Thursday, August 3, 2017

NRR Project 35: The Bubble Books (1917 – 1922)

The Bubble Book
Written by Ralph Mayhew and Burges Johnson; illustrated by Rhoda Chase
Singer: unknown; perhaps Henry Burr
14 iterations, 1917 -- 1922

Multimedia. It’s ubiquitous now, but this was one of the first attempts to combine sound and image – a quite successful attempt that helped entrain young imaginations. But was it progressive or pathetic? Allow me to go on a tangential ramble . . .

I will not insult your intelligence by doing other than pointing to Cary O’Dell’s comprehensive and eloquent essay on the subject, which you should now pause and read immediately here. (Even more great information here at Little Wonder Records & Bubble Books.)

For our purposes, they were carefully crafted, sturdy little artifacts, little books containing “three 5 ½-inch discs to accompany the three nursery rhymes printed in the books.” The authors were Ralph Mayhew and Burges Johnson; Rhoda Chase did the beautiful illustrations. It is thought that the popular Henry Burr recorded the songs.


They sold millions of copies. Kids loved them. Parents loved them. Remember, until electrical motors were introduced, all gramophones were spring-driven and required cranking. Gramophone needles were cheap; they came in boxes and their frequent replacement was encouraged. This is known in parenting circles as “giving the kids something to do.” It was a welcome distraction.

There’s no doubt it was an educational aid as well. The tradition of early attempts to plow through more and more complex words by “sounding it out” is made much easier when your infant eye can match the incomprehensible spelling of a familiar word. The tricks of phonetic language, the paths phrases follow, the cadences at the base of the language, and the vast eccentricities of English, were never more well-served.

Other people might argue that it was just another step into unreality, dwelling in the metaphoric media world instead of staying grounded in direct, literally unmediated everydayness.

I don’t know. I never ran across these, but of course my generation of children had picture books wed to two-sided, 45-rpm records that told the story and made a beeping sound when it was time to turn the page. Later, Disney and many other companies made long-playing records on the same principle, and so it unfolds as each new step in technology carries it forward in some iteration.

Which makes me think it’s ubiquitous and needed. We hunger for stories, no matter the form. I crammed myself into corners, bowed with books, reading my way out from under. We played and sang along to our childhood story-records; poignant, maybe, but not pathetic.

In contrast, certain child-friending devices come off today as rather frightening. Who remembers Teddy Ruxpin? A frightening doll that could talk and had limited eye motion, a resident of the Uncanny Valley. Powered by large batteries shoved up its backside. It “read” stories on interchangeable cassettes, and it remains something I still suspect Stephen King conjured up as a practical joke.



But I digress. Hypnotized now by our digital lives, it’s educational to peruse these quaintly analog ancestors. Part of the mission of the “Harper Columbia Book that Sings” was to create a new generation of customers. It worked.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Listen to the Lambs.’