Some Early Holiday Books for Children Published by the Baldwins
Book publishers frequently reissue a variety of new versions of books around the holidays, many in “special holiday editions” or versions meant to make them suitable as gifts. Sometimes, these are indeed new books, but often they’re just reissues of prior editions, with colorful new covers or dust-jackets, designed to catch the eye of someone looking for a entertaining but educational gift. This is especially true of many children’s books. What adult hasn’t spent time looking for a last-minute gift or stocking-stuffer for a child?
We tend to think of this repurposing of content as a modern phenomenon—after all, isn’t this the era of marketing and targeted sales? But—as in many cases—children’s booksellers seemed to have caught on to this idea long ago—indeed, in the eighteenth century they seem to have been one of the early innovators of this practice.
In much the same spirit of entrepreneurial innovation, bookselling was perhaps the first trade to realize that the packaging for item—that is, books’ covers or paper wrappers—could be a marketing tool for helping attract purchasers. Books, which had been offered for sale unbound or in plain bindings or paper wrappers, were sold in increasingly attractive publisher’s bindings, some illustrated, some colored, and some in eye-catching materials. Dutch gilt paper for instance, was used by Thomas Boreman and John Newbery to bind up entertaining books for young readers as a way of distinguishing them from school books or more serious titles.
Cataloging several editions of a previously unrecorded eighteenth century children’s book brought home the idea of repurposing content to me. The first book I cataloged announced that it was a Christmas book in its title: A Christmas Box. The full title, as it appears on the title page is: A Christmass Box, or, Little Polite Tales, Fables, Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c.: in Easy Prose and Verse, with Other Lessons of Morality Equally Instructive & Entertaining for Little Masters and Misses: Adorned with Sculptures. Quite a mouthful, compared to the current practice of keeping titles to single words. (Note: “Christmass,” which I first thought must be a typo, turns out to be an early variation on the spelling, more widely used in the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century, but clearly still in use in the mid-eighteenth century. By the way, a “Christmas box” was a small clay container with a slot like a piggy bank and at the end of the year servants went around with them collecting tips from employers. The term could also be used in the eighteenth century as a synonym for any present given during the extended Christmas holidays).
As the subtitle suggests, the book is miscellany of fables, tales, riddles, short Bible stories, short poems, precepts, and epitaphs. This broad range of material was consistent with prevailing eighteenth-century views that an anthology ought to mix up serious and humorous materials as a way of catching and holding the interest of children, so they might learn something useful from their pleasure reading. It’s still fairly typical of gift books.
But this book posed some small mysteries for a cataloger. When was it published? (It’s undated, as the image of the title page shows.) Also, who was the publisher “R. Baldwin”? There several booksellers and printers using the name “R. Baldwin” at about the same time. Cotsen Library has no other book titled Christmas Box by Baldwin, nor did I find one in the WorldCat, the world-wide combined library catalog. With so little information and no other similarly-titled book to compare, the plot thickened…
But the long alternate title turned out to be an important clue. And Cotsen does have another Baldwin publication—in fact two copies of one—titled Little Polite Tales, Fables Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c. Looking inside these books, I quickly realized that all three books had the same content, and the same number of pages (128, plus two leaves of engraved plates, the frontispiece illustration and the title page). Only the title pages were different—along with some other, relatively minor printing variations; take a look at the variations in the woodcut headpieces and the decorative capital letter “T” at the first selection in each book.
Only one book was dated, the 1751 edition of Little Polite Tales. Was it the first one printed, or was one of the other books printed first? How to tell? One potential clue—or point of confusion—seemed to be in the variation in the publisher’s name, “R. Baldwin, Jr.” (on both Cotsen copies of Little Polite Tales), as opposed to “R. Baldwin” (on the Christmas Box). But was this the same person or two different people, perhaps a father and son? (Publishing in this era was often a family affair.) To make things more confusing, there were at least five R. Baldwins issuing books in London at this time, three Richards and two Roberts, two brothers and their three sons!
To make a long story short, it seems that “R. Baldwin, Jr” was Richard Baldwin, 1724-1770, son of Richard, brother of Robert, and both nephew and cousin of two Roberts. He first issued books under the name “R. Baldwin, Jr.” to distinguish himself from his father, but gradually dropped the “Jr.” once he became more established himself; the last book he issued as “R. Baldwin, Jr.” was in 1754.¹What does all this mean in terms of dating our books? Remember, one copy of Little Polite Tales was dated 1751. So the other copy of Little Polite Tales, the one with no date, seems likely to have been issued sometime between 1751 and 1754—that is, between the date of the first (dated) edition and the date when Richard Baldwin dropped the “Jr.” from his imprint. This conclusion seems supported by an interesting change to the title page of this undated edition, the addition of the text: “A Pretty Present as a Christmas Box, or New Year’s Gift.” This suggests the original Little Polite Tales was reissued as a holiday gift book. (Perhaps the printing of the frontispiece and title page in red ink was meant as a festive touch?)
The book titled Christmas Box, then, must date from sometime after 1754, since Baldwin identified himself just as “R. Baldwin.” Cotsen’s copy of this book also has an inscription dated “1774,” so we can use 1774 as the last possible date the book could have been issued. So the Christmas Box seems to date from between 1754 and 1774 and it is apparently the last of the three books to be published.This sequence of publication also makes sense, I think, in terms of how the title of the book seems to have evolved: 1) Little Polite Tales; 2: Little Polite Tales…A Christmas Box…; 3) A Christmas Box. The idea that Baldwin took a “regular” book and reissued it at least twice seems to make sense too, in terms of the general publishing “model” I talked about at the beginning of this piece—it seems unlikely that Baldwin took a Christmas book and reissued it as a non-seasonal piece (but technically, that remains a possibility).
And what sort of Christmas delights could be expected by the “masters and misses” to whom Baldwin dedicated each version of his book? “A Short Essay on the Nature and Beauty of Fable,” and “An Alphabet in Verse, containing Rules of Life,” lead off the book, followed by fables each followed by an explicitly didactic moral “application.” Next come the riddles, and after them, the Bible stories, such as “A History of the Creation of the World, and the Fall of Man,” “The History of Cain and Abel” (accompanied by a woodcut of Cain braining Abel with a huge club), and “ The History of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” Following these Bible stories, comes the seven-page “Filial Ingratitude: the Ancient History of King Lear and his Three Daughters,” which at least follows the eighteenth-century editors’ practice of having Lear and Cordelia survive “for some years afterwards,” instead of meeting the tragic ends Shakespeare provided. (Dr. Johnson, for one, thought the original ending of King Lear was just too horrific for adults, not to mention for children.)
Concluding all three of the “Christmas Box” books and its kin are “serious” and “humorous” epitaphs, the last reading:
An Humorous Epitaph
On Little Stephen, a noted fiddler, in the Country of Suffolk.
Stephen and Time
Are how both even;
Stephen beat Time,
And Time beat Stephen.
So, while these eighteenth-century books are quite different from earlier religious instruction, primers, and alphabet catechisms aimed at “miniature adults,” as they’re sometimes termed, publishers clearly had quite a different idea of what an “instructive and entertaining book for little masters and misses” was than we have now.
And on that note, Cotsen Library wishes all of you–children and grown-ups alike–a very Merry Christmas!