More “Gigantick Histories” that “altered the concept of children’s books”

Dutch paper covers of four of Cotsen’s “Gigantick Histories,” showing the variations in the original paper used for different titles.

Thomas Boreman’s “Gigantick Histories” were landmark publications in the history of children’s books, as we saw last week. Beginning with the first tiny book — The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants, and Other Curiosities in Guildhall — Boreman developed a model for what would eventually comprise a series of ten separate volumes.

After the folk-tale rendition of the story of the giants Gogmagog and Corineus that occupies most of the Gigantick History, Boreman turned to the Guildhall and some of its “curiosities” at the end of the volume 1. His stated intent in verse:

The second book / will plainly show / all in the Guildhall / you want to know.

Boreman’s second printed volume — The Gigantick History, Volume the Second… the History of the Guildhall — discuses aspects of the Guildhall, such as the its chapel and statues outside the building. Boreman adopts a tour-guide style that would characterize most of the following “Gigantick Histories” But I wonder if the details of the Guildhall were as entertaining to young readers as the adventures of the two giants? As if anticipating this criticism, Boreman includes tidbits of history laced with folk-tales in his description, as well as Bible stories and a long description of the Lord Mayor’s Show, a crowd-pleasing public spectacle that would be featured in later children’s books, such as Dean & Munday’s mid-nineteenth century Lord Mayors Show [sic].

The Gigantick History… the History of the Guildhall: frontispiece and title page of Cotsen’s “Second Edition” copy (1741)

Cotsen’s copy is from “the second edition,” as noted on the title page, so the book must have been reasonably popular. The title page also mentions a second location where Boreman’s books are sold — The Boot and Crown on Ludgate Hill — perhaps another suggestion of popularity; an unsuccessful bookseller would be unlikely to have a second location (but is has been suggested that Boreman’s Ludgate Hill location may have predated his Guildhall bookstall¹). Ludgate was the heart of London printing and bookselling in the eighteenth century.

Boreman’s issue of a second edition of the History of the Guildhall might also reflect the very small size of the initial print run. Precise numbers of the print runs of the “Gigantick Histories” are unknown, but subscriber lists in the books themselves and later scholarship suggest printings of between 300 and 500 copies per volume, with the number increasing over the course of the series.²

Next up in Boreman’s “Gigantick Histories” appears to have been the two-volume Curiosities in the Tower of London (1741), which opens with a poem, which reads in part:

Too rigid precepts / often fail / Where short amusing / tales prevail. / The author, doubtless / aims aright, / Who joins instruction / with delight.

This verse may not scan perfectly, but the view underpinning it seems clear: children’s stories should combine instruction and delight if they hope to catch the attention of child readers. And Boreman seems to take his own counsel for the most part in these two books.

Curiosities in the Tower of London (1741): title and frontispiece.

While Volume 1 has a frontispiece of the “White Tower,” and Volume 2 features the Crown Jewels in its frontispiece, much of both volumes’ text and illustrations highlight something likely more appealing to children: animals.

“One of the strangest animals in the world”

Animals? Yes; the Tower housed a menagerie of exotic wild animals from some time in the 1200s until 1835. Among the animals there were lions, tigers, and leopards, all of which Boreman describes and illustrates with woodcuts. One of his more surprising inclusions (to me, at least) was a porcupine, which he described as “one of the strangest animals in the world” with quills “each a foot and a half long.” Boreman’s description and the woodcut of the porcupine he included both seem fanciful, but so too were some of the creatures described and pictured in his earlier titles, Description of Three Hundred Animals (1730) and Description of a Great Variety of Animals and Vegetables (1736), the latter touted in publisher’s advertisements at the end Volume 1 of St Paul’s.

History and Description of … St Paul’s: title page and frontispiece depicting the “new” cathedral

Also issued in 1741 was the two-volume History of St. Paul’s, whose two volumes include nineteen woodcuts, a relative extravaganza for Boreman. In addition to history and tour-guide details about the St. Paul’s — including the weight of its “famous” clock (four tons, four hundred and four pounds) and the number of stairs to the upper gallery (530)! — Boreman sprinkles in Bible stories and concludes with an “Account of the Monument of the Fire of London.”

