A Very Rare Activity Book Designed to Self-destruct: “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 people who work with rare books and special collections hear all the time.  Shakespeare’s The First Folio come to mind, although it’s not all that “rare” since some 234 copies are known to remain in existence out of an initial print run variously estimated between 750 and 1200 copies..

What about rare children’s books?  A  signed copy of the very first 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland, withdrawn from circulation after some 48 copies had been given away, mostly by Lewis Carroll, because John Tenniel’ was dissatisfied with the printing of the illustrations.  How about the very first edition of a Harry Potter book?  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by a then-unknown writer named J.K. Rowling had 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!)

So, not all “rare” books are old; not all are elaborately printed, bound, or illustrated. It’s also with pointing out that not all “rare” titles  were 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 anyone would want to go out of their way to treasure, read, or even keep. (Apart from a rare book library, or course!).  How many people today are clamoring for books like Bertha’s Visit to her Uncle in England, Frank Netherton, 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 ephemeral publications, such as chapbooks, pamphlets issued without bindings in the usual sense of the term, sometimes in colored-paper wrappers.  They cost only a penny or two, were cheaply constructed, and either discarded after reading or literally read to death and then tossed away. Other types of ephemeral children’s books 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?  Activity books–ones that entail marking up, painting in, or cutting apart the illustrations or the pages themselves to make things 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.

Illustrating Summertime in Children’s Books

Little Tot's Holiday Book (Warne: not before 1881) Cotsen 30357

Little Tot’s Holiday Book (Warne & Co.: ca. 1881) Cotsen 30357.

As the days of summer dwindle into a precious few, the long days of sunshine slowly get shorter, and a new school term impends, we all tend to wonder: “Where did the summer go?”

With that thought in mind, we might help keep summer alive a little longer by taking a look at how children’s book illustrators picture summer and its activities.

It certainly didn’t take children’s books to make school kids (and the rest of us) love the prospect of having time off from school and being able to enjoy all the activities available for a few precious months a year. But nineteenth-century books for children certainly stressed summertime fun and vividly pictured outdoor activities, some relatively ‘novel’ ones at the time, such as beach holidays at newly-popular (and accessible) ocean-side resorts. As such, they provide a terrific window onto life and leisure-time activities at the time.


Children at the shore (detail from Little Tot’s Holiday Book).

Frederick Warne & Co., one of the major nineteenth-century publishers of children’s books readily added “holiday” books picturing seasonal and summertime fun to its line of books. The large format (over 12″ tall) picture book Little Tot’s Holiday Book features vivid, full-page chromolithographed illustrations of children in all sorts of holiday activities (including some in winter). The bright red cloth front cover features a paper onlay of two Victorian children at a seaside locale. Note their fashionable, but modest, attire, fairly typical for the time.

“A Holiday at the Seaside.”

One of the illustrations inside the book shows children happily engaged in a range of contemporary seaside activities: playing on the beach and making sandcastles, taking donkey rides, and riding in a goat cart. I like the background detail of “On the Sands,” which shows a Brighton-like pleasure pier, one of the “novel” aspects of Victorian seaside resorts.


“Off to the Seashore”…via train.

Another full-page illustration features a train. While trains were always popular with children, particularly boys, why does a train appear in a holiday book? The answer lies in the caption: “off to the seashore.” Trains were a relatively novel form of transportation at this time, and one of the ways that middle-class and more prosperous working-class families went to the seashore in the 1880s.


Little Tot’s Holiday Book, alternate cover – Cotsen 30357 (c.2)

Little Tot’s Holiday was apparently a popular title, because Warne issued another version of the same title, with identical content, but a different cover, one showing a very different kind of summertime activity. Again, two fashionable and apparently affluent children (similar to the book’s target audience) are featured, but this time they’re presented in a rural setting, getting donkey rides from a young adult from the country (note, his mustache and “rural” attire).

Warne’s picture books repeatedly show children at the seaside, attesting to the popularity of the subject.  Another large-format picture book, Little Tots Playtime Book includes an illustration of a girl on a donkey, a sailor-suited boy, and the family dog on the beach, with sailboats in the background and a nearby patriotic Union Jack, which breaks the perfect (“boring”?) symmetry of the rectangular frame and creates visual interest via a technique sometimes used by painters.

