Alphabet Books: Some Variations on a Theme
Language—and how learning about language can be presented in children’s books—was on my mind this past week, while cataloging three new ABC books here at the Cotsen Library. Before I began working with Cotsen books, I would have said that books about language or the alphabet–especially children’s books–would have been more or less “content neutral.” After all, what could be more straightforward than teaching letters of the alphabet, syllables, short words, and basic reading, right? Wrong…as I’ve discovered–and enjoyed discovering. Since letters, syllables, and words may seem to be just there on the page, it’s easy to overlook how language acts as a provider of meaning(s), in addition to being a container for meaning.
But language is inherently charged with meaning, and its use full of cultural values and ideology, as various writers have observed. Language’s potential for both clarity or ambiguity can be used—or manipulated—by a writer or speaker. Sometimes the way we use language is conscious and sometimes our use of language reflects our education, culture, and formative influences. Sometimes it’s both intended and unconscious.
In a book, meaning can also be shaped, extended, or modified by visual elements. This is particularly evident in children’s illustrated books, where the balance of text and illustrative elements can be more equal—or the visual can even take precedence over the text that it “accompanies.” Take early alphabet books, for instance. The New England Primer, the first primer (or ABC teacher and elementary reader) first issued in the United States in the 1670s, famously begins its alphabet rhymes with the verse:
Accompanying this verse is a woodcut showing Adam and Eve standing under the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, apparently just before eating the apple. Apart from the mnemonic aspect of the rhyme itself–making it easy to remember (and recite)—the illustration complements the cautionary nature of the text in a pretty vivid way that likely stayed in young reader’s minds.
Language is being presented as more or less inseparable from religion and moral teaching: A is for Adam, the original co-sinner, for the eating of the Apple. Other illustrative examples in the Primer include Job, Queen Esther, and the whale that swallowed Jonah—along with a cat, a dog, and an “idle fool” with a dunce cap, everyday object-examples presumably readily accessible to children at the time. This is consistent with Locke’s recommended use of familiar, everyday objects—and pictures of them—as learning aids for educating children and for fixing concepts more vividly in their minds.I’ve always found it interesting that some later alphabet books replace Adam with Apple. For a reader in this Age of Irony, it’s hard not to find this a little ironic, but it’s hard to tell if this would have seemed so to a nineteenth-century reader. Perhaps it was ironic to some readers, but not to others. It’s always dangerous—although tempting—to view the past through the filter of our implicit present-day values and attitudes or to make sweeping, “historicizing” generalizations about what “everyone thought” at the time from our vantage-pont long after the original audience’s reception.
If nothing else, this change from Adam to Apple seemingly reflects an relatively increasing secularization in the mid-1800s, compared with the 1670s (nineteenth-century people were still generally religious, of course, but religion had been complemented, or diffused, by other spiritual and cultural influences). Merely one of many ABC books using “A is for Apple” is McLoughlin Brothers’ Aunt Lely’s Picture Alphabet (New York, [between 1863 and 1866]). McLoughlin Brothers, the preeminent American popular children’s book publisher of their time, was a master at providing books—and content—that people wanted to buy, so “marketability” must also have been at least a partial factor in the content they selected here. Maybe fire and brimstone didn’t sell as well in the mid- and latter-1800s and early 1900s? Perhaps Apple was a little more “up-to-date” and familiar to children then too? Likely, some combination of all these factors factored into the text and illustration of this “A is for Apple” book.Apples are also nicely colorful objects, suited to the sort of chromolithographed color illustration that McLoughlin pioneered in the mid- late-1800s. So printing technology would seem to have played a part in this changeover too. Even though Aunt Lely’s Alphabet (pictured above) doesn’t have colored illustrations, many of McLouglin’s books did, and you can readily imagine how strikingly visual the large apple shown in Aunt Lely’s Alphabet would be if it was colored in bright red. (Chromolithographs are often notable for their extra-vivid, slightly surreal colors.) Sometimes, the Apple even found its way onto an apple pie, as in Warne’s A is for Apple Pie, thus moving us all the way from a cautionary Garden of Eden to a veritable kitchen cook-book.
Three Recently-cataloged Alphabet Books
The Alphabet Ladder, or Gift for the Nursery (London, after 1817) provides a relatively early example of a colored alphabet book; it dates from some time after 1817 (when its publisher George Martin began publishing) and features hand- or stencil-colored engravings.
The front wrapper of this sixteen-page book has a paper onlay depicting a Britannia-like Fame (name printed on her shield) standing atop a structure of alphabet letters—the alphabet ladder, perhaps?—and some fashionably-dressed children (the target audience for this not inexpensive one shilling book?); the frontispiece-like front pastedown provides a similar illustration, a striking visual presentation, I think. (Compare the illustration shown on the right with the cover label shown at the bottom of this posting.)
