Bad Boys before Horrid Henry

May 4th the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections began the Big Move, where miles of rare materials were shifted into a cavernous new vault in Firestone Library ( its early and successful conclusion was celebrated in the previous post, “Moving Day in Feather Town”).  During any collections move, books with problems crop up and  sometimes combinations of them turn out to be unexpectedly interesting.  When resizing books the other week, three nineteenth-century books featuring boys who are handfuls passed over my desk.

These days characters whose halos have slipped down around their shoulders are not exactly underrepresented in children’s books.  Think of Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry, whose antics have given rise to a multi-media empire.  My trio of old books offer some pretty compelling evidence that punishments for boyish misdeeds has changed dramatically in children’s books as attitudes towards authority, curiosity, mischief, and mistakes have become more tolerant–or overly lenient, depending upon your point of view.

Contrast the implicit acceptance in the Horrid Henry series of children disrespecting adults with the Old Testament’s zero tolerance. In Kings 2:22-3, the prophet Elisha passes a pack of young louts on the road to Bethel.  Because the King James Bible mistranslated the word for  “boys” in the passage, they are usually understood to be little boys, not teenagers. These ancestors of the Purple Gang yell at Elisha, “Go up, you old baldy.”  Elisha retaliates by cursing them and two female bears come out of the woods and maul forty-two of the no-goods.  If the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime, Biblical scholars are inclined to think that for centuries readers really haven’t understood the text between the lines that explains what was really going between the young men and the prophet was much more serious than we realize.

The story of Elisha and the bears must have inspired many cautionary tales about bad boys who mess with the wrong person  and get more than they bargained for.  Another familiar type in cautionary tales is the no-good who disobeys his loving parents and comes to a spectacularly gruesome end.  The history of the brothers Tommy and Harry in Daniel Fenning’s The Universal Spelling Book (1756) was in wide circulation from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth centur7 and was even mentioned in  Dickens’ David Copperfield.  Harry the elder is a rotter and Tommy the younger is a Peter Perfect.  Guess which brother is eaten by lions?

Woodcut, page 43, Cotsen 118 (19th edition, 1773)

Woodcut of the lion lunching on Harry, Cotsen 118 (19th edition, 1773) p. 43.

Nineteenth-century picture books are full of bad boys, but often they are shown making mischief in a series of detailed illustrations rather than starring in a continuous narrative.  All three of the books I found during the Big Move–one French, one British, and one German–all fall into this category.  In Les Proverbes de Pierre (1890), illustrator Jean Geoffrey dresses up his sturdy little devils in Pierrot costumes and sets them loose in the classroom and in the street.  Notice that it is a young peep show operator (the one with what looks like a little tower strapped on his back), not an adult, who breaks up the squabble in the first illustration.  In the second picture shows what can happen when the teacher steps out of the classroom.  Is the boy in the upper left sending up his teacher?  Where are the wild beasts?


Page 21, Cotsen 10743


The one boy waves a hat that reads “Ass” while his accomplices dance on a sign saying “Lazy.” Cotsen 10743, 1

In Young Troublesome (ca. 1850), John Leech gleefully shows just how much mischief a public school boy could make at home during the Christmas holidays.  In this plate the adults stand by helplessly as the young pickle shows his little brothers and sisters how easy and delightful it is to slide down a bannister.

Plate [2], Cotsen 3141

Plate 2, Cotsen 3141

There are also illustrations showing boys playing practical jokes that are anything but fun and games.   In Ludwig Kies’ Der Kinder Art und Unart (ca. 1855′), the boys in the boat dump an elaborately dressed tailor overboard.  The tailor’s terrified expression suggests he fears he will drown once his heavy clothes become waterlogged.  The boys, who may be working class, show no remorse for what they have done and it looks as if no one will step forward and punish them.  Likewise Leech’s Young Troublesome seems to think nothing of interfering with the servants while they are working, or apologizing when his prank ruins their clothing.  The hapless servant may have no other recourse than complaining to his comrades below the stairs.


Plate [53], Cotsen 24963


Plate 10, Cotsen 3141

Of all activities forbidden to children, playing with fire may have been one of the most satisfying because it was so risky.  From the late eighteenth century onward, it is not especially difficult to find illustrations of children whose clothes have caught fire, a very real possibility in homes where there were multiple fireplaces with open grates.  William Darton senior liked such subjects, but no engraving in his firm’s juvenile books can compare with this one from Der Kinder Art und Unart of a boy running out of the hen house, which he accidentally set aflame.  Unlike many of the plates in this book, no adult appears to reprimand the little arsonist (or mourn his passing as the kitties did Hoffmann’s Paulinchen).

