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Mr Cole's funny picture books

Mr Cole's funny picture books
Double rainbow happiness in our collection
13 July 2016

The first Cole's Funny Picture Book was issued in Australia with great fanfare on 24 December 1879 as the ‘Cheapest Child's Picture Book ever published’ and although many hundreds of thousands of copies are said to have been sold—each for single shilling—no surviving copies are recorded. Sales were unprecedented and the book was continuously in print for a century, delighting generations of Australian children and their parents.

  Cheapest Child's picture book ever published

Cole's Funny Picture Book, The Argus (Melbourne), 23 December 1879, p. 3

We are delighted to have back in the building, the earliest known existing copy from the celebrated Alan and Marjorie Grant collection of children's books and games. This copy of the second 1882 issue of the book was last with us on exhibition loan in 1988 for the People, print and paper: a catalog of a travelling exhibition celebrating the books of Australia, 1788-1988.

 the funniest picture book in the world

Cole's Funny Picture Book: the funniest picture book in the world 1882,

The publisher states that the only significant difference between this second issue and first 1879 edition is the 16 page supplement bound into the middle. There is also a page of reviews of the first edition.

The Grant’s collection of early children’s books is well known and in building their collection, the couple sought to illustrate the development of children’s literature in England. It was particularly strong on the Victoria era. Who ever else might have owned this copy it is a mystery but we do know from annotations that they were fond of the colour blue, boronias, eau de cologne and Longfellow. Maybe it was a William, the ‘protector’ (see p. 37)?

Coles Book Arcade

Early Australian bookseller, Edward William Cole (1832-1918), built his bookshop in Bourke Street Melbourne. The Coles Book Arcade—described as the world's first book superstore―became Australia’s most loved and renowned bookshop for over fifty years. 

As there often is with collection building, there is a nice synchronicity for the Library in this acquisition. E.W. Cole bought Edward Augustus Petherick’s insolvent bookselling business in 1898, with Petherick's bookshops in Adelaide and Sydney turned into branches of Cole's Book Arcade.

Production of the Funny Picture Book

Newspaper advertisements from December 1881 mention that a new and enlarged edition ‘will be shortly published’ and by November 1882, copies were reviewed, in Melbourne bookshops and advertised as ready for Christmas and birthday giving from as little as one shilling and sixpence.

The original Les Kentwell cover design was printed by Robert Bell and the binding of this second issue is stamped W. Detmold. William Detmold was a noted German-born, Australian bookbinder, printer and stationer who operated out of Swanston and later Collins Street, Melbourne. Detmold was well known for his quality binding, winning a silver medal for same at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in September 1878, and at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880.

Cole was keen to make a splash:

He very much wanted to be able to sell the book in the Arcade for the strikingly low price of a shilling, so that it would be the cheapest as well as the best of children’s picture books. He told Bell he wanted the finest production possible for just under a shilling a copy production cost, for he was willing to forfeit his profit on the book-on this first edition, at any rate-so that it would achieve immediate popularity. Profits could come from the increased goodwill he was sure it would bring Cole’s Book Arcade. (Cole Turney, Cole of the book arcade: a biography of E.W. Cole, p. 57)

Although previously thought to be a presentation binding, it's not inconceivable that this is indeed the standard 1882 publisher binding in festive red for Christmas!

The handsome volume was applauded once in the hands of reviewers:

Cole's funny picture books is to hand. It contains over 60 pages of rhymes and an immense number of pictures, each of which is a "study." However the work can be produced with a cover containing a double brilliant rainbow for the price of one and sixpence is a mystery. (North Melbourne Advertiser, 29 December 1882, p. 2)

The gamble paid off and there were many hundreds of thousands of copies of the book sold over the years that followed.

Ha Ha-Ha- cat

Detail from ‘Old Daddy Hubbard and His Cat’, page 21.

After Detmold’s death in 1884, Cole had some of his printing done in Germany. We can easily see from his back catalogue, that these right-arching rainbow in coloured forms that appeared on music editions informed the later and perhaps more familiar, brightly coloured double-crossed rainbow.

Cole's Music of the Animals 

Cole's Funny Music Book 

The evolution of Cole's rainbow covers, with work done in Germany from the mid-1880s, nla.obj-166542247 and nla.obj-166538084

With 21st century eyes, Cole's quirky Funny Picture Books have a bit of steampunk about them with the macabre Snooks' Patent whipping machine for flogging naughty boys in school, dense blocks of text, mind-bending puzzles and cautionary tales tinged with fear, misadventure and death.

A bit of tough love doesn't seem to have dented the minds of Australian kids and we're glad to have it digitised and available for all to enjoy. Look out for it in our exhibition The Sell: Australian advertising 1790s to 1990s later this year.

My brother was given a Coles Picture Book in the 1950's (don't know the date) which I absolutely loved - cloth bound in green. I would turn to random pages and delight at the rhymes and puzzles and my grandmother would read the stories and poetry to me. Thank you for sharing this copy, it has brought back so many happy memories.
was given one in the 1970's, still got it and it's still a precious treasure.
I've had this Coles funny pictures book since 1953 and love it still
My brother and I had books 1 and 2 in the 1940s-50s, and loved them, particularly the more gruesome content. The books were quite unlike anything else we had, providing hours of fun. They were educational too, in that they introduced children to forms of writing and illustration they would not encounter elsewhere. They were also a counterbalance to sometimes saccharine children's literature. Cole was a genius!

Look beyond the mainstream