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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


Thrift Store Finds: Give-a-Show

1 May

When shopping at my favorite junk store I came across this great Kenner “Give-a-Show” Star Wars projector toy.  It’s a small flimsy projector that comes with slide strips that you manually feed through it to create a movie like experience.  A few of the slides have small captions at the top or bottom, but the bulk of the ‘show’ must be filled in with either imagination, or memories of having seen the film,  the latter seeming like an unlikely senario for the age group reprisented on the box:

How old are these kids, like four?

There are 16 slide strips, and though they are numbered the fact that so many of them are just illustrations of ships shooting at other ships with “Pu! Pu!” type sound effects written on them makes recreating the plot of the film with these a task only suited to a hard core Star Wars fan, not a toddler.

I noticed a few other blogs posting about this item, but none thought to properly highlight how hilariously awesome the slides are.  The bold colours and simple graphic illustrations are wonderful to begin with, but as I mentioned above they are also punctuated with unusual sound effects, like “Ktang!”, “Sfoom!”, “Ftik!”, and “Wok!”.  On closer inspection of the other bloggers’ sets, I realized that some of my slides have been printed irregularly, creating extra colourful scenes that are really quite striking.

And so, as the box suggests, I will now “Give-a-show” to you, dear reader, and hopefully this post will be something you “Give-a-Shit” about.

These first slides are the misprinted ones, which are my favorites out of the bunch.  I love the unintended pink and purple result:

"You are my prisoner Princess Leia!"

"Artoo! Where are you going?"

"Into the trench!"

It’s quite a show eh?  The slides are perhaps better viewed this way, as they lose their saturation when projected with the cheap toy projector.  These misprinted slides would make awesome t-shits and other pirated merchandise don’t you think?  But again, please refrain from stealing my idea to make counterfeit goods and sell them.

Here are some of the best of the properly printed slides:

"I cant shake them!"

"On to Alderaan!"

"The fighters...trouble!"

"Where's Alderaan?"

"Get that Capsule!"

"Use the force Luke!"

These are just a few of my favorites, as there are 112 slides in the set there are too many to show them all.

Did any of you have a Give-a-Show toy as a child, and if so, did you ever Give-a-show with it?  I think these types of toys are kind of cool in theory but they taint the child’s imagination and confine their play to things they have seen on the TV or in the movie, kind of like when you read the book after you’ve already seen Girl, Interrupted and you can’t get Angelina Jolie’s vacuous face and whole “I have my children’s shoe sizes written in Swahili tattooed onto my shoulder blade” persona out of your head.  Thoughts?

Star Wars Give-a-Show found at Odds and Ends, 703 Queen St. W., Toronto

Convenience Store Treasures: Barbie Party!

26 Apr

Here’s a couple of awesome party related items I found at a local variety store, Jusil Convenience.  The first is an old package of Barbie party invitations:

Barbie party invitations

Look at all that hair!  I love the colours, and the white halo around her.  I’m a bit confused as to what the blue thing on the right is in between the strands of her hair; it’s clear she has a blue shirt on, but does it have a giant puff at the front that protrudes all the way up to her chin?  Or is that supposed to be her shoulder?  Either way, it looks a tad akward.  Anyways, I love Barbie stuff from the 80s and early 90s.  Her hair and clothes were the best then, and also the font of the Barbie logo was much nicer than some modern versions I have seen.

Isn’t that preferable?  I love this these invitations, the bold, graphic illustration, free of text cluttering up the image, and the lavender barbie logo on the pink grid background.  I bought a couple of these, and I believe there are still more available, but if you want them, you’ll have to hurry before I go back and snatch them up!  Can you imagine the awesome little girl parties that must have been thrown and been well attended thanks to these enticing invitations?

Next on my imaginary-nostalgic-little-girl-birthday-party supply list  are these great clown loot-bags  Remember loot bags?  You would get like some little trinkets like sparkly pencils and penny candies, little reminders of the fun day.  Why don’t you get stuff like that at adult parties?  That’s what I’d like to know.