At the seashore again… (Little Tots Playtime Book, ca. 1881) Cotsen 30359


Cover of Little Tots Playtime Book

The general design of the Playtime Book’s cloth cover is essentially the same as that of the Holiday Book (perhaps this was Warne’s stock design for these picture books?), but the inset chromolithographed medallion provides quite a different, more formal and stylized, view of little women in summertime — a somewhat Kate “Greenawayesque” presentation.

Cover of Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, (Routledge & Co., ca. 1899) Cotsen 5633

Speaking of Kate Greenaway (whose presentations of children are famous), let’s take a quick look at how she pictures summer in Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, issued by by George Routledge & Sons in 1889 (and later reissued by Warne in 1899). The cover shows a vignette of children on a rustic teeter-totter. The twenty-four colored wood-engraved illustrations by Edmund Evans show children in Greenaway distinctive style: extremely well-dressed, fashionable, and not very kinetic. The two illustrations below present several girls in caps playing “Battledore & Shuttlecock” (“badminton” to us now) and “Puss in the Corner,” both accompanied by brief descriptions of the games.

greenaway 1

“Battledore & Shuttlecock”

grrenaway 2

“Puss in the Corner”







I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that summertime and beaches are featured only in English books for children — that was definitely not the case! For instance, a German book, In Sommer, from about 1900 features a terrific, highly-saturated color depiction of children playing on the beach on its cover. And illustrations inside the book show children busily involved in other summer activities: flying kites, picking flowers, and making quite a fuss over an apple!


In Sommer: quite a fuss about an apple in the woods on a bright summer day


In Sommer: Children and their kites, including the “Man-in-the Moon” and giant clown face


Children on the beach: cover of In Sommer, ([Germany? ca. 1900]) Cotsen 52215









Another terrific book cover appears on Johnny Headstrong’s Trip to Coney Island, published about 1882 by New York’s McLoughlin Brothers, perhaps the preeminent children’s books publisher in the USA at the time. In the 1880s, Coney Island was a seaside resort for residents of New York City and Brooklyn Heights, a place reached by train and with the same sort of summery, festive ambience as Cape May or Cape Cod, if you can imagine that. The chromolithographed cover of this “toybook” presents an idyllic beach scene via illustrator William Bruton’s artwork, although something in Johnny’s own facial expression suggests another strand in the thread of the story…


Johnny Headstong’s Trip to Coney Island (McLoughlin Bros, ca. 1882) Cotsen 540

page 1

Johnny arrives at Coney Island with his family (note the masted sailing ships in the background)

Johnny Headstong’s story begins in much the same way as the other summertime books we’ve been looking at – a fashionable youth sets out for the Coney Island seaside resort accompanied by his sister, nanny, and father, a “kindly man of good repute…and wealth.”

But as his name suggests, Johnny is impulsive and lacking in self-discipline — he gets into all sorts of trouble… He climbs over the railing while sailing a toy sailboat, falls into a pool, and has to be fished out. He then “slips away” from the adults “to see things by himself.” More trouble ensues in the form of various misadventures, as Johnny hits another boy in the face with a ball, falls off a swing he pushed too high, and finds himself on a runaway donkey, causing mayhem on the beach and knocking over an apple-seller (as Bruton’s double-page illustration vividly shows). Eventually, covered in bandages, Johnny winds up back home, where his father admonishes: “You see what comes to heedless boys, whene’er they disobey.”


Bruton’s double-page illustration of Johnny Headstrong on the pony causing mayhem

So McLoughlin’s Brothers’ rendition of this “summertime story” is really one of the “cautionary tales” inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter for which the firm was famous: stories showing kids “acting badly” and suffering the consequences. Some of their other classics in this vein have titles like: Little Suck-a-Thumb, Naughty Girls, Lazy Sam, Inky Jake, Foolish Fanny, Paulina Pry, and Moping Mary. After all, “to please and instruct” was the company motto, even during summer vacation!

Enjoy more summer at the virtual exhibition on swimming!