Vintage Books: The Grade School Textbook as Art

4 Jun

Vintage children’s textbooks are a wonderful source for illustrations.  I am inspired by the work of Henry Darger, an outsider artist who collected pictures and drawings of children to use as reference in his beautiful paintings, which he created to accompany an epic book he was writing.  These old books contain exactly the type of sweet drawings of children in old fashioned clothes that Darger used.  They also feature great typography typical of the times, typography that you don’t really see anymore.  The books tend to be small, most being no more than 7″ X 5″, and when I hold them, as with many old objects, they seem to have this energy about them that makes one wonder about its life before it came into one’s possession.  Also, when you look at them it makes you realize that you can’t remember how to do long division anymore.  I have quite a number of these textbooks, some dating back to the 1920s, but here are a few of my favorites.

The first is a science textbook called “Science Stories: Book Two”  It is missing the page that indicates the publisher, edition and release date, but it is probably from the 1950s.  Concepts such as weather, electricity and living things are explained with small stories that are punctuated with illustrations.

The cover of Science Stories

The inside cover and first page

The images inside depict children in 1920s era clothing, beautifully rendered in water colours:

An illustration accompanying a story about weather

An illustration depicting a westward wind

The illustrations of children are too numerous to show them all.  There were also lovely illustrations of animals.  Here are the ones of the “hipster” animals, the deer, and the wolf:

From the chapter on “Living Things”

I love the pink sky

“A garden spider eats many kinds of insects.”

There were some nice paintings of landscapes from different climates, and drawings of food and household items:

From the text underneath this illustration: “This picture shows clouds in the sky. But they have not covered the sun. Do you think the ground is warm where the sunshine touches it?”

“There was the ocean at last!”

Electric Helpers “Electricity is one of our best helpers.”

I love the way these scissors are rendered in blues and pinks, this would be awesome as a sticker or t-shirt, or, if you are a hipster, as a tattoo (you guys have seen the scissor tattoos that are cropping up lately, right?

The book also had wonderful illustrations on the chapter title pages, and as part of the section headers:

Chapter title illustration

Section header

The second book is an eighth grade spelling book from 1950.  I love the fountain pen and ink bottle on the black cover:

Cover of The Canadian Speller, Grade 8

Most of the illustrations in this book were small horizontal drawings at the heading of the page, accompanying the chapter title.

“Some of the ———– stamps are very rare.” The instructions ask you to write the word “collector’s” in the blank space. Talk about a pointless exercise!

I love that this textbook has stolen copyrighted Disney characters for this illustration. Perhaps they hoped that Canada is so obscure that it would renderthe discovery of this infringement nearly impossible.

Any good spelling text for children should have a chapter about personal problems. “Some persons, losing their tempers, become very impatient, and allow their actions to be controlled only by their moods. They become nuisances to themselves and to all with whom they have any association.” Under this paragraph about solving personal problems and a vocabulary list of related words is this: “REVIEW– Indians wear moccasins on their feet.”

Here’s an illustration to make you cringe; the accompanying text explains that a Christian missionary is someone who pursues the ideal of self adjustment for others’ comfort while enduring personal hardship to do so! What?! I also enjoy the beehive with chopsticks in it that two of the stereotyped cartoonish African women are wearing.

“Going to a Party!” “The main feature of a party is a group of people having fun together.” Is this really information that people in grade eight are unaware of?

“Your Personality and the School” It’s not clear if the one with the personality disorder here is the conceited girl, the two snickering about her behind her back, or the guy prancing around.

This guy’s personality and the School

“How to Make and Keep Friends” There’s a Harold and Maude joke here, but I’ll let you come up with it. The review at the bottom of this page states “I saw two men quarrelling (sic) on the wharf.” I don’t get what you are supposed to be learning from these reviews!

“Our Cruel Blessing” is, according to this illustration, that we have to give money to people dressed like Abraham Lincoln.

The next book is a grade 7 mathematics book from 1940 that has nice black and white illustrations.  Here’s just a few:

Cover of “Junior Mathematics, Grade 7”

The little girl’s outfit is so sweet!

Wow, the boy in the centre seems rather formally dressed to just find a percent of a number

For grade sixers, as we used to call ’em, I have this textbook, “Living Arithmetic”

The cover of “Living Arithmetic” I love the drawing of the pilot and the children looking at blueprints.

“Everyday Problems” They never end, am I right?

“Problems About Measures” I like that the foreground is drawn in dark black, while the background is grey. It’s an interesting effect.

And finally, if anyone is still reading this long post, there is this grade four text “Arithmetic for Everyday Use”

The cover of “Arithmetic for Everyday Use” published in 1937

Things that cost five cents in 1937

A cozy little drawing at the margin of one of the pages

This was super tiny, like one inch by one inch. I love the giant hair bow and giant neck ruffle

In contrast to the above girl’s leisure, a few of the illustrations depicted little girls sent off to do errands that they look too young to do by themselves.

This poor little girl had to go to this maniac’s dead animal store.

This girl’s parents had a less morbid errand for her to run, but still.

This poor little girl had to buy her school supplies alone.  I guess her parents don’t care to take part in the family ritual of “back-to-school” shopping.  God!

Well, anyways I hope you have enjoyed this look at some of my vintage children’s textbooks.  They are really very sweet in their content.  At times though with some of these books there will be a little story about, you know, “see Jane run, run run, run, Dick wants to run too, Dick and Jane run,” but when you flip to the back of the book where there is teaching material for the instructor you see that that little asinine three lines was supposed to teach you a whole page of stuff, like about how physical activity is important to grow up well adjusted, how it’s important to wear weather appropriate clothes, different emotions manifest themselves in a variety of physical ways and on and on, on topics that did not come to mind while reading the thing!  It’s amazing the way books for children of these grades really shape one’s perception of the world in ways you don’t even realize at the time.

I liked their small size too, like I said they were all only about 5 by 7 inches.  They are much better than those hulking 10″ X 12″ hard cover monstrosities they make you carry now.  And most of the text book now just have boring stock photography or crappy modern cartoon-like line drawings that have no artistic value.  No wonder I forgot how to do basic math, I just wasn’t visually inspired the way I could, nay, should, have been!

I purchased all of my vintage children’s textbook (I’ve only shown a few here) at Value Village thrift store, which have them some times in their vintage book section.

Textbooks purchased at Value Village, 1319 Bloor St. W., Toronto

One Response to “Vintage Books: The Grade School Textbook as Art”

  1. Retro Hound June 5, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    I love the old style drawings. When a modern artist tries to do something in that style, there is always something missing, I’m not sure what or why. The first book had the best illustrations of this post.

    Lots of missionaries try to adapt to the culture they are in as much as possible. Hudson Taylor even took to wearing Chinese clothes and hairstyles, and that was in the 1800s. Just like with anything with that many humans involved, there are a wide range of responses.

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