs.Thumb must be a doll living in a doll’s house, but the kind of doll is not specified.  It would be interesting to know whose idea it was to make Mrs. Thumb a Dutch doll– the author’s or the illustrator’s.

The narrator-cat eases up to the doll’s house to wreak havoc, or what it disingenuously calls playing with Mrs. Thumb.  It meows, ” Mrs. Thumb, / Mrs. Thumb! / Leave your chair / and cross the room. /Let me into / your house. / I will not eat you / –promise! / I am full of milk / and mouse.”

The Dutch doll’s expression is blank, but she knows the cat is up to no good when he tries to lure her out of her hiding place: “See what I have / brought today: / my lovely fur, / my lovely purr, / my lovely paws, / full of claws.”   Her options for eluding the monstrous velveteen paw are limited at best.

What if Mrs. Thumb were a mouse?  I would bet a bag of Greenies that Jan Mark’s poem would never have been published, because of the objections to exposing young children to pictures of a cat playing with its prey.  But because the cat is torturing an antique Dutch doll, which can’t feel anything, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh at the poor toy.  What if a Barbie doll were substituted in the illustrations?  Would our reactions to the story have been the same?

The poor defenseless Dutch doll has been subject to a lot worse in children’s picture books than being given a tumble by a cat waiting for someone to open a can of tuna for dinner.   I’d like to reassure you that the systematic mistreatment of Dutch dolls is symptomatic of our time’s coarsened sensibilities, but it was omnipresent in Edwardian picture books.  I decided against reproducing a photographic illustration of a car crash staged with Dutch dolls and chose instead a rather anodyne version of this favorite subject from the Uptons’ first book in the Golliwogg series.  It is bad enough.  The vehicle has no seat belts for its numerous passengers.  There are so many dolls crowded into the back that one of the tiniest of them has fallen into the road, with another one poised to topple over after her.  The driver seems blissfully unaware that an accident has taken place.  It’s impossible to say if it was because she had to concentrate on steering the contraption with the horse’s bridle or if she was listening to the doll behind her who seems to be urging her to speed up.

Perhaps the worst of the lot is The Book of the Little Dutch Dolls.   Don’t be fooled by the adorable title page vignette.  It’s a sinister foreshadowing of what follows–the cheerful Dutch dollies doing violence to their bodies, removing bits and pieces for the sheer fun of it. 

How jolly this all must have been once upon a time before our consciences were raised…  Now it’s a little hard to look at picture books featuring Dutch dolls without feeling somewhat guilty, conflicted and even a little queasy.  There’s probably an article here…

Interpreting and Reinterpreting Mikhail Ilin’s How the Automobile Learned to Run in Pictures

1931 edition, front wrapper, Cotsen in process

While processing a new group of early Soviet children’s books, I came across two editions of Mikhail Il’in’s Kak Avtomobilʹ Uchilsi︠a︡ Khoditʹ. The second edition, pictured above, was published in 1931 by Molodai︠a︡ Gvardii︠a︡, an imprint of the State publishing monopoly OGIZ (unfortunately we do not have the first edition, published in 1930). The third edition, pictured below, was published in 1934 by another OGIZ imprint: Detskoi Literatury.

1934 edition, front wrapper, Cotsen in process

Mikhail Il’in isn’t a household name for a variety of obvious reasons. Though many of our readers weren’t raised on Soviet picture books in the 30’s, Il’in’s other name might ring a bell: Il’ia Marshak. Il’ia Marshak was the younger brother of the perhaps better known Samuil Marshak; another early writer of Soviet children’s literature. Mikhail Il’in is the pseudonym that Il’ia Marshak used when engaging with scientific and technical subjects meant for his young readers.

Kak Avtomobilʹ Uchilsi︠a︡ Khoditʹ translates to How the automobile learned to run. Crammed full of factual information, this book is about the history of the automobile, from the earliest propelled steam engine to the present day.

But at this point you might be wondering: “Say Ian, I know you don’t speak any Russian (you’ve told us already here and here), so how do you know what this book is about?”.

Well lucky for all of us, while processing this new material I came across a book we already had in the collection: How the Automobile Learned to Run (New York: International Publishers, 1945); a later American translation of this Soviet classic.

Miraculously International Publishers (which specialized in publishing and translating Soviet, Marxist, and Leftist material) managed to produce books during the height of the Red Scare and make it through a Dies Committee hearing.

Front board (ex-library copy), Cotsen 51732

While all three editions deal with the same subject, each book was executed by a different illustrator.

The 1931 edition was illustrated by Natalii︠a︡ Lapshina, who choose to use mostly photo illustrations for the sake of realism:

1931 edition, Spread [2-3]

1931 edition, page 5

The 1934 edition, was illustrated by V. Tambi, who choose to create simple monochrome illustrations:

1934 edition, page [3]

1934 edition, page [21]

1934 edition, Spread 4-5

The International Publishers edition was illustrated by Herbert Kruckman, using more color and a lot more space. Although this edition is attributed to Il’in, a substantial amount of material was added in order to make the book current for 1945 and speak to an American public. But perhaps for obvious reasons, our translator and writer is never attributed:

Each book begins with this introduction about Cugnot’s “Fire cart”, the Grandmother (Babushka) of both the automobile and locomotive. Page [2], Cotsen 51732

Cugnot’s “Fire cart” Page [1], Cotsen 51732

Spread [23-24], Cotsen 51732

Though each illustrator has a distinct style, they all seem to enjoy illustrating one scene in particular: a very explosive episode in 1834 that we might describe as the first major car accident:

Page [7], Cotsen 51732

1934 edition, vignette page 9

1931 edition, page 9

Page [8], Cotsen 51732

Not only do our three illustrators seem to gleefully enjoy this image (Lapshin even drew it twice), but the authors point out that the “picture of the accident” was “printed in all the newspapers”. Although the popularity of this original image might be because of its cautionary power, as our authors contend, we might suppose that folks in 1834 enjoyed a good head rolling as much as the rest of us.

After some web perusing, I managed to find what might be the original image (unfortunately I couldn’t pin down a source). You can judge for yourself about the moralistic virtues of this image appearing in all the newspapers of the time. . .

More cars here…

The Perils of Steam-Coaches