Archival Assignment #2: The Comic Almanack

The Houghton library at Harvard that houses More Hints on Etiquette also has an extensive collection of issues of the The Comic Almanack, an annual put out by the same Boston publisher Charles Tilt. The Almanack is advertised in More Hints on Etiquette in a section of ads that lists other works by the satirical illustrator George Cruikshank: the ad celebrates the inclusion of his “plates of the months, an Hieroglyphic, and many other Embellishments, with a great variety of new and amusing matter.” This ad also offers a narrative history of the periodical’s production, which was published every Christmas, had been released for four years at the time of the parody’s publication, and “each year [had] risen in circulation and in public estimation.” I visited the Houghton primarily to compare the use of Cruikshank’s illustrations in the satirical More Hints on Etiquette to their use in issues of the also satirical Comic Almanack. I especially wanted to focus on issues published in the years surrounding the manual’s 1838 publication.

The Houghton has a boxed set of Comic Almanack issues that cover the time from its first issue in 1835 into the 1850s. The library also has one of the bound volumes like the ones advertised in More Hints on Etiquette, which contains the 1835 and 1836 issues. They have, as well, individually boxed issues from 1835–1840. The original binding is a light-weight cardboard. While the individually boxed books are identically packaged and can stand vertically on a shelf as part of a set, the books in the box set are individually tied and and laid horizontally on top of one another in the box–while the box opens from the top and side like a clamshell, it is tough to remove one at will.

Each issue of the periodical has a nearly identical title page. The title is in “printed” a typeface made of woodcuts: they are letters shaped using contorted people. Below the pseudonym (Rigdum Funnidos, Gent.) is a woodcut of a jester, holding a walking stick and with his arms spread in a manner reminiscent of the figure on the etiquette manual’s title page. This jester is adorned in wizard’s robes and is surrounded by scientific references, like a globe containing a model of the atom and a human skeleton. His sandals are reminiscent of the sandals of antiquity, connoting natural philosophy and scientific reasoning. The skeleton, however, can also be grouped with the necromancy and divination paraphernalia also in the image, including a skull and crossbones, a taxidermed reptile, a book of figures–and even a black cat who stares at the viewer from his perch on a tasseled pillow.

The page represents the publication as “An Ephemeris in Jest and Earnest, containing ‘All Things Fitting for Such a Work.’” This includes, it seems, the “dozen ‘right merrie’ cuts, pertaining to the months, sketched and etched by George Cruikshank.” It is worth noting that despite the fact that they were marketed in the manual as plates, these are definitely cuts: not only are they described as such, but any gradation comes from the distance between lines. Unlike most cuts that are set along with text, however, these are printed on thicker paper than the rest of the issue, and there is nothing on the back of the leaf. They are paratextual rather than inline with the issue’s text, appearing on the page facing each month’s entry in the year.

In the 1835 issue, these images depict urban life in that month’s elements. The image of the jester and his fortune-telling paraphernalia frame the book’s parody of the almanac genre as superstitious, providing what one section in the issue labels “ass-trological predictions” as the author “proceed[s] to put on [his] conjuring cap, and shew forth the wonders of the stars.” In the weather entry for each month is written a poem, in which lines of text alternate with lines of icons. These icons might have lent the text with which they are interwoven a mystical quality: instead, they are seemingly random icons: e.g. gender symbols, a capital greek letter Pi, a half moon. Here is one of the poems, this one from February, 1835. I have indicated the line breaks using slashes in a sort of textual markup below, while carriage returns indicate separation by a line of icons (the icons seem to delimit true breaks in the verse, whereas the line breaks exist merely to fit the text in the columns):

Rain or hail,
snow or sleet
in / this month
you’re sure to meet.
If you don’t
why then / you won’t:
Perhaps there won’t/ be one
nor t’other:
Why then / ’twill happen
in / some other.

The poem’s speaker is ambivalent about the weather predictions they are supposed to be providing given their contract with the implied reader of an almanac. The speaker ups the ante in the poem for March, moving from merely being uncertain to explicitly dodging their duties (the delimiting seems to work less well with the metric footing here):

I suspend
my / predictions
on the weather
this month
because I / Shall be able
to tell more / correctly
next year; / and / moreover,
my readers / can
exercise / their own / judgments
thereupon.

Suspending predictions until the following year, of course, would no longer constitute a prediction. This shirking of function plays off the icons, which no longer perform the semantic function that they conjure in this context, instead existing merely to divide and take up space.

These icons are not the only inline images to appear in the first issue: more cuts by Cruikshank, for instance, bookend the note to the reader that follow the monthly tables. They are, however, the only inline images to appear in the calendar-based section, which makes up the core of the Almanack. Further, the inline images in this section evolve in sophistication and prominence over the period leading up to More Hints on Etiquette’s publication. The 1836 issue adds a reference on the title page to a hieroglyphic by Cruikshank included–the same one advertised in the etiquette manual parody. In the 1837 issue, inline images are incorporated in the main text of each entry in the month’s events. These images correspond to the text, rather than being devoid of semantic function. Additionally, a woodcut is added in this year to the header section of each month’s entry, which previously contained only a short section of verse. In 1838, the column structure for each month is ditched entirely, and the new main section under the header now spans the width of a page. Small woodcuts are now situated directly alongside the text in the same space, rather than just in line with it, referring to the nearby text in a similar manner to the cuts in More Hints on Etiquette. The header has also changed, now consisting entirely of an image: a woodcut scene that illustrates the text in the main section.

Also of note in the 1838 issue is a feature article entitled “Manners Made Easy: how to cobble a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” which addresses the reader in the second person with snippets of advice–snippets that are quite transparently poor advice to anyone wishing to impress, but that rationalize themselves all the same:

When a lady sits down to the piano-forte, always volunteer to turn over the leaves. To be able to read music is of no consequence, as you will know that she is at the bottom of a page when she stops short. If you turn over two leaves at once, you will probably have the secret thanks of most of the company.

The rest of the pieces of advice offer similar faulty but ostensibly well-meaning and -reasoned advice: to take a friend with you on a date to act as a spare if you turn out to be boring; or to bite a piece out of an apple you are giving to a lady to make sure you can recommend it to her. The final piece of advice–“Always wipe the brim of a pot of porter with your sleeve, if you are about to hand it to a lady”–is accompanied by a woodcut at the bottom of the page. A scraggly man is handing a woman in the center of a kitchen a full mug of beer, tipping his hat and saying “Arter [(after)] you’s Manners.” The dialect (“arter” and “you’s”) signals that these are people of a lower class. Meanwhile, another pipe-smoking man stands off to the side, reading a book called Art of Politeness, a conspicuous attempt to access the knowledge in which the other two folks in the frame are apparently well-versed.

 

This section titled “Manners Made Easy” appears in the issue published at the end of the same year, 1838, that Charles Tilt also published More Hints on Etiquette. The section’s subtitle repackages and opposes the idiom on the final pages of More Hints on Etiquette (“making a whistle out of a pig’s tail”). This time, the section’s title earnestly projects that it’s able to make something refined out of something that is unpleasant. But, of course, the reader knows otherwise–and, further, the reader familiar with Charles Tilt’s other publication appreciates the joke. Perhaps most interestingly, the 1837 issue distributed the year prior contains an ad for none other than Charles William Day’s Hints on Etiquette, the very text that the Charles Tilt manual remixes.

Works Cited

“arter, adv., prep., and conj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 14 December 2016.

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