American Limericks

I had just finished my previous post when I received the following article from Arthur:

A New Book of Nonsense

The nonsense craze started by Edward Lear in the 1840s eventually swept through the entire English speaking world. The spread, however, was more of a creep than an explosion in the early years by today’s standards.

In America the earliest books of limericks were published in New York and London simultaneously:

Parkes, Harry. Random Rhymes. London & New York: Frederick Warne & Co., c1860.

Rummical Rhymes with Pictures to match set forth in fayre prospect Alphabetically & Geographically. New York: Hurd Houghton, 1862 and Dean & Son, 1863.

The first American printing of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense was probably:

Lear, Edward. A Book of Nonsense. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1863. First American printing. Some distribution with original title-leaf canceled and imprinted “New York: M. Doolady, agent.”

The first distinctly American limerick books were associated with the American Civil War:

Ye Book of Copperheads, Philadelphia: Frederick Leypold, 1863. Reprinted in 1864 in conjunction with the Lincoln-McClellan presidential campaign.

The Book of Bubbles: A Contribution to the New York Fair in aid of the Sanitary Commission. New York: Endicott & Co., 1864.

The New Book of Nonsense: A Contribution to the GREAT CENTRAL FAIR in aid of the Sanitary Commission. Philadelphia: Ashmead & Evans, 1864.

The New Book of Nonsense, like The Book of Bubbles, was produced and sold as a fund raiser for the Sanitary Commission. The Sanitary Commission was a civilian organization in the North dedicated to remedy the “unsanitary conditions” to which Union soldiers were subjected. The nearest thing to the Commission today would be the Red Cross.

The book was clearly an attempt to take advantage of the popularity of Lear’s nonsense books. The printing and binding is very slipshod, with limericks often cropped in part. But the style of the verses and their topics, while many are perhaps shocking today, and certainly politically incorrect, are an excellent window on the way 1860s Americans viewed the world.

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