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  • Old Comic Elton and The Age of Fun:Robert H. Elton and the Picture Book
  • Michael Joseph (bio)

An undifferentiated stream of small paperbound books, mediated by the enterprise of uneducated tradesmen and shopkeepers, constituted a significant part of the children's literature of Jacksonian America. Why these individuals chose to specialize in children's books, rather than in another entrepreneurial category, remains a mystery. Or, rather, it remains an unasked question. With few exceptions, this literature has been omitted from consideration in American bibliographic and American children's literature studies alike, although the reasons for this are obvious. The popular children's literature of this period tends to reproduce well-worn stories, rhymes, socializing tales and the like, whose significatory codes have been engaged with in other forms. They are derivative and the book objects are drab-looking, whether placed beside the elegant British originals of the period, the precious Colonial books of antiquarian interest, or the later, more familiar picture books of superior artistry. Produced randomly, cheaply, and in small numbers, they consist within a passage of publishing history that is both confused and attenuated; and consequently, the compilers have remained anonymous.

The purpose of this paper is to delineate one such minor though exemplary figure within this significant moment in American history, Robert H. Elton. Self-styled "The Old Comic," Elton illustrated and published several series of children's books between 1835 and 1850. By emphasizing the importance of illustration over text and valorizing technical novelty, Elton's publications signal a distinctive turning of demotic literature in the 1830s and 1840s and prefigure the formal properties of the twentieth-century picture book.

Born on June 6, 1806, Robert Henry Elton began his career in the New York book trade in 1828 as the owner of a small shop on Canal Street, where he sold printed ephemera such as plays, prints, and song sheets.1 In 1833 he became the first New Yorker to publish a genre of periodical humor that combined anecdotes, jokes, cartoons, and caricatures with the usual astrological and agricultural data found in almanacs. It was in the punningly titled Comic All My Nack (1834-1853) that Elton wrote of himself in the third person as "the Old Comic," or "Old Comic Elton," a sharp-witted flaneur of lower Broadway.2 He also illustrated the All My Nack with his own wood engravings. Although conceived in imitation of English periodical humor, the All My Nack evolved over the years into a satirical record of urban theater in cosmopolitan New York.3 John Tebbel notes that comic almanacs achieved the largest circulation of all the specialty periodicals and observes that they "showed the direction American humour would take for the next half century" (547). In essence, Tebbel merely repeats the assessment made earlier by Constance Rourke, who writes that "few materials are more important for a view of American humor than. . .comic almanacs" (301). Acknowledging Elton's impact on the development of American humor, Rourke describes him by a curiously fay term, "sprightly" (301). Focused on the modest urge to make people laugh, the All My Nack served as the local standard bearer to what Lewis Gaylord Clark named in 1846 "The Age of Fun": "Everybody deals in jokes, and all wisdom is inculcated in a paraphrase of humour" (181). Clark's characterization of "fun" immediately evokes the traditional rationale for children's literature, i.e., to instruct and delight (Newbery's "delectando monemus")4; but one wonders whether there is a signifying irony in Clark's comment. It is surprising, perhaps, to see "fun" deprecated in Johnson's dictionary as "a low cant word" that, according to the O.E.D., originally (1700) meant a practical joke or a hoax. At the time Clark was writing in the Knickerbocker Magazine, "fun" still retained a sense of its "low" origins. His contemporary, Samuel Carter Hall used it disparagingly in his The Book of Gems: Poets and Artists of Great Britain, writing of one poet, with what seems a genteel sneer, "his wit and humour [are] delightful, when it [sic] does not degenerate into 'fun'" (90).

It seems that "fun" still implied a significant lack, a violation...


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