Pussy Plans Her Wedding: Product Placement in Victorian Toy Books

Weddings of animals have been solemnized in picture books since the mid-nineteenth century, even though it can be difficult to draw the bride or groom in their finery when they have tails, wings, or more than two legs.  The toy-book Pussey’s Wedding (and yes, that is the correct spelling)  has plenty of amusing illustrations of well-dressed toms and tabbies by Percy Cruikshank, the nephew of George.  What makes this particular title interesting is the way the very slender story was used by its down market publisher Read, Brooks & Co. to shamelessly promote London retail emporiums.

The product placement begins on the cover illustration, which shows Miss Tortoiseshell whipping up a dresser runner on the new Singer sewing machine she received as a gift.  Apparently the interior decorators Rose, Wood & Co. mentioned in line four cannot be trusted entirely to make the newly weds’ villa a home!  (I wasn’t able to determine if Rose, Wood & Co was a London general furnishing company, but it may have been, even with that generic name.)  Read, Brooks & Co. reinforced the notion that no young wife should be without a sewing machine by running additional advertisements on the front endpaper for not one, but two other brands of the machine, neither of them Singer.

Above the advertisements for the sewing machines are two others for Read, Brooks & Co: one as a general printer,  the other as a publisher of toy books printed in color, which were also available in untearable editions.  Next to the advertisement for the Monarch sewing machine is one for “pretty little clocks” to be had at Marriott & Co. at 386 Oxford Street.  Guess where  the groom Tom takes Miss Tortoiseshell to purchase a clock for the house and watch for her?  Surely salesmen didn’t show customers merchandise on the street in front of the display windows, but I suppose the brave show of different clocks, none higher than 4/6, suggests why Marriott’s was Tom’s first stop.Then there was the all-important matter of the fabrics for the wedding gown… The cats’ destination?  Peter Robinson’s Silks on Oxford Street, of course.   I don’t think Tom or Miss Tortoiseshell appears in the scene below, although it is possible that their visit to Robinson’s was on another day when they wore different outfits.   The white cat in yellow talking to the salesman is leaning against the counter in front of all the bolts of silk for wedding gowns are stacked, awaiting inspection by discerning ladies who must have every detail right.   Like Marriott’s, Peter Robinson Silks was a real shop on Oxford Street.Does Pussey’s Wedding  reflect the values of a particular moment in the history of nineteenth-century consumption?   Even with all the clues scattered in the book, it’s a question without a neat and clear answer.

Parameters for the publication date can be established.  Read, Brooks & Co. are known to have been trading at 25 and 26 New Street near Cloth Fair in West Smithfield between 1877 and 1885. Other tidbits of information suggest this toy book might have been first issued earlier than that.  References to Peter Robinson’s Silks turn up as early as 1866 and by 1874 the business was sufficiently well-established so that a reference in a satirical piece in Belgravia Magazine could serve as an indication of a young Marchioness’s extravagance.

This, and the information that Singer sewing machines had been manufactured in the United Kingdom only since 1867, could push the publication date back to the early 1870s, but that doesn’t square with the dates of Percy Cruikshank’s activities.  Old information floating around the web has him working as an an illustrator and wood engraver between 1840 and 1860.  Percy isn’t sufficiently  important to get an article in Grove’s Artists or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  but Robert Patten’s authoritative biography of George Cruikshank has a telling anecdote about him and his uncle.   In 1868, the  irascible old man tangled with Percy’s publisher over some toy books of fairy tales whose illustrations credited to just plain “Cruikshank,” which was not, strictly speaking, a lie.   They were the work of a Cruikshank, just not the really famous one.   Patten doesn’t identify the precise titles, but the advertisements above for the Grandmama Goodsoul series and the front wrapper of Pussey’s Wedding credit the illustrator just as he stated.

Only additional research can resolve the quandary authoritatively.  Perhaps Percy executed the illustrations in the late 1860s, when the shops on Oxford Street were becoming a destination for fashionable consumers. Another possibility is that Cotsen’s copy of Pussey’s Wedding is not an early issue, but a later one, something which could be determined by more detective work about the businesses of the  advertisers who appear  on the endpapers and rear wrapper. It makes sense that  Read, Brooks & Co might have reprinted individual titles of Grandmama Goodsoul’s series as called for and found new advertisers as appropriate.

This doesn’t clarify Read, Brooks & Co.’s motive was for promoting businesses on Oxford Street, when its premises in West Smithfield were a good two miles east of Oxford Street.  It’s unclear how this would have benefited a publisher in a less posh neighborhood.  Perhaps Reads, Brooks and Co. was trying to play the marketer of dreams for the little girl reader, who wanted to fantasize about her wedding and project upon the unknown Prince Charming a willingness to grant her every desire and cater to any whim that would allow her to appear before her friends and family as a stunningly beautiful and fashionable bride…

Nursery Crime! Sparrow Tells All about Cock Robin Murder!

