From the Children’s Rare Book Collection: A ‘linen’ book

By James Brigden, Cataloguer at Homerton College Library. This blog post was first published on the Homerton College Library Weblog in April 2019.

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Since joining Homerton in 2013 I’ve catalogued some very rare, unusual and quirky items, from a postage stamp case designed by Lewis Carroll, to a 19th-century ‘speaking’ toy book that makes animal noises, a gold chain, and the oldest item in the library, The Christian casuist by Jean La Placette, printed in London in 1705. Never before, though, have I handled a book made completely from fabric. Well, there’s a first time for everything.

The Big Animal Book (front cover pictured above) was published in Akron, Ohio, United States, by The Saalfield Publishing Company in 1930.

This title was from one of the publisher’s series of linen books, with series number 803. It was illustrated by American artist Clara Miller Burd (17 May 1873 – 11 November 1933), with the front cover by Bill Bailey.

‘Cloth books’ began life around the turn of the 20th century. Dean’s Rag Book Company, formed in London in 1903, were one of the first publishers to produce books for young children made entirely of fabric (Raphael Tuck & Sons also produced cloth books around this time and slightly earlier). The idea was that the books could be washed, were durable, and were safe for young children and babies. American company Saalfield’s took on this mantra and marketed many of their cloth books as untearable and safe for children to ‘chew’.

Formerly known as The Werner Company, in 1900 Arthur J. Saalfield went to its headquarters in Akron, Ohio, to run the publishing office, and renamed it The Saalfield Publishing Company. A major publisher of children’s books and other material, the company closed down in 1977. In April of that year a large proportion of the company archives and stock were acquired by Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, United States. To read more about these holdings visit their website:

https://www.library.kent.edu/special-collections-and-archives/saalfield-publishing-company-catalogs

The 1931 sales catalogue from The Saalfield Publishing Company gives details of these and other types of books from Saalfield, such as their ‘Linentex Toy Books’, which were not actually cloth but ‘heavy paper stippled to give the appearance of linen’. They also had a series of books made from muslin.

Though it is part of the ‘Linen 803’ series, it is not actually made of linen in the strict sense of the word (as in a textile made from the flax plant). The only extant book made of linen is the Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis, a 3rd century BC Etruscan text.

The word linen has also over time come to be a generic term for different kinds of non-flax, finely woven cloth, typically cotton. Still, it would be more correct to describe this material as linen-like or linen-style than linen.

Kathleen Medicus, special collections cataloguer at Kent State University, suggested that the ‘linen books’ productions such as this one could possibly have been made from the same cloth as the ‘muslin books’ (the weave looks similar) but then heat treated and stiffened. A couple of my colleagues at Homerton have indeed said that our item appears to have been sized, possibly using modified starch. (Click on the images in this post and zoom in to get a close look at the fabric!) The leaves are stapled together: two on the spine in the magazine fashion. According to one source, these books can’t actually be washed, as it would affect the sizing and make them limp. Apparently they can be ironed, though – but we don’t plan on doing this to our copy!

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The book was donated to the library in 2018 by a current MPhil children’s literature student and his family, in memory of his great aunt, Joyce Lee Smith, who received the book as a gift a year or so after its publication. The owner inscription by Joyce on the front of the book gives an address of Soniat Street, New Orleans, so the book has done some travelling to reach our collection.

There are only around four or five copies of this item that I could find for sale online, and no copies of any other version or edition are for sale. There are no copies of this work on WorldCat, RLUK or any other shared online library catalogue. There are some other similar works from this publisher held at the University Library, namely: Children’s ABC(Akron: Saalfield Publishing Company, c. 1909).

If you want to find out more about cloth books, there are several at the University Library, such as Apple pie ABC (New York: Raphael Tuck & Sons Co., c.1899). There are also a good number of cloth books there published by Dean’s Rag Book Company.

Elsewhere, The Arne Nixon Centre Cloth Books collection at California State University, Fresno, is an interesting collection:

https://calisphere.org/collections/26538/

This webpage details a selection of other rare children’s books made from cloth:

http://www.oldchildrensbooks.com/catalogues-lists/booklists/cloth-books

You can read more about Dean’s Rag Book Company here:

https://www.brightontoymuseum.co.uk/index/Category:Dean%27s_Rag_Book_Company

This page shows you some good examples:

https://stellabooks.com/category/rag-books

Many of these are available at the University Library. Search “Dean’s rag book” on iDiscover.

The Big Animal Book is in the closed stacks and is reference only. If you would like to find out more about this item (or any other rare book in the collection) please either come along to the library and speak to me or another member of staff, or feel free to email me (jb719@cam.ac.uk).

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