Christmas has passed for another year and many children are happily playing with their latest electronic bleeping gadgets. But if you think noisy toys are a recent fad, think again! Long before the invention of microchips came The Speaking Picture Book, thought to be the earliest interactive sound book:
‘The piece de resistance of any collection of movables, or toy-books for that matter, is surely The Speaking Picture Book (c. 1893), an item of such charm and fascination that even the most blasé modern parents or their children can hardly fail to be captivated by it. Stored in an ordinary brown cardboard box, this ‘Special Book with Picture, Rhyme and Sound for Little People’ is a delight to handle, eye-catching in appearance, and quite remarkably authentic in the sounds it produces.’
(Peter Haining, Movable Books An Illustrated History, New English Library Ltd., 1979)
While working with the Royal Pavilion & Museums’ Toy Collection, I encountered one for the first time. Initially it appears to be a large thick book; open the cover and there are short verses about animals, illustrated by full colour plates opposite. In the right margin of each text page there is a little arrow pointing to the fore-edge of the ‘book’. This corresponds with one of nine small ivory pulls on a string. Pull the string and you hear the appropriate animal voice! Sadly, due to its age, our copy can no longer produce all the sounds.
The Speaking Picture Book was originally produced in Nuremberg, Germany, by publisher Theodore Brand, the book’s inventor. Brand obtained a German patent for the book in 1878, and a British patent followed a year later. In addition to the German edition, English, French and Spanish translations were published.
There is little information about our particular copy, but comparisons with images of other Speaking Picture Books suggest that ours could be an early edition. The books were originally supplied in a protective box and this is one way to help date them. The earlier boxes were plain with a small black and white label, while later versions had full colour lids. Unfortunately the box for ours did not survive so we lack this important clue.
One clue we do have is a small red label stuck on the title page, over the publisher’s logo. It reads: Charles Henry, 22 King St, Manchester. This is likely to be the name of the seller and if we can trace information about his business, we may be able to use this to date the book.
So, how does it work? There are only a few pages; the rest of the book is actually a box. Originally it would have been sealed but curiosity clearly got the better of someone, who has carefully opened it up so that the secret can be revealed. The box houses a mechanism consisting of tiny paper bellows. As the string is pulled the bellows draw in air. When it is released the bellows emit a sound. Each is formed differently so that while one makes the lowing of a cow, another brings to life tweeting birds. The top and bottom edges have decorative carving with holes to allow the sounds to be heard.
You can view a demonstration of this mechanism on You Tube.
The books were originally protected by their boxes and no doubt children would have been taught to keep them safely. The cover image shows a mother demonstrating one to her family.
An ‘ordinary’ book and a toy lay discarded on the floor while the children, and even the pets, eagerly gather round the new plaything. However, I can’t help but think that the mother’s expression is that of a parent who has heard the little lamb’s bleat once too often!