The clown loot bags. There’s even a space to write the recipient’s name!

I don’t really collect a lot of clown stuff because most of it is bad but not bad enough to be good, but I really liked this clown.  But as you can see from these pictures, these poor bags are not long for this world, as the plastic is so old it has dried out and is disintegrating into tiny pieces.  Kind of a sweet metaphor for fading recollections of childhood, all the super -girly-sparkle-sleep-over-pink party-penny-candy memories scattering, swirling behind us in the winds of time, like so many bits of plastic loot-bag.

Don’t these flaky bits of plastic make you feel all sad and nostalgic inside?

Both items purchaised at Jusil Convenience, 2305 Yonge St., Toronto

Vintage Books: Health Knowledge and Reader’s Digest

25 Apr

I love to check the vintage book section at Value Village as they often have wonderful old books with beautiful lithographed illustrations.  The colours achieved with this type of printing are far superior to anything you see nowadays in books, even when a limited  colour pallet is used.  These illustrations are a great resource of inspiration for unusual colour combinations, drawing composition, and illustration styles.  Some are suitable for framing just as they are, I think, or maybe they could be turned into decals, stickers or t-shirts.  Perhaps I’ve said too much!  Don’t steal my idea to steal other’s work and turn it into unauthorized merchandise.

The first illustrations come from a 1953 Reader’s Digest condensed book that contains the stories “Black Widow”, “The Silent World”, “East of Eden”, “Karen” and “The Curve and the Tusk”.  I love how the illustrations are rendered with mostly blues and browns, an unusual combination that is never the less very satisfying.

The cover of the Reader's Digest book

An illustration from "Black Widow by Patrick Quintin

another "Black Widow" illustration.

My personal favorite of the "Black Widow" illustrations.

An Illustration from "Karen" by Marie Killilea

I have a few of these condensed RD books and the lovely  illustrations are uncredited for some reason.  They even feel nice, the ink is somewhat thick, and smoother than the paper.  These types of bright lithographs would make excellent solvent transfers.  This technique, in which you apply a light coating of solvent, such as gasoline onto the image before pressing it onto another surface, will unfortunately ruin the book though.

The second book I would like to share with you, dear reader is a beautiful thick medical atlas from around 1919.  Entitled, “Health Knowledge” this book, volume II of an unknown number of volumes was published by Medical Distributors Inc.  It boasts “34 Departments Scientifically Illustrated”.  I was lucky enough to find this beauty for only $6 at Value Village, a bargain for a book with as many lovely full colour plates and black and white illustrations in the text.

The cover of "Health Knowledge"

Diseases of the teeth

The above illustration of the jaw and teeth is my favorite in the book.  The colours are so beautiful.  Wouldn’t you just love some stickers or a t-shirt of this image?

A close-up of the jawline

Diseased teeth

Look at those colours!  These diseased teeth are stunning through the eyes of this medical illustrator.  These old medical illustrations are so different from the type of digitally rendered illustrations and plastic models you see today.  Modern medical textbook illustrations are very sterile, the frailty of life, the reality of death, and the experience of aging are filtered through a scientific perspective to achieve a comforting emotional  distance. The old illustrations speak to a different experience with death and disease, a more visceral, yet more romantic connection to the body and aging.  During the Victorian era and into the beginning of the 20th century the notion of death was seen as more poetic, medicine was more of an art.  My sculpture thesis was inspired by the fusion of death, medicine and science at that time.  Take for instance the wax medical models that were produced during that era:

a wax model of a baby born with syphillis

This is a lithograph of a photo of a wax model of a baby with syphilis.  Notice how it’s mounted on a piece of wood painted black surrounded by white fabric.  Other wax models of this type can be seen mounted on fine stained wood enveloped in silk.  It’s presented like a little jewel, like a little sleeping doll.  Many full body wax models of women were presented in white nightgowns on purple velvet pillows.  It speaks to the body as the original site of entertainment, theatre and show business, which is also evidenced by the development of traveling sideshows that presented preserved body parts and medical oddities, and the dissections done in front of live theatre audiences that were offered to the public at the time.

