Thursday, June 4, 2009

See Your Words in Special Collections

Hello again to all of you in Literature Land from Anne in Library Land! In response to an energetic request to "do comics soon!" I reply that I shall, soon--but until then, as a teaser, here's a neat little item from our children's literature collections. A New Hieroglyphical Bible, for the Amusement and Instruction of Children was published in New York in 1815. In this palm-sized gem, the author selected the most memorable and memorizable Bible verses for little minds, and substituted some words with pictures meant to represent the word itself. A significant break from the rote memorization methods common to the time, these "hieroglyphs" were intended to "make the lesson delightful as well as profitable to the juvenile mind" and to teach reading skills while improving recall of religious lessons. The book is unusual not only for its inventive approach to literacy, but also for the fine quality of the wood engravings themselves. Pictures appearing in children's books of the early nineteenth century, when they appeared at all, were usually very crude cuts, worn from frequent reuse in multiple titles. These are striking in their detail, and must have been great fun to see for new little learners.

Though of course these emblematic verses might not count as "comics" as we define them today, they do represent a fascinating shift in American visual culture and help set the stage for the more expansive blending of word and image that would develop continuously throughout the century and end up later with early comics like
The Yellow Kid and Little Nemo. This is a great primary source for anyone studying reading in America, religion and literature, or general visual culture. (Also, there's neat pictures of dragons and unicorns, yes, unicorns!)

To see our copy, stop by Special Collections! For more about hieroglyphical Bibles, see David Morgan's awesome Protestants and Pictures published by Oxford UP, 1999.

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