The letter A is illustrated here by a (boy-like) King Alfred, instead of by Adam or an Apple, an interesting complement to the Bullfinch pictured below, a bird that would probably have been familiar to a child-reader at the time.English history is being used along with familiar objects perhaps to add a touch of history to visual examples making letters more vivid. Generally accepted as the first king of a united England, Alfred the Great would have a strong patriotic connotation to an English boy or girl, especially about this time, the era of the Napoleonic Wars, in which England and France of course figured large. So it’s not so very surprising that another illustrative colored engraving presents a sword-flourishing Frenchman, looking very much like Napoleon himself, complete with a bicorne hat tucked under his arm. Parodic mockery of a vainglorious Napoleon was a staple of English satirists at the time and can be observed in a number of English children’s books.
Pictured above the Frenchman is a brightly-colored Egg Plum, another object familiar to children, as was the Bullfinch. This juxtaposition of historical personages and everyday items or animals may seem a bit strange to us now.
But such combinations are not all the unusual in children’s ABCs, and it was also quite common for a publisher to “update” a book with some “new” or topical illustrations or textual content. A quick and dirty way to provide a “revised edition” perhaps and encourage some new sales? And what better way to entice a young reader than blatantly patriotic and relevant contemporary examples in wartime? Offhand, I’d say that The Alphabet Ladder—and it’s illustrative examples—would appeal more to a boy that a girl; apart from the warlike soldiers, almost all of the children pictured inside the book are boys—adding an interesting gendered aspect to the presentation of the actual alphabet, which is belied by the cover and frontispiece featuring two boys and two girls.
We find a similar juxtaposition of commonplace illustrative examples and patriotic ones in another new Cotsen title: Solomon King’s: The Pictured Alphabet (New York, ca. 1820). K is for Kite, another familiar object to a child then, but N is for…Napoleon, somewhat surprisingly perhaps in an American book of the time.
Another pair of facing illustrative wood-engravings shows a Dunce to illustrate the letter D and a Guard the letter G, the latter looking distinctly English (and I think grenadier guards were generally a European type of soldier).
Yet another pair of illustrations shows a tankard—Quenching thirst, I guess—to illustrate the letter Q, which faces the letter T’s Trumpet, here having been affixed with the letters “US,” adding both a topical and patriotic military touch to the American publication. (And while a tankard was more of an all-purpose drinking cup in 1820 then than it is now, the association with beer and ale must have been apparent when this book was published. Imagine a children’s alphabet featuring anything like a beer mug now!)
Some of these combinations suggest that the printing blocks may have either come from Europe, or been adaptations of European ones; 1820 is relatively early in American printing and publishing development, with type and book-printing blocks still often being imported from Europe rather than being manufactured domestically. King’s book is a fairly simple production—even a somewhat primitive one—small in size (just 3 ½ inches tall) with simple illustrations and no text other than the alphabet letters themselves; after all, it is a one penny book, as the publisher’s advertisement on the lower wrapper tells us. (In contrast, the relatively deluxe Alphabet Ladder has a cover price of a full English shilling for the “coloured” version.) But The Pictured Alphabet is also quite a rare book now, no copy other than Cotsen’s being found in OCLC’s combined libraries catalog. Sometimes, cheap books in wrappers must have been used and then discarded once their condition deteriorated—unlike more expensive books, which were often more likely to be retained.
Another intentionally topical alphabet book—and one with a clearly moral didactic goal—is the Anti-Slavery Society’s: The Anti-Slavery Alphabet (Belfast, 1849). Apart from the very title and didactic approach of the text, there’s a striking wood-engraved title-page vignette depicting a slave sale, and another illustration on the verso side depicting a slave telling a seated white man and woman: “For indeed I was stolen out of the land.”
Even without the caption text beneath them, these two illustrations make their meaning clear. These illustrations are the only ones in this twelve-page book, somewhat unusual for the time perhaps, and the gathering of printed pages comes within plain paper wrappers with no text, advertising, or illustration on them. Perhaps this is a function of cost? Or perhaps the publisher like the Anti-Slavery Society didn’t think that such “marketing” aspects were appropriate (or needed) for a book presumably sold or given away by/to people of strong conviction? These conjectures are just a couple of the possible explanations.
But the four-line alphabet rhymes for each alphabet letter speak compellingly to the book’s underlying moral purpose: to teach children about the evils of slavery and move them to moral awareness, in part by making them aware of their own potential complicity for enjoying sweet treats made from slave-produced sugar. Apart from the A,B,C rhymes pictured at right, some other verses read:
I is the Infant, from the arms
Of its fond mother torn,
And, at a public auction, sold
With horses, cows, and corn.
S is the Sugar, that the slave
Is toiling hard to make,
To put in your pie and tea,
Your candy, and your cake.
U is for Upper Canada,
Where the poor slave has found
Rest after all his wanderings
For it is British ground!
Why “Upper Canada” and “British ground”? While this book may seem directed at American audiences, it was printed in Belfast, Ireland. Escaped slaves often tried to reach Canada, via the Underground Railroad and other means, because slavery had been outlawed in most of the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Canada was then part of the British Empire, and Upper Canada was the area what we now know as Southern Ontario, bordering New York State (Lower Canada being Quebec).
So, looking at this batch of three new Cotsen alphabet books, I think we can understand some of the many, wide-ranging “educational” goals that ABC books subserved, teaching language mechanics being just one.