The devil is in the detail - no other copy located

LES LETTRES EN ACTION un petit alphabet Mnemonique accompagné d’un syllabaire complet avec fables et conte et de plusieurs séries de caractéres et de chiffres propres a assembler les mots et les nombres qui s’y trouvent. [n.p. but presumably Paris, n.d. but

ca. 1840.]. Educational game, housed within attractive presentation box 185 x 140 x 20mm; box divided internally into two compartments, the larger central section retaining original silk tie, with narrower outer lateral compartment; set comprising 8 hand-coloured engraved alphabet cards embellished with gilt (presumably of 26) 62 x 90mm, 9 small cards (15 x 15mm) with black background with printed letters in red, yellow and green, 1 small card (15 x 15) with black background and the number 3, and 32 small bone pieces or ‘cards’ (60 x 16mm), each with printed paper label mounted on recto and verso giving syllable and associated image, (12 pieces are natural colour, 9 dyed red, 6 dyed yellow, and 5 dyed green, one of which is slightly chipped); some general light soiling and wear visible; housed in the original highly decorative lidded box, upper cover with mounted lithograph title including hand-coloured vignette depicting the devil climbing through the letter D, surrounded by a group of children trying to chase him away; mounted title a little stained and soiled, with small hole in lower text with loss of a couple of letters and slightly interrupting meaning; all edges of lid with ornate gilt foil floral border, box edged with green and gilt decorative paper, lower box edged in gilt, old bookseller label on base lettered in ms, some wear to corners and extremities, but otherwise a most appealing set. A rare and striking mid 19th century French educational game for young children, by Charles Letaille, seemingly unknown to bibliographers, and with no further copies located.
Whilst sadly seemingly incomplete - missing a number of letters of the alphabet, and almost all of the numbers, it is nevertheless a most attractive survivor, in the original highly decorative box with the eye-catching hand-coloured lithograph, signed ‘d’ Aubert et de Junca’, of a devil climbing through the letter ‘D’ on the upper lid, surrounded by a large crowd of children trying to drive him away.
As the title on the upper lid states, the game was intended to introduce children to the alphabet and syllabary, through a series of mnemonic images, and by using familiar fables and tales, to help develop language skills in both an entertaining and instructive way. Clearly en entrepreneurial man, Letaille has clearly been inspired by Abbé Berthaud’s famous pedagogical work of 1743 ‘Quadrille des Enfants’, a work accompanied by a box of 88 engraved tiles, very similar to those found here, and proved to be a popular and highly visual educational aid for young children. The present game has ‘re-packaged’ Berthaud’s idea.
The box includes eight charming hand-coloured engraved cards on thick paper, presumably of 26, and providing a mnemonic visual guide to the letters ‘B’ (Barque), ‘J’ (Jardinage), ‘N’ (Natation), ‘O’ (Oreille), ‘P’ (Pécheur), ‘U’ (Union), ‘V’ (verre), and finally ‘Y’ (yeux). All have been embellished with gilt, and six of these incorporate images of children engaged in fun pursuits such as sailing, gardening, fishing, swimming, and viewing the sky with a telescope. The accompanying 32 small double-sided bone pieces or ‘cards’ each have a mounted printed label, illustrating letters, digraphs, and trigraphs on one side, with a hand-coloured printed associated image on the reverse. Ten additional and much smaller printed thick card pieces are included, each with black background and coloured letter or number. Again, we assume these to be only a handful of the full original set.
Whilst this could perhaps be a prototype or proof version of the game, therefore explaining the missing pieces, we have found one reference to the game, listed in the boxed game section of Hector Bossange’s trade ‘Catalogue: Libraire et commissionnaire pour l'étranger’ of 1841 (item 6662 p. 180), priced at 4 fr. 50 c. We have so far found no other record of it, however, and whilst all of the games of this period are no doubt scarce, it could be that the game did not find a ready market, perhaps being too complicated and convoluted, or that people cottoned on to the obvious plagiarism of Berthaud’s innovative literacy game. The use of such a diabolical image on the upper lid, even if intended to serve a didactic purpose, may also have been a little off-putting!
The lithographer of this striking image, is presumably Gabriel Aubert (fl.1836-1847), who together with his brother-in-law Charles Philipon (1800-1862) founded the publishing house ‘La Maison Aubert’. Specializing in social and political commentary and satire, notably the journals ‘La Caricature and Le Charivari (to which Honoré Daumier contributed caricatures of the king and ministers), they fell foul of the authorities. Philipon was jailed for a short time - and although Aubert escaped this punishment, he moved away from his political activities to set up his own lithographic establishment, and focus upon more mainstream concerns. The choice of this devilish image on a work for children, suggests that he may not have lost his enjoyment for being provocative, however. The engraver and publisher Charles Letaille specialised for a number of years in printing religious material, but during the 1830s began publishing a series of educational works and board games for children, including ‘Le Tour de Monde’ (ca. 1840), and ‘Tableau abrégé de l’histoire des voyages’ (a moveable book printed ca. 1845). Both are scarce.
The survival of such games, scarce by their very nature, reveal much about 19th century French society, a period which saw the rise of the middle class in Europe who enjoyed a growth in both leisure time, and money to spend on such pleasurable pursuits. As a response to this new market, publishers such as Letaille, together with other publisher’s and map makers, increasingly turned their attention to the commercial manufacture of games aimed at families and children. As such, ‘Les Lettres en Action’ is an extremely scarce and striking example.

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