Check out this colourful illustration of different colours of urine and what ailments they indicate:

a scale of urine colours

Now wouldn’t you just love that image on a shirt?  Perfect for any occasion, am I right?

the joints

And here’s a happy looking fellow:

The black and white illustrations within the text were also nice, my favorites being this skull:

and these two dapper looking fellows in an odd, almost  homo-erotic embrace (not that there’s anything wrong with that)(actually, I think everything is homoerotic, I just love homoeroticism, don’t you, dear reader?):

"Dont look now Edmund, it appears we're being illustrated into a medical book"
"mmm.. yes, quite."

Two books I will treasure forever.

Both books found at Valure Village, 1319 Bloor St. W., Toronto

Comic Books: Classics Illustrated, Animal Stories

10 Apr

I have a small but valuable collection of  Classics Illustrated comics that are a wonderful resource for typographic, illustrative and narrative inspiration.  For those who are not familiar with this publication, as the title implies, Classics Illustrated were a series of comics published in the 1950s which sought to interest children in reading the classic novels by illustrating them, comic book style. These comics provide an easy and fast route to seeming like a well read individual, as they summarize books as long as Anna Karenina into a digestible 48 pages or less.  But, like a school essay cited only with Wikipedia, Classics Illustrated will probably leave some holes in one’s expertise on the subject, and a lack of  any direct text to quote.  While the drawings within can be hit and miss, some of the issues have beautifully drawn and rendered covers, especially the ones that depict animals.  Here are my favorites:

"Bring 'em Back Alive" By Frank Buck

Isn’t this a beautiful illustration?  The colours and the action suggested in this cover make it look so compelling.  I never read it, but I think the good people at Classics Illustrated have given you most of what you need right here, no? Who will come back alive, man or beast?

I love the concepts for these covers, like this one for example.  The wolf  looms large over a scene of a lone rider, galloping across a terrain at sunset, the fiery transition from the sober day to the mysterious night.  The animal’s angry yet thoughtful face suggests a presence  not only as a haunting memory, but perhaps as a psychic state as well.  Is the tile an allusion to a journey of inner discovery? Is to know a wild animal really to know one’s self?  I guess I would have had to have read this thing to see if what I’ve said here has anything to do with the content of the story.

"Wild Animals I Have Known" By Ernest Thompson Seton



Here is another cover with a lovely, colour saturated scene of a majestic animal, in contemplation during the hazy pink and orange lit final act  of another day.

"Fang and Claw" By Frank Buck

Cats, whether wild or domestic, seem to have a kind of dignified and important air about them, like they contain within them the cumulative memory and knowledge of cats who’ve lived and died some tens of millions of years ago.  When I look at this cover, I imagine it’s a modern cat, looking over a prehistoric landscape.  Perhaps the author, Frank Buck had a different story to tell, but I’m not really sure though, quite frankly.

And in another wolf centered story, and the only comic featured here that is based on a story I’ve heard of, White Fang is the the story of sled dog that can’t be tamed.  He is the fearless leader- of- the- pack yet too- wild- for- his- own- good archetype character that so many teen heartthrob movies capitalize on today.  Is there some correlation between White Fang and that wolf character in Twilight, for instance?  Or is was that line of thought just a lame excuse to be able to put Twilight in my tags in a transparent attempt to attract the teen market to this blog?

"White Fang" By Jack London

I hope you have enjoyed these covers as much as I have, dear reader.  And though I never got around to actually reading these super-condensed versions of the classic books, I think that the above ramblings never the less prove that some intellectual activity did result from the efforts of the creators of Classics Illustrated.

All of the above comics were purchased at BMV Books on Bloor St W., Toronto

BMV Books, 471 Bloor St. W., Toronto