Puzzler Number Two: Riddle Me Ree


This time it’s a riddle for the word people.    As an added bonus, the solution will be spelled out with a set of bone alphabet letters similar to the one Jane Austen had for playing word games.  Determining the age of alphabet letters like these is itself a puzzle, but we attempt to crack it at the end.

As a warm-up, here are some riddles heard around the British school yard, lifted from Iona and Peter Opie’s invaluable The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren:

What did one wall say to the other?

“Meet you at the corner.”

What is the difference between a big black cloud and a lion with a toothache?

One pours with rain the other roars with pain.

Even though the answer  to the riddle will be in plain view (a common practice in early illustrated riddle books), you will still need your puzzling cap.  While it seems completely counterintuitive to give away the answer, the average difficulty of eighteenth-century riddles was much higher than the ones we tell because they could run anywhere from four to thirty lines.  I’ve been thinking that being able to go back and forth between the picture of the subject and the misleading text that describes it may have helped little people learn how to crack the clues.

This rhymed riddle was a classic that was reprinted many times in all kinds of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections of word games.   Credit was rarely given to its  ingenious creator, better known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels. 

We are little airy creatures,

All of diff’rent voice and features;

One of us in glass is set,

One of us you’ll find in jet,

One of us is set in tin,

And the fourth a box within;

If the last you should pursue,

They can never fly from you.

aeiouThe vowels

The set of  bone alphabet letters we used to spell out the riddle’s answer is my favorite one in the collection.   These sets of letters usually  came in wooden boxes with sliding lids that were were decorated with inlaid “cover titles” of bone or ivory.  It’s unclear if the manufacturer or the retailer was responsible for the packaging.

3boxesThe letters in the set highlighted in this post are laid into a cunningly carved wooden box with a sliding lid that looks like a book.  But it has no “cover title” or any other indications of who the manufacturer or retailer might have been.  Perhaps the original box was broken or lost, and someone carved this one as a replacement.  More likely that the remnants of a much larger set of letters were transferred to this pretty box because it was just the right size.

spinebottomsideIt’s also possible that customers might have been offered a choice of boxes. The Puzzle Museum owns a carved bone box containing bone letters with a sliding lid about the same size and shape as Cotsen’s, but with different decorations.

ivory boxThe box isn’t the real story here– it’s the distinctive letter forms.  They are clearly copies of  the early nineteenth-century  Roman “fat faces”  made popular by Robert Thorne, Vincent Figgins, and William Thorowgood, that are the  forerunners of slab serif and typewriter fonts.  Here’s an early nineteenth-century handbill that uses one of these wonderful in-your-face fonts that were designed for use in advertising.

2014-01-19th-century-advertising-handbill1And here are the words “Turnip Seeds” spelled out in the Cotsen set of bone letters.

turnipThe resemblance is unmistakable, even though the bone letters’ serifs are not as skinny and spiky as in the fat faces and the contrasts between the thick and thin strokes not as exaggerated.  If the bone letters had been more faithful copies of the typeforms, they probably would have been much too fragile to hold up to extended play.  Here’s second comparison of type and bone letter:

figgins fat faceAnd here is ” Durham” spelled out in Cotsen’s bone letters:

durhamThis summer when redescribing Cotsen’s collection of alphabet tiles and letters,  I noticed that all but this set used some variation of the slab serif, instead of a fat face.  This could mean that they can’t possibly date before 1815 or so, when these faces began to appear in type specimens and in job printing.  So much for the common misconception that they are eighteenth-century nursery artifacts….  In fact, I strongly suspect most of Cotsen’s sets could date to the mid- to late nineteenth century, but that’s a riddle for  another time.

Thanks for playing the puzzler!

No fruitcake was harmed in the

writing of this post!

A “Twelve Days of Christmas” Chapbook

Among the traditional Christmas songs is “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a memory-and-forfeits game played by the fire that describes the staggering array of gifts bestowed upon one person.  The song has inspired many parodies, most of them too lame to stick in the mind, with the notable exception of Alan Sherman’s, with the diabolical substitution of  a “naked lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be” for the fifth day’s bling.  Then there’s P. D. Q. Bach’s “Twelve Days after Christmas” or Craig Courtney’s  “Musicological Journey Through ‘The Twelve Days’ of Christmas…'”

Upper wrapper of Pitt's "new edition" of the Twelve Days of Christmas (cover title)

Upper wrapper of Pitt’s “new edition” of the Twelve Days of Christmas (cover title)

Accumulative rhymes like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were enjoyed in the days when people passed the time playing all kinds of complicated word and memory games.  While the Cotsen Children’s Library does not have a copy of Mirth without Mischief (London: Charles Sheppard, ca. 1780), where the rhyme made its first appearance in print, it has a delightful one issued ca. 1810 by of all people the disreputable printer James Pitts in the notoriously seedy Seven Dials district of London.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, Sung in King Pipin’s Hall  begins as usual, illustrated with fine large cut of the partridge in the pear tree.

The first day of Christmas My true love gave to me A partridge in a pear tree..

The first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree..

But it does not conclude with the drummers drumming (the version of the text animated in the Jacquie Lawson e-card and circulated widely on web sites), but with the lords a-leaping, the earliest version cited by the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.   Note that Jemmy Pitts’s cut of the twelve lords shows them pole vaulting down a hill, instead of executing grand jetés,which is how they are frequently portrayed.

Woodcut of the twelve pole-vaulting lords

Woodcut of the twelve pole-vaulting lords

Be that as it may, at least Pitts adorned one page of his Twelve Days of Christmas with a fine cut of a couple kissing under a ball of mistletoe suspended from the ceiling that Joseph Crawhall might have been proud of.

Under the mistletoe...

Under the mistletoe…

Our inquiring readers may be wondering what King Pippin has to do with “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  This could be an allusion to the hero of The History of Little King Pippin (London: F. Newbery, 1775), who was king of the good boys and presumably had premises suitable for large-scale holiday entertaining!

Addenda on costing out the true love’s Christmas expenses

In 2012, the Huffington Post asked PNC Wealth Management to cost out the haul of the object of the true love’s affections and the numbers came to a hefty $107,000.  But that’s actually way below cost, as Iona and Peter Opie , authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, could have told the money men.   If they had read the rhyme carefully (close reading is a skill everyone needs), they would have realized the mistake in basing the estimate on the last day’s worth of presents only.  The true love had to shell out for not one, but twelve partridges (1 x 12 days), 22 not two doves (2 x 11 days), 30, not three French hens (3 x 10 days) and so forth for a whopping total of 364 items instead of a Grinchy 78.