“Old” St. Paul’s Cathedral. Compare the views of “old” and “new” that Boreman features.

Why such attention to the Monument in a book ostensibly about St. Paul’s Cathedral? The Great Fire of London devastated a significant part of London, including thousands of buildings and landmark churches, one of them the “old” St. Paul’s Cathedral, which Boreman also pictures in his section on the the “History of St. Paul’s. It’s a very medieval-looking structure, in contrast to Christopher Wren’s masterpiece “new” St. Paul’s shown on the frontispiece. Wren also worked on the design of the Monument (along with Robert Hooke), as well as designing many other buildings and churches in the London rebuilt after the Great Fire. Wren is famous to this day for putting his architectural imprint on London; imagine how prominent his name would have been In Boreman’s London! The history of St. Paul’s and the Great Fire would have been something that Boreman’s “little masters and misses” would be expected to learn about too. Boreman is trying to teach as well as amuse.

Seeing the London panorama from the top of the Monument.

As the highest viewpoint in London at the time, the Monument would have been a place that children, sightseers, and visitors would have marveled at and wanted to visit — with those who could afford it paying the fee to climb 300+ steps to the viewing platform for a then-unrivaled panoramic view of London. Boreman provides a cut of the viewers admiring the view, something I think would have appealed to young readers, thereby encouraging them to learn about the history and details of the Monument.

Westminster Abbey was the subject of Boreman’s next “Gigantick Histories” publication, and he once again upped the ante by publishing a three-volume set, which took two years to complete in print (1742-1743). Volume 1 alone included fifteen woodcuts. But, curiously enough, apart the claustrophobic close-up view of the Abbey in the Vol. 1 frontispiece, all the other cuts depict funeral monuments or memorials within the building, and much of the text provides details about the color and nature of marble used. It’s a little hard for me to imagine young readers being enthralled by this turn among the tombs, even if it did introduce them to famed English writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, Abraham Cowley, or Ben Jonson (spelled “Johnson” by Boreman). But take a look at the entry for Jonson and the woodcut portrait, and decide for yourself.

“Oh Rare Ben Johnson”

For some reason, presumably financial, Boreman issued the third Westminster Abbey volume with fellow-bookseller Richard Ware, and indeed Ware’s name appears first on the 1743 title page: “Printed for R. Ware at the Bible and Sun in Amen-Corner and Tho. Boreman, near the Two Giants in Guildhall.” Ware might have provided more of the upfront investment than Boreman did; or perhaps he just struck a hard bargain with Boreman, possibly in need of another investor in order to issue the last volume in this set of three?

Boreman revisited the realm of giants in his 1742 title: The History of Cajanus, the Swedish Giant: from his Birth to the Present Time / by the Author of the Gigantick Histories. (This means that Cajanus predated the third Westminster Abbey volume.) But unlike Gogmagog and Corineus, Boreman’s two original giants, Cajanus is not based on a character from English folklore, but rather on an actual person. Daniel Cajanus lived from 1704-1749, having been born in Finland (not Sweden); his huge size was such a curiosity to some that Cajanus made a living putting himself on show in England at points in the 1730s and 1740s, where Boreman must have seen him, or at least heard about him.

The History of Cajanus: title page and frontispiece depicting Cajanus’s size in context.

In Boreman’s rendition of the story, Cajanus goes to visit the Guildhall, where he marvels at the statues of the two giants and is then “presented” with a copy of The Gigantick History. Boreman thereby manages a clever piece of “product placement,” puffing his first Gigantick History in this one.

Boreman himself appears to have dropped out of sight as a bookseller after the “Gigantick Histories.” There seems to be “no evidence that he published after that date,”³ and I haven’t been able to find out terribly much about him or his life before that date either. Standard resources on eighteenth-century printing and bookselling, such as the British Book Trade Index or Plomer, have relatively little to say about him.

Boreman seems like something of a mysterious figure in publishing history to me. But his legacy to later children’s booksellers and publishers is clear in terms of aspects like: publishing tiny books for tiny hands in a standard format, binding them in Dutch paper, creating subscriber lists with children’s names as a marketing tool, cleverly using publisher’s advertisements and product placement, and generally combining text and illustrations to create books that appealed to children and also provided a model that Newbery and others could then refine.

