by Ashley Houston, Collections Assistant
Today’s fun find in the Museum’s collections is a set of 20 small books. Books, yay! Wait…yay? Actually, they are much more than simply books, these little guys are Japanese fairy tales told in English. They immediately caught my eye because of the beautiful crepe paper they are printed on, their colorful illustrations, and their delightful titles such as The Silly Jelly Fish. Looking more into the history of these books, I found out that they were produced from mulberry trees to make them lightweight and durable. In Japan, these books are known as “chirimen-bon” or crepe paper books. The writing and the illustrations were created through woodblock printing. This process involved an artist who carved the illustrations and then dipped the image in ink before the paper was stamped. To speed up the process, two pages were printed on one sheet and then folded down the middle before binding. This creates a little pouch, which is why the process is named “fukuro-toji” or pouch binding.
These little books were made by Takejiro Hasegawa, who put them into production in the 1880s all the way through the 1930s. They were used to help teach Japanese children English, but more often they were intended specifically for Westerners as unique souvenirs. Takejiro’s relationship with Presbyterian missionaries helped him develop the idea to create these books and market them to Westerners. The popularity of the books grew even more when Takejiro sent shipments of them to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In the following years, he employed translators not only for the English books, but for books in German, French, and Dutch.
I’d love to tell you when our set was made, but unfortunately dating them is easier said than done. What we do know is that these books originally belonged to a Japanese missionary family. Our records say they were given to the family by a “well-known” Japanese author. Who that author was, it doesn’t state, but it does say that the daughter’s name was Ione Nelson. Ione was born in Japan in 1906 where her family lived until 1921. Her family could have received the books at any point during this time or possibly earlier. Her father originally came to Japan in 1890 for a few years and returned in 1900. These books would have been perfect for the family. As a missionary, her father taught English to Japanese children, while Ione and her siblings probably enjoyed them as well. These little books traveled a long way with Ione to eventually end up here in our Museum and we couldn’t be happier!