Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Say Hello to the First Talking Book

by Stephen J. Gertz

No one likes a book that talks back:

"Dog-ear my leaves and die!"

"How'd y'like it if I scribbled in your margins?"

"You said you couldn't put me down. Flat-leaver!"

Perhaps I should adjust my meds.

Be that as it may, all books speak to us on some level. It doesn't get more basic, however, than that found in The Speaking Picture Book, a movable book considered to be the first of its kind and magnificent.

"The piece de resistance of any collection of movables, or toy-books for that matter, is surely The Speaking Picture Book (c. 1893), an item of such charm and fascination that even the most blasé modern parents or their children can hardly fail to be captivated by it. Stored in an ordinary brown cardboard box, this 'Special Book with Picture, Rhyme and Sound for Little People' is a delight to handle, eye-catching in appearance, and quite remarkably authentic in the sounds it produces.

"The book, manufactured in Nuremberg by a firm unknown to most experts, is yet another example of German ingenuity. In addition to the main German edition, there were also translations of the text into English, French, and Spanish. In Britain, H. Grevel & Co, who had scooped the market with the Meggendorfer titles, handled this new masterpiece with similar success, while the famous New York toy shop, F.A.O. Schwartz, cornered the American trade.

Internal mechanism.

"…At the front of the book are eight full-page colour illustrations, each faced by a page of text in verse. At the side of each of these is a small arrow pointing at one of the nine little ivory tassels which are attached by strings through the side of the book to the mechanism concealed inside.

Mama and Papa.

 "The titles of the pictures are self-explanatory: a cock, donkey, lamb, some birds, a cow, cuckoo, goat, and Mama and Papa. As the respective tassels are pulled out, and then allowed to slide back, they operate different miniature bellows inside which produce the sound of a cock crowing, the birds chirping, and so on, in a most life-like sound which issues from the gilded wooden top and bottom edges of the book. Perhaps the greatest triumph of all is the last 'speaking picture' when two tassels produce the sound of children crying for their Mama and Papa.

"Copies of these remarkable books which have survived youthful hands, damp and dust, not to mention the ravages of time, are now justifiably worth hundreds of pounds on the rare occasions when they come up for sale" (Haining, Movable Books An Illustrated History, pp. 136-137).

The first edition in English was published (and manufactured?) by Theodore Brand, this moveable's inventor, of whom little is known. Based in Sonneberg (Thüringen), Germany, on October 15, 1879 he filed an application with the British Patent Office to patent "a speaking picture-book"' that was originally patented in Germany December 3, 1878 (Commissioners of Patents' Journal, January 27, 1880, p. 286, item #223,108).

An amazingly fine and fully functional copy has just come to market. If movable books move you The Speaking Picture Book will speak your language (Urdu, Swahili, and Tagalog iffy).

Just don't talk back to it. It's sensitive and easily cries. Nobody likes a lachrymose book; damp stains are an ever present danger.  And beware: it'll tug at your heartstrings when you pull the cord for Mama and Papa, turning from Moo-Moo to Boo-Hoo on a dime. 'Just what everyone needs,  emotionally labile literature. It's a tear-jerker in a book that's a box. But what a box.

[MOVABLE BOOK]. The Speaking Picture Book. A Special Book with Picture, Rhyme and Sound for Little People. New York: F.A.O. Schwartz, n.d.  [c.1893-95]. Sixteenth edition. Folio (298 x 225 mm). Book-form box, enclosing nine printed leaves. Eight chromolithographed plates. Original red cloth. Upper board elaborately color decorated. Gilt title to spine. Nine pull-cords to fore-edge. All edges gilt. In original storage box. Made in Germany.

Title page and external images courtesy of Peter Harrington Rare Books, currently offering this title, with our thanks.

Image of interior mechanical works courtesy of FlickR, with thanks.

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