More Pretty Little Pocket Books for Children

A woman’s hanging pocket in the collection of the V & A.

The word “pocket book” was a term for a wallet or small purse for money and personal objects in the eighteenth century.  That wasn’t its only meaning, however.  It also referred to books– especially memorandum books (i.e. “diaries” in British English) or vade mecums, compilations of useful information– that could be comfortably stowed in a weskit pocket  or the hanging bag attached to a tape that tied around a woman’s waist.   Related to almanacs, they were revamped for adults by enterprising publishers in the 1740s, among them John Newbery, more famous for his children’s books.  Twenty years later he went back to the drawing board and reconceptualized the pocket book for younger customers.  Newspaper advertisements confirm that the publisher really was its compiler. .The Important Pocket-Book or Valentine’s Ledger (ca. 1765), which was also a tie-in to The Valentine’s Gift, may be the first of its kind and a good model for the genre as a whole, whether or not  Continental children’s books publishers were influenced by it.

Cotsen 5354.

The more famous Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which could be carried on its owner’s person without any trouble, was not meant for ready reference or record keeping. The Important Pocket-Book was, with its  tables of money, weights, and measures and a  calendar for recording daily expenses over a twelve-month period that was not keyed to a particular year, making it saleable over a long span of time.  On the facing pages Newbery added a second calendar for tracking good and bad deeds, a feature which does not seem to have caught on.  He also selected stories from classical literature such as Cornelia, mother of the Graecci, and combined them with anecdotes from modern history, and short fiction reprinted from others of his juveniles. Selections were accompanied by both copperplate engravings and wood cuts. Shown below is the cut of Father Time illustrating a story about a time-wasting school boy and an opening from the moral ledger that was marked up for about a month.  Someone tried to erase the notes, but “Bad” is still visible on the right hand side.  The entire package of material was attractively bound in boards covered with Dutch floral paper shiny with gilt.Prentjes Almanach voor Kinderen, a charming Dutch pocket book bound in pale apple-green printed boards (Cotsen 3466), is much smaller than The Important Pocket-Book  and appears to have been issued annually by its publisher W. Houtgraaf. In 1799, the contents featured a page of information about eclipses, which was probably suggested by the three forecast between April and October, culminating in a total solar eclipse. The selection of literature was somewhat lighter in character than the stories in the Newbery book.  Prominently featured was a series of illustrated poems about children’s pastimes,  itinerant street vendors, and strolling players.  English street cries for children often portray as many sellers of foodstuffs as small commodities, whereas the Almanach shows just one vendor tempting children with sweet teeth with a basket of “china apples, i.e. oranges.”  A somewhat unusual subject is the man crying umbrellas, a convenience that was still something of a novelty in  Europe. Children were surely more likely to flock around the bagpiper with his trained animals than the seller of useful objects, especially when the musician undoubtedly would perform for anyone with pennies burning in their pockets.  While it was a well-established practice to draw vendors full-length,  I can’t help but wonder if it was deliberate that the attractive nuisance is shown without an audience, whereas the ink vendor has a customer that looks like a school boy to his left.The daintiest of the three pocket books is, of course, French, but it may come as a surprise that Reveries orientales (Coten 65141) was issued in by Louis Janet in 1794 during the French Revolution.   I did look at a near contemporary catalogue of moral, instructive, and amusing children’s books issued in Lyons by Bohaire  (Cotsen in process)  to see what pocket books he stocked and found three or four for ladies with elegant engravings and bindings that sound as fashionable as this one in embroidered cloth with tiny drawings under isinglass (or horn) with a little pocket lined with rose paper on the inside of the rear board.  The tiny engraved plates are based on the ones by famous Roccoco artists for the celebrated Cabinet des fees, a multivolume anthology of French fairy tales and stories from the Thousand and One Nights.  The rather perfunctory monthly calendars of accounts surely could not compete with the illustrations, like the one for the tale of the miserly merchant Abou Cassem.John Newbery probably would not have approved of this frivolous approach to a kind of children’s book that he believed ought to help form good habits and regular self-examination, but the French and Dutch examples here suggest that the conventions for pocket books were just as fluid as they were stable.


Looking at an Icon: A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)

John Newbery’s first children’s book, The Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) has long been famous for uniting amusement and instruction in a new, more modern way and its status has been taken for granted by generations of educators, collectors, and scholars.

The second reason the book is so famous is its extreme rarity.  No public collection or private collector can boast of a truly early copy, that is one from the 1740s or 1750s.  Of the later seven surviving editions , the British Library holds the lion’s share: the earliest surviving one of 1760, the ones of 1767 and 1770, plus an abridged reprint ca. 1790 by John Marshall,  who purchased the copyright and blocks from Francis Powers,  John’s grandson. The Lilly Library has a copy of the eleventh edition of 1763, while the Gdansk Academy of Sciences in Poland has the thirteenth edition of 1766 published in Edinburgh by D. Patterson.  The only relatively common edition is Isaiah Thomas’s 1787 Worcester, Massachusetts reprint, with some twenty copies recorded in the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue.  Cotsen’s Newbery collection has only the Thomas edition.  All the illustrations  were taken from the 1967 facsimile of the 1767 edition.

