Characters from the Popular Stage in a Deck of Handmade Cards

Strange things are shelved in the Cotsen manuscripts section.  It’s unclear what  exactly they are, why they were made, and who made them.   When the object has no obvious clues that might set off a chase, some of their secrets will always be impenetrable.  Others can be cracked with some research, like this set of illustrated cards drawn on the blanks of a standard set of playing cards. Most of them have a tab on the back so they can be stood up on a flat surface, suggesting that they are not intended to be dealt out to players of a game.  The primitive style of the artwork and awkward printing of the captions look like the work of a child.Two of the cards conveniently date them between 1760 and 1820, the reign of King George III.  Here he is, with his consort Charlotte.  They seem to be the only portraits of real people.Whoever made them was familiar with the cast list of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, pt. 1 because Falstaff’s gang is well represented.  The child maker also seems to have known other plays. To the right of plump Jack Falstaff is Sergeant Kite, a character in George Farquahar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer, which opened in Drury Lane in 1706 and was one of the most popular plays of the 1700s.  It opens with Sergeant Kite haranguing the crowd, trying to sign up recruits for the army:

If any gentlemen soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve Her Majesty, and pull down the French king; if any prentices have severe masters, any children have unnatural parents; if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife; let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite, at the Sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.

These two cards represent the hero and one of the rivals for his affections from the stage or reading versions of Henry Fielding’s updated adventures of Tom Thumb, incredibly popular The Tragedy of Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb (1731). Fielding’s satire on the abuses of language on the contemporary stage was probably of less interest to the card maker than the running joke about the impossibility of congress between the little fellow and his gigantic panting lady loves.

The presence of certain other characters is much less unexpected.  “Mother Midnight,” supposedly the midwife behind the magazine The Midwife (1751) was one of poet Christopher Smart’s alter egos.  In the satirical review Mother Midnight’s Oratory, he played her in drag, as well as singing, dancing, and collaborating on writing the buffoonery.  The famous comedian Samuel Foote was also involved and the drag role of Lady Pentweazel in his play Taste turns up in the deck.

King Arthur and Merlin make appearances.  As tempting as it is to jump to the conclusion the child was immersed in Arthurian legends, given all the characters from plays in the card set, it may be just as likely that the drawings were inspired by  John Dryden’s libretto for Henry Purcell’s opera 1691 opera King Arthur with a libretto by John Dryden, which had been revived  in different revised versionsin 1736, 1763, 1770, and 1784.The child’s imagination was so engaged with the popular culture of the day that it makes me wonder if the card maker was stage-struck or was a member of a play-going family.  Until the identities of the characters drawn are untangled, it’s easy to dismiss the deck of cards as a curiosity or an amusing example of children’s artwork and fail to recognize it can also serve as a window into the mentalities of late eighteenth century childhood.

The Newbery Books Anna Green Winslow Read 1771-3

Anna Green Winslow, America’s most famous child diariest, wrote journal letters regularly to her parents in between 1771 and 1773 when she was living in Boston with her paternal aunt Mrs. Deming.   Her loyalist father, the commissary to the British regiments in Cumberland, Canada, sent his only daughter away from home to be “finished”–that is, to improve her penmanship at Samuel Holbrook’s writing school and to to become more adept at plain and fancy work at a sewing school.  Luckily, twelve-year-old Anna liked her pen and her needle equally well and won praise for her pretty writing, her knitted lace, and her spinning.  Calling herself a “whimsical girl,” she recorded jokes that made her laugh.  But she also listened attentively to  sermons Sundays in the Old South Church congregation and could summarize the minister’s argument clearly and accurately. Of course, she liked clothes and “tasty headdresses.”  Early in her stay, she begged her mother to let her “look like other people,” that is, follow Boston fashions.

Anna was a avid reader as well, attending to her Bible, the newspapers, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  Alice Earle Morse, who edited Anna’s diary in the 1890s, recognized the titles of several Newbery children’s books imported from London.  Anna didn’t say much about their contents, so illustrating them with pages from the copies in Cotsen brings her reading experiences to life.

For New Year’s in 1772, she notes that she received a copy of the “History of Joseph Andrews abbreviated,” that is, the abridgment of Henry Fielding’s famous novel published by Francis Newbery.  “In nice Guilt and flowers covers” she says approvingly.  Here is the title page and the binding in Dutch gilt papers (it is actually the binding on the Gulliver below, which is much nicer than the one on the Fielding).  If you look in the gutter, you’ll see evidence of oversewing to repair a well-read copy.

It was a very cold, snowy day on March 9th, 1772 and Anna mended two pairs of gloves and a handkerchief and then finished half a border for a new lawn apron for her aunt.  She also read “part of the xxist chapter of Exodous [sic] & a story in the Mother’s gift.”  The Mother’s Gift is not one of the better known Newberys and it’s impossible to tell which edition she had without any titles of the stories (it came in a two- and a three-part version).   It does include one about a girl who thought too much about her clothes and maybe Anna recognized herself in that character.

On April 16th, she dined at Aunt Storer’s, where her cousin Charles loaned her “Gulliver’s Travels abbreviated,” another Newbery abridgment of a work originally written for adults.   Anna reports that her aunt gave her permission to read it “for the same of perfecting myself in reading a variety of composures [probably compositions].  She said farther that the piece was desin’d as a burlesque upon the times in which it was wrote.”  Anna’s spelling mistakes have been retained, by the way.She went to “drink tea” at Aunt Storer’s on April 24th.  Her aunt loaned her three more of her cousin’s books, which is a bit droll, as cousin Charles was barely a year old.  This is what he had in his infant library: The Puzzling Cap, a riddle book; The Little Female Orators, an anthology of short fiction, and “Gaffer Two-Shoes” which was a sequel to The History of Goody Two-Shoes published by one of Newbery’s rivals (the only surviving copy is at the Lilly Library at Indiana University)  Anna might have liked solving the riddles about the  writing slate and stays, even though the only underwear she mentions in the diary are her shifts.In The Little Female Orators, she might have nodded approvingly at the two ladies warming themselves in front of a nice fire, especially because winter that year was especially bitter.  Sometimes the snow was so deep that Anna had to be carried home from writing or sewing school.Being mighty proud of her footware, whether decorated with pom-poms or marcasite buckles, Anna must have rejoiced with little Margery Meanwell when she received a new pair of shoes, which meant she no longer had to go barefoot.Surely this illustrated survey of the books Anna enjoyed dispels the hoary myth that Puritan children were deprived of entertaining reading!