November 30, 2007

Y Is Not For Yale, Because V Was Already For The 'Varsity, Duh.


Some of the analysis bugs, but Emily Bazelon and Erica Perl ultimately get high fives from me for their Slate slide show on the history of children's books. The reason: they introduced me to Caroline Ketcham Eaton's incomparable 1890 book--never published, or not yet, anyway--Illustrated Alphabet for Little Folks.

Eaton's work combines at least two of my favorite things: unusual ABC books, and indoctrinating kids into ridiculously esoteric cultural milieux. Slate includes just one page of the Illustrated Alphabet, and each letter is as awesome as the Slatesters' commentary is off-base:

V is the 'Varsity, known as "Old Yale",
To which all good fellows should go without fail.

W is the Waterwitch that sails on the water,
And holds at a pinch, son and parents and daughter.

X is the Xipias down at the shore,
That pulls very hard and requires a long oar.

Slate's critique is so hopeless, you'd think they went to Harvard:
This book was never published, possibly because the illustrations are fairly misleading: Varsity looks more like a factory; Waterwitch and Xipias (which means "swordfish") both depict boats...
In 1890, Yale's Old Brick Row did look like that; Yale didn't get its now-iconic Collegiate Gothic plan until the 1920's. [Related: the "'Varsity" and "Old Yale" usage in this 1902 NYT report of a regatta matches Eaton's own.] A Waterwitch is a high-performance, streamlined cruiser designed for the kind of sailing a man typically doesn't bring the family along for; and a Swordfish is, in fact, a class of dinghy.

Eaton's book was not just teaching sailing culture, like Lois Lenski's jargon-rich Captain Small; her book was designed to initiate its young target audience into the yacht- and riding club society of a very narrow sliver of 19th century Connecticut. Maybe it was never published because it was never intended for anyone not related to Mrs. Eaton herself. [So far, it seems she's managed to keep out of the papers and databases entirely up till now, including for her wedding and death. Now that's WASPy.]

Illustrated Alphabet is in Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library, and it's mentioned now because of curator Timothy Young's new book, Drawn To Enchant: Original Children's Book Art in the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection. Which is great, but then you see how little [i.e., none] of these supposedly wonderful books have been put online--or even catalogued--by the 'Varsity. Someone up in New Haven needs a swift paddling with a long oar.

[09/2008 update: as Barbara Narendra from Yale points out in the comments, it's Eaton, not Easton. I corrected it, better late than never.]


Oh! But I must defend. A search here with the keyword "Shirley" will show lots of ways children were indoctrinated. The wonders of atomic power! Or perhaps something for the holiday season? They don't make rebuses like they did in the 1850s.

[spare the oar, spoil the eli, I always say. thanks for initiating us into the quirks of the Beinecke search. here's one from 1825, a primer to teach pupils how to "be good Presidents yet." Must've been phased out of the curriculum by the time W got there. -ed.]

That should be EATON, not Easton. She was married to Daniel Cady Eaton, Professor of Botany at Yale.

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