|because it's perfectly reasonable to use beer and coffins to teach the ABCs
Doug, Sam and I went up to Old Greenwich for Ephemera 32, the antique paper and printed matter fair held by the Ephemera Society of America. It was more paper, posters, postcards, business cards, autographs and advertising than you ever thought could possibly survive the decades, priced from a couple dollars to several thousand. There we stumbled upon a large and (to a bottom-level ephemera collector) breathtakingly expensive scrapbook of brightly hand-colored woodblock illustrations seemingly culled from a series of British children’s books. The latest image appears to date from about 1840. All were affixed to pages of linen edged in red silk and were bound in a now-disintegrating cover marked “Juvenile Scrapbook” and “B. de B. Russell.” We were unable to get it out of our minds as we drank our tepid coffee in the lunch area.
Dear Reader, we bought it. More on the scrapbook as information surfaces.*
Now, on to some background research: Stories, ballads, rhymes and popular tales of piety were passed down through the generations verbally. These oral trasmissions started to be written down and printed in the 16th century as broadsides, leaflets and booklets called chapbooks. These were popular and cheap—and cheaply produced— texts of instruction of any sort, typically from 8 to 32 pages and sold by itinerant peddlers called chapmen. “Chap” is etymologically related to an old (Middle?) English word for “trade” (see place name Cheapside in London), and by extension, cheap. Chapbooks in the form of manuals of instruction and entertainment specifically for children became popular in the mid-1700s. These small chapbooks and other printed matter proliferated and gradually took the place of the medieval educational form of hornbooks—the alphabet carved on a wooden paddle and literally covered in a transparent sheet of horn. (There were folding cardboard items called “battledores” that were also used as instructional items in the early 1800s. Named after the paddles used in the game of shuttlecocks, the ones I've seen dont actually look like paddles and dont seem to offer any benefit from having this more complicated folded form. A wash if you ask me.)
Certain publishers became known for this sort of printing expressly. The Newberys of St. Paul's Churchyard, London, for instance—proprietor, son, stepson and nephew— published a couple of thousand titles over the period 1740-1814, including A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Little Goody Two-Shoes, and The Newtonian System of Philosophy Adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies.
Just about everything captivates me about these things: their small, beautifully worn and weathered form; the texture of the printing and hand coloring; the elliptical, incongruous, sometimes morbid text; and of course, the strong, graphic illustrations (The celebrated engraver Thomas Bewick and his brother started out carving woodprints for children’s books in the mid -late 1700s. These illustrations were copied, reused out of context, and adapted for decades).
You may have already noticed more than a passing resemblance to the work of Edward Gorey. I wonder if he amassed an actual collection of these? Or was he just proficient in the curious ways of the chapbook...
All images from these sites:
Banbury Chap Books and Nursery Toy Book Literature, 1890 from Google books
The Historical Children's Literature database at the University of Washington—worth hours of perusal!
*In doing feverish research since the Saturday purchase we’ve discovered the scrapbook belonged to someone named “Blois de Blois Russell”, an Oxford alum who died at 22.