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Title page from Routledge, Warne, & Routledge's  Routledge's Spelling & Reading Book (1861)

Illustration from Dean's patent for rag books, approved 1905


Dean's Rag Book's fighting dog trademark.

Page from McLoughlin Bros.' King Gobble's Feast (1872)

Page from Hachette's (Dean's Rag Book) Une Poule sur un Mur (1924)

Page from Sam'l Gabriel Sons & Co.'s Simple Simon and Other Rhymes (ca. 1940).


Made of muslin, linen, and “linen-like” paper, the cloth and cloth-like books in Arne Nixon Center’s collection represent an important but largely forgotten era of children’s publishing.


Before the advent of cloth books, children’s reading materials were often hidden away between uses. For one thing, many earlier innovations had been too delicate to entrust to actual children. For example, “metamorphosis” books (early-nineteenth century pop-up books), consisting of various flaps and tabs that could be manipulated to change the illustration, were vulnerable to tearing and required very gentle handling.


Beginning in the mid-1800s, children’s publishers began to respond to a growing demand for more durable reading materials for children by printing books on increasingly sturdy materials. Routledge, Warne, and Routledge’s 1861 Routledge’s Spelling & Reading Book, featured in the collection (title page shown on left), is one of many examples of this industry trend. This book, composed of embossed cloth-covered board binding and linen pages, was clearly designed to withstand rough treatment and weather the ravages of time: now over 150 years old, the book is a bit scuffed but otherwise intact. Many of the early “softcover” cloth books were printed on “linen-like” and “untearable” papers of a thickness comparable to cardstock, and children’s publishers mostly alternated between linen, tough linen-blend papers, linen-mounted paper, and linen until the turn of the twentieth century when fabric books of linen and muslin became the rule rather than the exception.


Whereas some publishers had experimented with fabric-paged children’s texts during the mid-1800s (if not earlier), fully fabric books were not common until in 1902 Henry Samuel Dean of Dean & Son and one of his colleagues came up with and ultimately patented the idea of


a book from cotton, calico, linen, or other cloth or like flexible material, such books when in the nature of a picture-book being specially applicable for use by children, as they can be pulled about in all manners without materially destroying same, as is the case with paper books or books made of fabric and having a composition-coating on which the printing is effected (U.S. patent No. 784,477. L ).


Dean designed his line of “rag books” specifically for the use of children, who “wear their food and eat their clothes,” and in marketing of this new line the company that would become Dean’s Rag Book emphasized the indestructible and “hygienic” nature of the books. While Stanley Tyreman Berkeley’s design for the Dean’s trademark—two dogs fighting over a rag book, but not succeeding in ripping it apart—communicated the rag books’ desirability, sturdiness, and British manufacture, their invention was also heralded by “an imaginative range of sales ads” to demonstrate that they could be laundered, including a window display of an electric fountain “in which books were displayed, suspended from arms radiating from the centre and sprayed by jets of water; the power being supplied by an electric turbine concealed in the bottom of the bowl” (Cope & Cope, 2009, p. 13). Saalfield, an American publisher of muslin series, followed suit with its slogans, often in the form of rhymed couplets. On one back cover, for instance, Saalfield claimed that their muslin series could “be washed and the colors [would] not run, a child [could] chew them and have lots of fun.”


Production of such muslin texts, also widely known as cloth books, continued uninterrupted from the early 1900s until the 1940s, when many printers halted manufacture due to wartime rationing of cloth. When cloth supplies dwindled, Kaplan (2012) observes, “substantial” paper books reemerged in the market (p. 43). Sam’l Gabriel Sons & Company was very active during this period and many of their “linenettes” and “linen-like” books survive. Following World War II, cloth books made a brief comeback and were produced as late as the early 1970s.


Although this history is interesting from industrial and nostalgic standpoints, what may be less immediately clear is the degree to which cloth books coincided with the social evolution of the concept of “childhood” within the Western world.  Before the late Victorian period, Thomas R. Jordan (1987) reminds us, childhood as we know it did not exist: in many cases poor children were already working in factories or cottage industries during the ages we now realize children are just beginning to develop pre-literacy and basic reading skills, and middle and upper class parents primarily saw their progeny as candidates for moral improvement. However, Kaplan (2012) notes that in the late nineteenth century “the attitude toward children developed from soulsaving to nurturing” (p. 43). In context of the Arne Nixon Center e-collection, we can readily see this transition by comparing the McLoughlin Brothers’ macabre King Gobble’s Feast (wherein a too-prideful turkey meets with capital punishment) with the playful ABC and rhyme books that would follow just a few years later.


Partly inspired by advances in the study of psychology as well as decreased mortality rates for young children, the rapidly growing middle class of Victorian Britain and nineteenth century America began to accord children a unique place within the family and society, and children’s literature evolved with this change in perspective. A shift in content of children’s texts from the moralistic to the entertaining, imaginative, and constructive brought about the “First Golden Age” of children’s literature. The 1865 publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland inaugurated the new genre of children’s literature, and for the most part other texts intended for child audiences approximated the spirit of this work.


As children's literature gained in popularity, publishing houses competed through use of printing techniques and materials. The McLoughlin Brothers (1828-1920), one of the oldest children’s publishers, pioneered color-printing techniques, among these the photographic process of applying oil colors directly to the zinc plates (Cardinali, 2010). Eventually, such fine printing methods would be abandoned in favor of simplified processes better-suited to mass production and coarser but sturdier page materials. Dean's Rag Book and Saalfield, for instance used muslin for their cloth books and this material came with distinct limitations. Cope & Cope (2009) explain that processing of these books dictated that


artwork had to be strongly linear with colour infill but no shading, fine cross-hatching, or half-tone. It required long reels of bleached cotton cloth to be fed through a series of large hand-engraved copper rollers using washable coloured dyes, the ducts of each roller carrying a different colour. Up to eight colours could be printed in one pass on these presses (p. 14).


Yet, in the scheme of things children's books became more accessible to their target audience: necessary alterations to the printing process resulted in vibrant, cheery, child-friendly illustrations and short but engaging phrases and rhymes, and pinked page edges made reading materials less susceptible to fraying.


When wartime rationing brought cloth book production to a standstill, materials changed but the spirit of the enterprise remained the same. Children had come to be recognized as an important population demographic, and children grew up reading books designed not only to help them learn, but also to appeal to their interests and experience of reading.




Cardinali, M. (2010, Nov. 29). The McLoughlin Bros. of New York [Web log]. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from


Cope, P., & Cope, D. (2009). Dean’s rag books & rag dolls: The products of a famous British publisher and toymaker. London, England: New Cavendish Books. ISBN-13: 978-9749863862


Dean, H.S. (1905). Patent Identifier No. 784,477. L Retrieved January 25, 2015, from


Jordan, T. E. (1987). Victorian childhood: Themes and variations. New York, NY: SUNY Press. ISBN-13: 978-00887065453


Kaplan, A.G. (2012). From board to cloth and back again. Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, 10(3), 41-44. ISSN: 1542-9806

The History of Cloth and "Cloth-like" Books

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