¹ H.R. Plomer, Dictionary of the Booksellers and Printers who were at Work in England, Scotland and Ireland, p. 30.
² Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature; accessed online; Wilbur M. Stone, The Gigantick Histories of Thomas Boreman, p. 11 ff.
³ Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature; accessed online.

Thomas Boreman’s Tiny, Tiny “Gigantick Histories”

How a “tiny, dumpy volume” altered the concept of children’s books —

Title page and frontispiece of The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants… (London: 1740) Cotsen 20211

When Thomas Boreman issued The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants, and Other Curiosities in Guildhall, London in 1740, nobody would have expected that this “tiny, dumpy volume” would “alter the concept of ‘children’s books'”¹ and turn out to be a landmark in children’s book history.  Boreman himself included!  But it did.

First, a little background… Boreman, a London bookseller, was one of a number of English “dabblers” in children’s books during the 1720s and 1730s; in 1730, he published a book titled A Description of Three Hundred Animals, a whimsical combination of fact and fantasy in what was then the emerging genre of natural history books for children.  This book remained in print for almost a hundred years.

Title page of the 62 mm Curiosities in the Tower of London, Vol I, with a penny to indicate size.  Note the price!  In 1741, a buyer could purchase this book for just four (English) pence.

But The Gigantick History (along with nine subsequent titles in what became a series of the same name) is Boreman’s most significant legacy to children’s books —  one termed a “stroke of genius” by Brian Alderson.  The book incorporated a number of inspired innovations, many of which later became the norm in children’s books in the eighteenth century.

First, The Gigantick History was tiny: only 64 millimeters in height (about 2 ½ inches).  “Thumb Bibles,” Bible stories, and religious books aimed at children had been published in small sizes since the seventeenth century.  But Boreman seems to have been the very first to create a non-religious miniature book for children, a successful innovation he repeated in his other “Gigantick Histories” — and one that John Newbery and John Marshall would laterfollow too.  The irony of titling such tiny miniature books as “gigantick” must have been intentional, and this suggests the gentle humor that generally characterizes Boreman’s books — something that must have resonated with children, used to being lectured or “talked down to” in many books for children until that point.  Boreman realized that children had to be “amused” in order to give their full attention during “the infant age,” as he states explicitly in a prefatory comment to the Gigantick History illustrated below:

“During the Infant-Age … there is no fixing the attention of the mind, but by amusing it.”

Amusement and instruction, teaching and delighting — sentiments consistent with John Locke’s teachings on the education of children, and also those echoed later by Newbery and McLoughlin Brothers in their mottoes. While Boreman’s authorship of this text is never made explicit, it’s widely assumed that he was the author of the whole book, as well as of the other nine “Gigantick Histories,” in addition to being the creative force behind them and the bookseller.  As such, Boreman is really “the first to make, however briefly, a business out of publishing children’s books.”² Newbery is the one popularly credited with this accomplishment — with the caveat “successful” added to make it more precise though, since Newbery’s family printing and publishing house prospered for some time.

Boreman’s Dedication “to all the little masters and little misses” also anticipates the direct address to children by an author or book-creator, and even the same language — “little masters and misses”  — that Newbery and Thomas Carnan would soon adopt to good effect, sometimes even within their titles: Pocket Bible for Little Masters and Misses (Newbery, 1772) or The Drawing School for Little Masters and Misses (Carnan, 1774).  But Boreman really blazed the trail that they followed — and of course made broader and more far-reaching.

Another Boreman innovation in The Gigantick History was to include a list of child subscribers for his children’s book.

Last page of subscriber’s list facing the first page of the text in The Gigantick History.

Subscribers’ listings were common enough in adult publications at the time, but Boreman seems to have been first to do so in a book for children — and his list of “subscribers” is composed mostly of children (little masters and misses, again!), with some fanciful additions.  Paid subscribers made the printing and publication of a book less risky, of course, especially for a new type of book altogether that was aimed at a new market  The listing of children’s names must also have been an incentive for adult book-buyers to subscribe too.  What parent or gift-giver wouldn’t want to give a child a book with his or her own name actually printed in it?  And what child wouldn’t be delighted to see her or his name printed in the book?  Imagine a child delightedly showing that to friends? (“My book!)  And the demand that would tend to create among other children too.

