LAUNDERED WORDS: MUSLIN CHILDREN’S BOOKS GIFTED TO THE WOLFSONIAN

Once again I thought I’d turn my blog post over to our new Associate Librarian, Rochelle Pienn to let her describe a few of the children’s books that have come in as part of the Jean S. and Frederica A. Sharf gift to the Wolfsonian library. And so without further ado…


One of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library Association conferences that I attended took its members to Yale University to visit the Beinecke Library’s Special Collections. While this was indeed a treat, it was one of the scheduled side-trips that made the most vivid of impressions on me: an insider’s tour of Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut from late 1800s, now a museum and a National Historic Landmark. Besides the obvious awe-inspiring fantastical architecture and ostentatious interiors of the house, the home itself left the poignant resonance that the long-gone children of the Twain family had been well cared for and deeply loved. A nursery and school room on the upper floors still contain toys and books, strewn about as though the Guilded Age era siblings took a brief break from their playtime only moments before, instead of over a ghostly century ago.

This haunting memory returned when the Chief Librarian presented me with a group of children’s books circa 1890-1908, recently donated by the Wolfsonian’s generous benefactors, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf. These particular books consist of nursery rhymes, nonsensical poetic stories, alphabet primers and fables, all printed on fabric instead of paper, so as “They may be washed / and the colors will not run / a child can chew them / and have lots of fun” (Saalfield’s Muslin Books publisher’s advertisement).

At the turn of the nineteenth century, middle class and wealthy Americans sheltered their children much in the way their Victorian England counterparts did. The innocence of childhood was revered, yet children were also taught to behave in an orderly, adult-like fashion. The combination of these goals resulted in both silly stories and gently admonishing primers. Companies like the McLoughlin Brothers innovated color printing techniques, mass producing more books which often contained barely disguised advertisements for the toys and games they also sold within the stories and illustrations.

The cultural themes of the day also sneak into ABC books, as illustrations of young boys playing with guns and little girls enjoying mock-tea parties with their dolls demonstrate. A noticeable difference between antique primers and those of today is the “adultness” of word choice; rhymes from past readers show a higher expectation of children’s understanding of more complex language than perhaps today’s computerized, brightly colored plastic choices do. The importance of these books to the children that owned them remains evidenced by their condition. While the cloth books did hold up over a hundred years later, their slightly worn and frayed covers bespeak of active American children past, who loved to read and play.

Rare items such as these children’s books are only part of the rich largesse of cultural history represented by the Sharfs’ most recent donation to the library.

Mrs. David Munro, The Doggie’s Promenade. Akron, Ohio: Saalfield Publishing Co., 1907.

This story in rhyme is a moral lesson on vanity: the well-dressed “doggie” family is bested by a clever cat. The publisher’s advertisement on the back cover declares, “Saalfield’s muslin books / All my other books are worn / and the leaves are badly torn / but my muslin books I found / were as good as newly bound.”


My ABC Book. Akron, Ohio: Saalfield Publishing Co., 1904.

Here the letter “T” is represented by the “Train of Cars, always on time.” In the 1890s, electricity could power railways, and the railroad became the foremost important method of transportation.


Playtime ABC. New York: McLoughlin Brothers, [1899?].

The illustration beside the letter “N” shows a little girl playing with dolls based on illustrator Palmer Cox’s “Brownie” characters. Cox’s whimsical world of Brownies became a prevalent craze, comparable to our contemporary “Smurfs” of the 1980s.

See Saw ABC. [New York: McLoughlin Brothers, 1900?]

“V is for Victory, out to sea. The warship returns with her flag floating free,” declares this patriotic primer. At the time of publication, the United States won the Spanish-American War. National pride reverberates, especially in print media.

Sunny Hours. Akron, Ohio: Saalfield Publishing Co., 1908.

Though first celebrated during the Pilgrim era, Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until 1863, under President Lincoln’s decree. Perhaps this is why the final page of this muslin book tells its little reader that, “The turkey is a gorgeous bird / As he struts up and down; / But I think he is lots handsomer / When he’s roasted nice and brown.”

Who Killed Cock Robin? Akron, Ohio: Saalfield Publishing Co., [1900?]

 As durable as these rag books were, this 18th century fully fabric fable barely survived its young owner: the front cover, torn straight down the middle, has been surreptitiously stitched back together.

~ by "The Chief" on August 17, 2011.

2 Responses to “LAUNDERED WORDS: MUSLIN CHILDREN’S BOOKS GIFTED TO THE WOLFSONIAN”

  1. Great blog- I liked the historical explanations about the book illustrations.

  2. Thank you for sharing such these fantastic works for those of us who cannot visit Miami right now (but hopefully in the near future!)

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