Plate [30], Cotsen 24963

Plate [30], Cotsen 24963

In sharp contrast, Young Troublesome and his assistant look as if they have deployed every bit of firepower behind the scenes to bring the juvenile theater production of The Miller and His Men to a triumphant conclusion. The size of the explosion seems to have given his papa pause.  Or perhaps his ears were ringing from all the racket from the special effects.

Plate 7, 3141

Plate 7, 3141

Last but not least, is this illustration of a boy on his way to school pausing to get a light from a street urchin, while a gaping classmate watches them indulging in a forbidden vice.  A casual depiction of underage smoking like this one in a picture book would be enough to get Les proverbes de Pierre a PG-13 rating these days and possibly launch a heated discussion on childlit-listserv…


More bad habits… Cotsen 10743, 33.




It’s April’s Fool’s Day! Time to Wash the Lions…

In the 1680s antiquarian John Aubrey was the first Englishman to mention the observance of April Fool’s Day.  He stated that it was celebrated all over Germany, but folklorists assume that the holiday was imported from France, where seems to have been well-established by the 1650s.  They also speculate that this mock-holiday arose to fill the gap as the tradition of sanctioning all kinds of misrule during the Christmas holiday season waned (think the cruel jokes perpetrated on Shakespeare’s Malvolio during Twelfth Night).   In comparison, April Fool’s was a more civilized occasion for mischief-making, being confined to one day and the only kind of horseplay authorized was to trick others into making public spectacles of themselves.

In the eighteenth-century England, perpetrating hoaxes upon the unwary was ubiquitous on April 1, if we can believe contemporary writers.   Age and class came into play because children were allowed to try and deceive adults and members of a higher class could impose on someone of a lower class. Making an April fool of someone was not below the likes of Jonathan Swift, who in 1713 sat up late with some friends cooking up a prank. Convincing someone to go on a wild goose chase (or sleeveless errand as it was also called) for things that didn’t exist, like pigeon’s milk or the biography of Eve’s mother, was a favorite ploy.

The first description of an April Fool’s sleeveless errand was described in a notice in the April 2nd 1698 issue of Dawk’s News-Letter: “Several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch [i.e. the Tower of London’s moat] to see the Lions washed.”   One of the city’s great tourist destinations, visitors since the reign of Elizabeth I went the royal menagerie to gawk  at caged lions, tigers, bears, elephants, etc.  The lions were kept in the barbican called the Bulwark, which was renamed the Lion Tower.  The fast-talking trickster would convince his gullible victim that every year on April 1 the lions were taken down to the moat for a bath.  All someone had to do to enjoy the spectacle was enter by the White Gate.  Of course, there was no such gate or any wet lions…  In the nineteenth century, the merry sometimes distributed fake admission tickets.

In honor of the day, here are two accounts of washing the lions from two eighteenth-century children’s books, which may be unknown in the literature on the holiday. (They are reproduced from the British Library copies on Eighteenth-Century Collections On-Line but Cotsen has copies of both.)  The first account comes from the last chapter of Travels of Tom Thumb Over England and Wales (1746), where the intrepid little narrator confesses to being taken in by the story of the lions’ public grooming.  He also mentions that the most common visitors to the Tower lions are pregnant women, who want to know the sex of their babies!

tom thumb tp tom thumb's travels text_Page_1 tom thumb's travels text_Page_2

The second, longer description of washing the Tower lions comes from chapter 8 of Richard Johnson’s The Picture Exhibition (1783).  The narrator is a school boy, telling about a picture he drew of an April Fool’s prank in progress.  He clearly disapproves of the incident and there is something unpleasant about the watermen’s gratuitous cruelty towards the poor country bumpkin.  While the tone of the narrator’s lecture about appropriate behaviour is too prosy for modern tastes, he was expressing quite enlightened views at a time when blood sports were tolerated and jokes based on highly offensive gender and class stereotypes perfectly acceptable.

picture exhibition tp picture exhibition text_Page_1 picture exhibition text_Page_2 picture exhibition text_Page_3 picture exhibition text_Page_4

 P.S.  Princeton has a pride of lions to wash, if anyone on campus wants to revive the tradition…                                                                                     lion2lion1