Indestructible! How Children’s Books Have Survived the Centuries

lydiaI am currently in the throes of infancy with a nine-month-old who, by any evaluation of her current book-handling technique, is not destined to become a rare book librarian. She literally attacks the written word without mercy or proper treatment. Here she is “reading” her copy of Plip-Plop Pond, created by a company called Indestructibles. This line of books offers texts that are water-proof, tear-resistant and baby durable; they also wash well and are nontoxic. As impressed as I am with these titles, I’ve found myself thinking, “Surely the plight of parents wishing to introduce their babies to the joy of books without them being eaten is one shared across centuries?” Plip-Plop Pond, which is printed on some form of strong synthetic material, made me question the ways publishers created items for indifferent tiny hands in the nineteenth-century and wonder if the Society had any representatives.

Many juvenile texts were literally loved to pieces; unsurprisingly one will find countless examples of mutilated copies in any children’s literature archive. In some instances, an uncomplicated binding helped insure a book wasn’t instantly destroyed. In the children’s literature collection at AAS are thousands of juvenile literature pamphlets and limp bindings. Others are held together with a simple-stitch binding. Another strategy was to avoid sewn or glued text blocks altogether, which was easy prey for small hands.

Betsey Brooks full cover
Some attempts were made to reinforce children’s books with a cover—many times these were fashioned from other loose, illustrated papers. AAS has a collection of uncataloged copybook covers, such as the hand-sewn example above from July 1806 belonging to one Betsey Brooks. It is illustrated with woodcuts of an elephant, lion, and eagle. While not permanent, these covers offered a unique way of preserving the text within. Though it was hardly indestructible, it was nevertheless protected. And obviously Brooks was interested in taking care of it, as it shows evidence of quite a bit of hand-stitching and repairs!

The best paper is made using natural materials. Paper from rags (used up until the second half of the nineteenth century) is strong and lasts a long time, whereas paper from wood pulp yellows quickly, disintegrates, and certainly tears easily. Texts created before the introduction wood pulp paper have their own insurance of survival (as they likely had some form of rag-content); those printed after had to be creative. Just as printing on rag-paper was falling out of use, printing on textile (or cloth printing) was utilized by some publishers to render them “indestructible.” Unlike other children’s books which were variable in their quality of printing, these “indestructible books” were the opposite—created with preservation in mind.

Indestructible primerPrinters of these books would issue them without covers or a text block. Some were printed on a sheet of paper and folded/stitched into a single gathering, which made the perfect format for sharing. Indestructibles were arguably a form of toy books—a genre which later used color as a main selling-point, and were standardized in their format and size to be competitive in the children’s book market.

The term “indestructible” was used to describe texts and designate a series as early as the 1850s. No doubt some children saw something incapable of destruction as a challenge. But handling these books now, it is obvious why they have survived with such little wear. A speller and early reading book, The Indestructible Primer (right), was illustrated with forty pictures on a limp binding; published in Boston by Ticknor, Reed, and Fields in 1852, this item is the Society’s earliest example with “indestructible” in the title. As an example of an alphabet book, The Indestructible Primer was designed to teach the letters and sounds to young children, as well as simple words, rhyming, and foundations of reading. The page featured here shows that wood-engraved illustrations were also used to keep readers attentive (and provide a visual reference). Some of them were even hand-colored. The item is small in size (measuring 13 x 18 cm), has only fifteen pages and a simple stitch binding, and as the advertisement on page four states, it was “printed on strong cloth, expressly prepared.”

Cock RobinIndestructibles were more than books of instruction, spelling, or the alphabet; some were stories and nursery rhymes. As important as the indestructible primer was to allow generation after generation to tear into their books, it lacked in color and full-page illustration. Instructional books such as primers were naturally followed-up with pleasure books. The book The Courtship and Wedding of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren (with an account of the doleful death of Cock Robin) was part of an indestructible line for children (see above). Published between 1856 and 1859 and printed by Joseph Barton, the book adds to the developing form by printing in color with well-known artists and illustrators, such as British-born Harrison Weir (1824-1906) who specialized in animal drawings and illustrated a large number of children’s books.

The Three Bears

Another text published by Sheldon & Co. between 1859 and 1861 was The Three Bears (also known as Goldilocks and the Three Bears). Sheldon & Co. called this series “Indestructible pleasure books” (and AAS has eight from this series!). The text was printed on cloth, also illustrated by Harrison Weir, and engraved by W.G. Mason and Greenaway & Wright. On the inside of the cover is a series list, indicating that the texts were printed in oil colors on linen.

Noah's Ark

No review of children’s printing would be complete without mention of the McLoughlin Brothers, a New York-based publishing firm that led the way in printing technologies for children for nearly a century. Featured here is a copy of Noah’s Ark ABC, which belonged to McLoughlin Bros., Inc.’s vice president, Charles E. Miller. This “Indestructible” copy (printed at the head of the front cover) features a half-cloth binding with printed boards; the back edge of the boards are covered with cloth to form the spine, giving it added protection. Not forfeiting any of the color-printing advancements of the day, Noah’s Ark ABC boasts gorgeous chromolithographed illustrations. The story is one that invites the youngest of audiences—the biblical tale of Noah, the flood, and the pairs of animals was, and continues to be, a perennial popular first-book for infants—and would have drawn many interested young hands to explore this indestructible copy printed in 1884. (The Society holds publisher’s catalogs of the McLoughlin firm, most of which have been digitized (such as this 1897 example), and are useful for those interested in full title lists.)

So what started out as a derivative of a chapbook grew up—and as more publishers created their own titles or series, they brought in more illustrators and introduced a set price and standard size, which eventually led to increased competition. And using various means—be it linen, blended cloth, covered boards, or some combination—the evolution of these indestructible books made it possible for hands and mouths, great and small to use books. Even those—like Goldilocks—with a more discriminating palate.

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