Books On Books Collection – Tommy Thompson

The ABC of Our Alphabet (1952)

The ABC of Our Alphabet: A primer of the lineal history of our present-day letters (1952)
Tommy Thompson
Casebound with doublures showing map of locations of alphabet development.
Acquired from St Luke’s Hospice, Sheffield, 6 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

First appearing in 1942, Samuel Winfield (Tommy) Thompson’s somewhat forgotten children’s introduction to the history of the alphabet occupies an interesting position in that line of work that includes Oscar Ogg’s The 26 Letters (1964), Tiphaine Samoyault’s Alphabetical Order (1998), Renzo Rossi’s The Revolution of the Alphabet (2009) and Don Robb’s Ox, House, Stick (2010). For a collector of children’s alphabet books and alphabet-related artists’ books, the decision whether to acquire it balances on its interior design and content.

With its overlay of second-color illustrations on the text, Thompson’s book makes for an interesting forerunner to Lyn Davies’ fine press A is for Ox. Thompson falls prey to instances of illegibility from the technique, but both enjoy instances of brilliant juxtaposition of word and redrawn images.

Two-color illustration overlaying text. Right: Davies. Left: Thompson.

Among the primers of alphabet history, Thompson’s also stands out for the attention it gives to North American Indian pictorial writing. Rather than the usual Eurocentric sources, the Leni-Lenape, Dakota and Sioux Nations provide the bulk of examples of the method. The enlightened perspective, however, is undercut by a strain of cultural and historical supremacy apparent in several passages and, in particular, the perpetuation of the Walum Olum hoax and inclusion of a chapter from Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha to stand in for the absence of any similar memorialization of painted grave posts. Although Thompson is point blank on how “the invasion of the white man” prevented the growth and development of this method of writing, consider this passage describing the Leni-Lenape Penn Treaty of 1682 that was woven with perforated shell beads (wampum):

The figures of a white man and an Indian are woven in the belt, clasping hands in a true gesture of friendship. The white man is portrayed wearing a hat, as the Indian always drew the symbol of the white man. This treaty of peace was never broken or forgotten.

Except that, in the 1860s, most of the Leni-Lenape Nation was forcibly displaced to Oklahoma.

It was not until the 1990s that the so-called Leni-Lenape cosmographical poems of Walum Olum were proven to be fake, but suspicions were strong in the 1930s. All this is compounded as the book laments the ephemerality of the “Walum Olum poems” and the custom of pictorial grave posts:

Pictorial epitaphs on Indian grave posts were quite common in the early days of the new world. But knowledge of this romantic custom as well as the knowledge of the Red Man’s art of picture writing will live forever, had there been no other record of him but the beautiful “Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Thompson’s design skills and his side note of claim to fame as reportedly the first recipient of royalties for typeface design (Thompson Quill Script) nudged the balance toward acquisition. Maybe perversely the annoying cultural dissonance also nudged the balance in that direction. The book’s presence provides the opportunity to compare it line for line with the other primers and look harder for the signs of the cultural blinkers we are wearing now. Also, with authentic pictorial cosmography available from the Navajo (Diné) Nation and with new archaeological finds from the Middle East (see below for both), perhaps it is time for a new primer against which to compare Thompson and the rest.

Further Reading

Grant, Richard. September 2021. “In the Land of the Ancient Ones“. Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed 20 August 2022.

A review of the film Canyon del Muerto about one of the first female archaeologists, Ann Axtell Morris. What has this to do with Thompson’s book? An ironic coincidence. Morris worked for the archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley on his Yucatán expedition. Thompson cites Morley in his bibliography. With her husband, fellow archaeologist Earl Morris, and their Navajo team, Ann Morris went on to open the Canyon del Muerto to the discoveries that led to insights into the Ancestral Puebloans, the source of Navajo cosmography. Other than papers coauthored with Earl, Ann’s accounts could only find outlet as juvenile publications. While Sylvanus and Earl may have been the combined inspiration for Indiana Jones, Ann offers the status of artist, first female archaeologist and subject of a current movie as a role model to celebrate with a sidebar in a new history of writing.

Morris, Ann Axtell. 1931. Digging in Yucatan: Archaeological Explorations in 1924. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co.

_______________. 1934. Digging in the Southwest. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co.

Naveh, Joseph. 1975. Origins of the alphabet. London: Cassell.

Oestreicher, David M. 1994. Unmasking the Walum Olum: A 19th-century Hoax. South Orange, N.J.: Archaeological Society of New Jersey.

Ogg, Oscar. 1964. The 26 Letters. New York: T.Y. Crowell.

Robb, Don, and Anne Smith. 2010. Ox, House, Stick: The History of our Alphabet. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Rossi, Renzo. 2009. The revolution of the alphabet. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.

Samoyault, Tiphaine. 1998. Alphabetical Order: How the Alphabet Began. New York: Viking.

Shaw, Gary. 15 April 2021. “Ancient ABCs: The alphabet’s ‘missing link’ discovered in Israel“. The Art Newspaper.

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