Three excellent examples of early American children’s literature, A Bag of Nuts Ready Cracked (1789), The Cries of London (1805), and A New Hieroglyphical Bible (1794), are currently on exhibit at the Cambridge Public Library. Ranging in subject from religious instruction to socially complex riddles and rhymes, these books give us an idea of the reading habits of children in New England over 200 years ago. Each of the three books on display were once in the possession of brothers Charles and John Trowbridge, whose fourth great grandfather, James, moved to Cambridge in 1664. They were donated to the library by Sara Bent, Charles and John’s neice, around 1889. The books are part of the Thomas Wentworth Higginson Author Collection, the first collection of the Cambridge Room Archives and Special Collections.
Location: The Cambridge Room Case, Second Floor, Research, outside the Cambridge Room.
Date: August 15, 2011 to October 14, 2011
A Bag of Nuts Ready Cracked
Thomas Thumb, Esq.
Worcester, Printed by Isaiah Thomas, 1789
Isaiah Thomas, publisher of A Bag of Nuts Ready Cracked, had a profound influence not only on the history of printing in America but also on the reading habits of children in New England. In 1775, Thomas – who had apprenticed since the age of six under Zechariah Fowle of Boston – brought the first printing press to Worcester, making it the fifth town in Massachusetts to have such a distinction. Ten years later, Thomas began reprinting a series of children’s books from the printers Carnan and Newbery of London, which “delighted the hearts of thousands of the youth of New England.” A Bag of Nuts Ready Cracked was one of only 30 books printed in Worcester before 1800.
The Cries of London
London, Printed for J. Harris, 1805
The Cries of London is both an early American riddle book for children and a social commentary on the status of urban poor. Children loved to sing and memorize the street vendors’ witty and poetic calls. Adults loved to collect these idealized versions of London’s impoverished street sellers and had been doing so since the 15th century. A flourishing market for both children’s rhyme books and prints depicting lower class Londoners existed until the 19th century. The Cries of London was just one of several books published during the same time. Yet these nostalgic images of street vendors with their melodious sayings obscure the actual status and identity of the people they depicted – London’s urban poor, who during the 19th Century lived notoriously wretched lives. Perhaps the motivation behind the purchasing and selling of these books was a means to categorize the “other,” appeasing middle and upper class fears that London was growing large and diverse, and consequently ungovernable.
A New Hieroglyphical Bible
Rowland Hill, M.A.
Boston, Printed for W Norman Book & Chartseller, 1794
Reverend Rowland Hill was not only a popular English preacher, enthusiastic evangelical, and an influential advocate of the small pox vaccine, but also the author of numerous children’s works, most notably A New Hieroglyphical Bible, which he wrote to appease a growing concern that parents were not attentive enough to the pious and early instruction of their children. Hieroglyphic bibles contain the full text of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelations. Images replace nouns – as a means to teach children to read – with the full verse printed in italics at the bottom of each page. Hill’s 144-page hieroglyphic bible also includes a short piece on the life of Jesus, a page dedicated to each of the Apostles, and a few hymns. The book concludes with a quiz – with questions like “Where did Adam and Eve dwell?” and “What becomes of the wicked when they die?” – for parents to test their children’s knowledge. The version on display is the first American edition of Hill’s work originally published in England.