The Digital Library Center is currently digitizing a number of hand-colored chapbooks from the John MacKay Shaw Collection. Chapbooks derive their name from the chapmen who sold them. Peddlers and tradesmen would offer small, cheap books among their wares, often accounts of fairy tales or current political events, lessons in language and song, or engaging stories. Many of the chapbooks in the Shaw Collection cater to a younger crowd; these examples of 19th century juvenile literature would have been popular among the middle and lower classes. The hand-colored illustrations would have increased the price of the simple text by offering a richer, more attractive set of pictures to accompany the story.
The comic adventures of Old Mother Hubbard, and her dog by Sarah Catherine Martin provides an excellent example of hand coloring in a chapbook. Most of us know the rhyme about the woman who went to the cupboard to find her poor dog a bone, but that’s not quite the whole story. First published in 1805, the nursery rhyme follows the increasingly outlandish behavior of the dog, who teaches himself to read, play the flute, dance a jig, and ride a goat. This 1819 version is one of many chapbooks that anthropomorphized animals to tell an amusing story. Unlike other fairy tales, this story doesn’t offer an obvious moral lesson, relying upon the antics of the dog to simply entertain, rather than instruct. Sadly, the tale of Old Mother Hubbard and her comical dog ends on a somber note – the final illustration depicts Hubbard weeping over the grave of her now-deceased pup. Though not exactly a happy ending, this chapbook represents an interesting time in publishing, storytelling, and the consumption habits of the masses. The full text will soon be available on DigiNole.
For those readers who aren’t quite dog people, try Old Dame Trot and her comical cat instead.