|Green and black transfer-printed plate, ca 1860.|
And once in a while, I run across something that straddles the boundary between general antiques and rare books. The pottery plate shown here is an interesting example. It probably dates from around 1860, and when I first saw it, I assumed it was a typical Staffordshire transfer-ware plate. But the marking on the back identifies it instead as French ("Porcelaine Opaque de Gien").
The image on the front, as I realized just as quickly, is a rebus, and (fortunately) the solution is given on the reverse, just above the maker's mark.
|The Uncle Tom Rebus|
In the line above, the child who identifies the adult labeled "Tom" as "mon oncle" must give us "de l'oncle Tom"; The picture of William Tell (with crossbow and an arrow-pierced fruit) with a capital U must give us "a éTell u", to be read as "a été lu".
The top line of the rebus, then, must give us "Le roman." But while I can see how the townscape is labelled "Ville de Mans," I am not sure which part of that townscape gives the element "ro-" or "-ero-."
|Solution to the rebus and maker's mark.|
Although it is in French, English language examples of Staffordshire transfer-ware pieces with Uncle Tom's Cabin references are well enough known. They were produced, it seems for both the English and American markets, responding to the wild popularity of Stowe's novel with a certain sharp marketing acumen. They also, presumably, allowed both the expression of a kind of popular abolitionist sentiment and employed it in a genre of text that was frequently aimed at children, teaching them, too, to adopt abolitionist ideas.
Indeed, childhood literacy itself was often enough taught or supported through children's tableware: many transfer-ware pieces (cups, bowls, and plates, mostly) intended for children were adorned by alphabets, partial alphabets, or proverbs intended to teach thrift, industry, and other virtues. Benjamin Franklin's proverbs or maxims were widely used on English pottery of this period for such ends.
The plate I've shown, then, attests not only to a tiny bit of the reception history of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but also to a moment when cheap china cups and plates were used to at least try to inculcate both literacy and virtue in children, a moment in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution was literally bringing literacy education to the masses.
Books, of course, will surely remain at the core of my interests, as a collector and a dealer. But items like this, I hope, may remind us all that books do not really stand as a coherent and isolated category of cultural expression. And sometimes the very nature of libraries as repositories for books and paper materials may unfortunately exclude textual items that might usefully, and even necessarily, be juxtaposed to our books.
It is useful for all of us, sometimes, to look beyond books.
[Edited to add: In terms of solving the rebus, the beginning section might be "L'heure a Mans" ("the hour at Mans") for "Le roman."]