Friday, December 28, 2018

A Novel Rebus

Green and black transfer-printed plate, ca 1860.
Here at Chancery Hill Books and Antiques, I've been doing my best for the last year or so to shift away from the general line antiques and become more exclusively a rare book dealer. This has been somewhat difficult because I got my start in the business by buying and selling glass and china, and when I see something in those categories that's underpriced, there's always a great temptation for me to buy it.

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
My French, I am embarrassed to admit, is not entirely good enough to piece together the whole rebus on my own. The last line, surely, is de [just visible on the side of the boat] +  lune (moon) + -i- + verre (glass), to give "de l'univers." 

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.
Seemingly, the solution's word "tout" is not actually present on the rebus, unless I am missing something about the boat or the moon. Even so, the broad sense of how the rebus works is clear; an English translation would be "The novel of Uncle Tom has been read by all the world [all the universe]."

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."]