The Morgan Library’s copy of the 1787 Isaiah Thomas edition with one of the premiums and its little pouch. It may or may not be contemporary with the book.

The third thing the Pocket-Book is remembered for is the ball and pincushion tie-in, which is considered among the most inventive promotional schemes any eighteenth-century entrepreneur devised—and they could be fiendishly creative. Jack the Giant-Killer’s letters to his young friends Tommy and Polly describes a novel moral regimen to help them be “as good as possible.”  They are to track their deeds by sticking pins into a parti-colored object: the bad ones on the black half, the good on the red half.  Tommy is to use the gender-appropriate ball, and Polly the pincushion.  Newbery tried to make it as easy as possible to follow the friendly giant’s advice making balls or pincushions available for purchase for an additional two pence at his shop.

The pencil markings were made by the author on a print-out of the newspaper advertisement, not the actual copy!

The advertisements for the book’s first year in print, however, show that the celebrated come-on was short-lived.  The ads that appeared between May and August 1744 give the price of the book with and without a ball or pincushion.  By October 22, the one for the second edition in the General Advertiser mentioned the ball-and-pincushion scheme in the book, but nothing about being able to buy real ones.  That information was dropped from subsequent advertisements in London and provincial papers.   Enticing as the offer sounded,  probably not enough mamas and papas took the bait and laid out the extra money for the premiums, balls being such common toys and pincushions so frequently made at home.  Newbery’s next promotional scheme summoned his genius without requiring the outlay of additional cash and other booksellers copied it to give their little books the Newbery touch.  The penny pamphlet Nurse Truelove’s New Year’s Gift (1750) stated on the title page that only good children would be allowed to purchase it and those lucky boys and girls would get the book for free, provided they chipped in a penny for the Dutch gilt paper wrappers.

The ball-and-pincushion scheme of moral accounting , for better or worse, has  deflected attention  from the book’s grab bag of uncredited bits and pieces–with the exception of the first illustration of a baseball game in progress, which sports historians have long treasured.  While the contents of the Pocket-Book are miscellaneous, as was usual with many eighteenth century children’s books, the selection was not haphazard.  Let’s look at the two poems at the end about time’s power and passage.  Because it was important to persuade children to learn how to use their time well while they were young, those subjects were de facto appropriate for them.  Is it possible to trace them back to their authors? Yes, as is frequently the case, thanks to databases like Eighteenth Century On-Line.   “A Poetical Description of the Four Seasons” was an imitation of Book VII, canto VII of Spenser’s Fairy Queene by James Ralph, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, which was first published in 1729.  “Time’s Address to Plutus and Cupid by Way of Application,” following it was abridged from John Gay’s Fable XII “Plutus, Cupid & Time” in his second set of fables (1738).  Gay’s best-known fable was “The Hare and Many Friends,” which many eighteenth-century children committed to memory and recited out loud.

These poems were never intended to rival the song-book described on the title page as “A new Attempt to Teach Children the Use of the English Alphabet by Way of Diversion.”   The promise of such a one may have been Newbery’s attempt to capitalize on the success of his competition’s Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book,  the first collection of nursery rhymes, issued within weeks of each other.  The Pocket-Book offered something rather different, as the advertised song book had been folded somewhat haphazardly into the alphabet–at least according to now familiar conventions for pictured alphabets.

The alphabet was off to a promising start with its introduction of the capital and lower-case letters inserted into the formulaic running heads “The Great A Play, “The little a Play” for pages [21]-[68] instead of via tables.  Each letter “played” at a familiar sport or game described in a little illustrated moral emblem, but subjects did not alliterate with the letters. “All the Birds in the Air” is paired with Great O, not  Great A.   The famous sequence of games concludes with little q, so the ditties were paired with Great R through little w. This seems to be the extent of the song book, only a few of which are  nursery rhymes or riff off characters in them.  Their first lines also do not alliterate with the headings.  Fables with applications by Jack the Giant Killer comprise the subjects of Great X through little z, with the last fable left hanging outside the running head alphabet.   Structurally the alphabet is a bit of a mess, although its lack of transitions between sections in the alphabet may not have mattered to its audience at all.

The way the sports and games were presented in the Pocket-Book  suggests that some sanitizing had been done.  Only boys take part in activities such as fishing, shooting, riding, birds’ nesting, dancing around the may pole, or play at “Knock Out and Span,” “Pitch and Hussel, “ cricket, leap frog, etc. Girls appear in just two illustrations: “Boys and Girls come out to Play (not the familiar nursery rhyme);” and “I sent a Letter to my Love.” Yet other contemporary sources indicate that a number of the games shown here were not the exclusive property of children, but frequently played by young adults in mixed groups.  Hoop and Hide, a variation on Hide and Seek, is one of the more interesting examples of such a game.  It could be played out of doors, as shown here, but also in the house.  Players were allowed to hide anywhere, but if someone was discovered under or in a bed, then he or she would have to submit to being kissed by the seeker.  That the game could lead to harder stuff was confirmed by Ned Ward in the London Spy (1700), Sir Richard Steele in the Tatler no. 5 (1712), and in Round about  Our Coal Fire (1730).

So this has just scratched the surface of The Little Pretty Pocket-Book.  What d’ye think of it?