Cock Robin, the tale of a murder without a motive  is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes and its text has been a showcase for many gifted artists.  Some very fine watercolors for the illustrations to a John Harris Cock Robin were up for grabs at the Sotheby’s New York December on-line auction of artwork for children’s books.  Harris, the successor to the Newbery firm, was a pioneering picture book publisher and the Cock Robin in the celebrated Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series of the 1820s, is one of the most famous. The drawings in the Sotheby’s sale were not for this edition, but even so I was concerned they would catch more eyes than mine.  With a trove of nearly three hundred drawings for Harris children’s books in Cotsen, I was very keen to add them to the collection.  Cotsen turned out to be the only bidder, so the six drawings are safe in Firestone, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

After unpacking them, I went to the vault to reconfirm the attribution and discovered instead that the drawings were “not as described,” which is code in the  antiquarian book trade for “wrongly cataloged.”   The drawings were too lovely to return (to the right is the one of the pipe-puffing owl tolling the bell), so the only alternative was to cross my fingers and go in search of the book they did illustrate.  The mystery was unraveled quickly, thanks to three gems from the collection of Marjorie Moon, author of the Harris bibliography.

The drawings are for an 1808 Harris pamphlet that survives in just four copies:  The Tragi-comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin; with the Lamentation of Jenny Wren; the Sparrow’s Apprehension; and the Cuckoo’s Punishment.  The title page spread  is on the right below and the drawing for the frontispiece on the left.  Look closely and you’ll see that the engraver of the frontispiece edited out the blood pooling underneath the robin in the watercolor.





When I started matching up drawings with the passages they represent, it became clear that the Tragi-comic History was faithful in its fashion to both of the traditional nursery rhymes about the robin’s death and its marriage to the wren.  Take a second look at the title page spread.   The frontispiece depicts the grieving widow Jenny Wren, which is a departure from the death and burial of Cock Rbin where the wrens are the pall bearers and the dove chief mourner as the robin’s “love.”  On the other hand, Jenny’s role in the Tragi-comic History is consistent with the title page declaration that the pamphlet is a sequel to the Harris’s 1806 gay two-part retelling of the rhyme about the union of the robin and wren, The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.

The Tragi-comic History  departs from the prequel by the third stanza, when the birds “lug in” the sparrow to be punished for “his sin.”  Notice how the owl secures the cord around the sparrow’s neck with a stout staff.  (What bird has concealed itself in the hollow tree trunk to the right?)  Stanza four reveals that the author of TheTragi-comic History conflated the traditional rhyme of Cock Robin’s death and burial with the Harris retelling of the marriage and, more importantly, devised a water-tight alibi for the sparrow’s crime that exonerates him of accidental manslaughter.

The sparrow pleads for mercy, saying he has been unable to eat since “shooting in defence / Of Jenny Wren, Bob’s wife, / He’d sav’d her innocence, / But robb’d his friend of life.”  In order to understand exactly what happened, we have to backtrack to The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner.  Here is  Robin, sporting a very jaunty plumed hat, walking his blushing bride to church.

The happy couple exchange vows with Parson Rook presiding.

Friends of all species bring dainties to the feast and dog Tray’s offering is a bone with plenty of good meat for the picking.

The cuckoo, that “wicked elf,” disrupts the festivities by trying to tumble the bride.

Still inflamed by “her charms” in The Tragi-Comic History, the cuckoo had the audacity to visit Jenny in the nest and try to “seize a kiss” when he knew her husband was away.  Seeing the wren in distress, the sparrow, “aimed at Wantonness,/ But hit Fidelity,”   being a bad shot. Now that the birds know the whole story,  “on the culprit they fell,/ With talons, wings, and beaks,/ and drubb’d him very well,/ With scratches, slaps, and pecks.”  The climax of the poem (and prelude to the robin’s funeral) is the invention of The Tragi-comic History’s author.

A word about the artist is in order.  The drawings are attributed to Irish-born Victorian painter William Mulready(1786-1863).  In the nineteen teens, he was studying at the Royal Academy and partly support his young family of three children by designing illustrations for the children’s publishers Harris and William Godwin.  The drawings for The Tragi-comic History are in the same style as Mulready’s better-known ones for another fanciful poem about partying animals, William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1806).

Back to our story… After the sparrow is pardoned, the swallow delivers to every bird an invitation to the “obsequies of their dear worthy friend.”  Unfortunately, only one of the three illustrations for the burial are here: the one of the owl ringing the bell (shown above).  The invitation scene and the one of the robin’s body being borne to the grave with the jay, magpie, dove, and pigeon flying over it with the pall are missing.

The grieving widow returns to her “uncheering home” only to find herself subject to the unwelcome attentions of yet another suitor, this time the “vain and smart” Goldfinch all in scarlet and gold  (he had been attentive during the wedding).  Jenny Wren being no Lydia Bennett, neither his bold uniform nor his “sweet love-tales…could not gain her heart.”  

Thank heavens in the little republic of children’s literature, it is possible with some close reading to establish the facts and nothing but the facts about this famous nursery crime…