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.

Books On Books Collection – Lyn Davies

A is for Ox (2006)

A is for Ox: A Short History of the Alphabet (2006)
Lyn Davies
Casebound, doublures matching slipcase. Slipcase: H205 x W133 mm. Book: H197 x W128 mm. 128 pages. Acquired from The Old Bakehouse, 13 July 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

There are numerous histories of the alphabet. Some are even titled the same as Lyn Davies’ A is for Ox. Several books take the letter-by-letter approach that Davies does in the second half of his book. Only one of them falls in the category of fine press book or artist’s book, and that is Richard J. Hoffman’s miniature production of the bookseller Otto Ege’s text. Benefitting from the advice of Stephen Fischer and the infrastructure of The Folio Society, Davies has secured more of a place for A is for Ox than that distinction.

One distinction is the handling of two colors across the design of the book. Davies knows book design. The burnt umber or terra cotta color is used to great effect. Chapter subtitles, section heads and running heads stand out but do not overbear. In the second half of the book, the color turns each letter of the alphabet in its section into a subdued illuminated letter. Another distinction follows on from this: the handling of images in the first half of the book. By printing in black and white the full inscriptions on stone, clay and pottery depicted in photographs, Davies enhances the experience of those images, and somehow the tinting of the images makes it easier to match the markings with the print.

Despite its brevity, A is for Ox conveys just as much as many lengthier works. Somehow with Davies in ten pages it is easier to “peg” waw as the antecedent sound for the letters F, U, V, W and Y than it is in the lengthier works. In its “A is for …” organization of its second half, the book injects some lightness without descending into silliness, leaving the latter to the children’s books and some of the comedy-prone trade books.

The Ottakar’s 2004 and Folio Society 2006 editions are out of print, which is a shame for ordering in bulk for short courses on the history of the alphabet and writing. Fortunately both are available at more-than-reasonable prices on the used book market.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Clodd, Edward. 1913. The Story of the Alphabet. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1913. Superseded by several later works, but is freely available online with line illustrations and some black and white photos.

Diringer, David, and Reinhold Regensburger. 1968. The alphabet: a key to the history of mankind. London: Hutchinson. A standard, beginning to be challenged by late 20th and early 21st century archaeological findings and palaeographical studies.

Drucker, Johanna. 1999. The alphabetic labyrinth: the letters in history and imagination. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.

Ege, Otto. 1921/1998. The Story of the Alphabet, Its Evolution and Development… Embellished Typographically with Printer’s Flowers Arranged by Richard J. Hoffman. Van Nuys, CA: Richard J. Hoffman. A miniature. The type ornaments chosen by Hoffman are arranged chronologically by designer (Garamond, Granjon, Rogers) and printed in color.

Firmage, Richard A. 2001. The alphabet. London: Bloomsbury.

Fischer, Steven Roger. 2008. A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.

Goldman, David. 1994. A is for ox: the story of the alphabet. New York: Silver Moon Press. Children’s book.

Jackson, Donald. 1997. The story of writing. Monmouth, England: Calligraphy Centre.

Pflughaupt, Laurent. 2008. Letter by letter: an alphabetical miscellany. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Robb, Don, and Anne Smith. 2010. Ox, house, stick: the history of our alphabet. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. Children’s book.

Robinson, Andrew. 1995. The story of writing. London: Thames and Hudson.

Rosen, Michael. 2014. Alphabetical: how every letter tells a story. London: John Murray.

Sacks, David. 2003. Language visible unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway Books.

Samoyault, Tiphaine. 1996, 1998 trans. Alphabetical order: how the alphabet began. New York: Viking. Children’s book.

Thompson, Tommy. 1952. The ABC of our alphabet. London: Studio Publications. Not a fine press publication, but its layout, illustrations and use of two colors bear comparison with the Davies book. It too is out of print and unfortunately more rare.