Boreman also included publisher’s advertisements in later “Gigantick Histories,” and was not above incorporating self-promotion into the text of some of them too, another practice that Newbery and other children’s book issuers would follow. Boreman’s uses the Preface here to tout a planned second volume: “Then, very soon / I’ll print another, / Which for size, / will be its brother.”  “Product placement” and “affiliated content” were not invented by “Mad Men” or online media!

Detail of the two laurel wreath-crowned Guildhall giants — Gogmagog and Corineus.

Although Boreman couldn’t have known it at the time, The Gigantick History provided the basic model for the later books in the series — and for later books by publishers, such John Marshall’s Infant’s Library and Book-case of Instruction & Delight. The book features a full-page woodcut frontispiece of the two eponymous Guildhall “giants” — Gogmagog and Corineus (sometimes known as Gog and Magog) — whose statues stood in the Great Hall and included another full-page cut placed within the text. The book contains a total 128 pages (numbered xvi, 112), printed on a single sheet of paper in 64mo format, and it’s bound in Dutch paper-covered boards.

The subsequent “Gigantick Histories” are similarly comprised of 128 pages (sometimes including unnumbered or blank pages) printed on a single sheet of paper in 64mo, include a woodcut frontispiece and at least one other full-page cut within the text (with the exception of Vol. II of Gigantick History, about the Guildhall itself, but with some later titles adding even more more cuts), and were originally issued for sale bound in Dutch paper-covered boards (of varying colors, as evidenced by Cotsen’s ten titles in the set).

The Gigantick History devotes most of its text to a fantastical, folk-tale based narrative about the bravery and honor of the two Guildhall giants, Gogmagog and Corineus. They use their strength and considerable force to defend England and London, thus earning statues in the Guildhall (whose members thereby aver that they will defend the honor of their nation and the freedom of their city). Corineus and Gogmagog then engage in a single-combat match between themselves, in the course of which Corineus heaves a shattered Gogmagog off a cliff into the sea.  Despite the giants’ exemplification of bravery and loyalty, this part of the Gigantick History’s content is not far from the whimsical tales of marvels and adventures in ancient England found in chapbooks of the time.

The second part (“Book II”) of The Gigantick History begins to discuss the Guildhall itself and some of its actual “curiosities.  With an eye to aspects that would resonate with children, Boreman highlights a lock-up for unruly apprentices under the Guildhall, called “Little Ease,” which features a ceiling “so rough and low” that a consignee cannot stand upright and is forced to “bow” — a source of both discomfort and enforced humility. The charming “Little Ease” also features “rats, mice, and other vermin.”  “Stubborn” boys who remain unrepentant can expect to be hauled off to Bridewell Prison, where even worse could be expected.  To add a visual aspect for his little readers, Boreman adds a woodcut that depicts a naughty boy being manhandled into the dark maw of “Little Ease.”

“Of that horrible place call’d Little ease”

Boreman concludes The Gigantick History with the comment: “For the rest, I must refer my reader to my 2d [i.e. “second”] volume.”  Having used up his allotment of 128 pages in the book, Boreman hopes he has sufficiently interested his readers in his content that they will return for ” Volume 2.”

In somewhat the same way, I hope that you will stay tuned for next week’s Part 2 of my story about the rest of Cotsen’s copies of the “Gigantick Histories” series.  Individually, they’re quite rare books, and a collection of all ten books in the series is even rarer.  Included among the books is another one about a giant, Cajaus, a “Swedish giant,” a book about more Guildhall curiosities, and volumes about The Tower of London (and the menagerie living there in the 18th century), Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  You can preview them all below, as housed in their modern, custom clam-shell box, which lives within the stacks of Cotsen’s “Wall of Books.”

Cotsen’s complete set of all 10 volumes of Boreman’s “Gigantick Histories.”


  1. Brian Alderson & Felix De Marez Oyens, Be Merry and Wise (London and New Castle, Del., 2006), p. 45.
  2. Pierpont Morgan Library, Early Children’s Books & Their Illustration (New York, 1975), p. 191.
    In addition, I’ve also made use of “The Gigantick History,” Entry 10, in the Grolier Club’s One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature (New York, 2014) by Chris Loker and Jill Sheffrin, p. 98.