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Hand-Painted “Russian America” (?) Alphabet Cards, Maker and Artist Unknown, c.1850 (?)
Beautiful, fascinating, and puzzling set of hand painted alphabet cards. There are 28 cards, one for each letter of the alphabet and one each for numbers 1-5 and 6-10. Each card has a letter (or set of numbers) on the front, with a picture. On the back of each card there is a short poem in English relating to what is depicted on the front. There is nothing to indicate who made them, but I have a theory (!): that they were made in “Russian America” – the name given to Russian colonial possessions in the Americas from 1733 to 1867, located primarily in what is now Alaska – as an aid to the education of Russian immigrants.
To begin, it appears that the cards were made in the U.S., because the “I” card depicts an Indian hunting a porcupine, and certain expressions used in the poems seem unlikely to be used in a set of British cards (i.e., “mammy’s fire”). The date of the cards is much less clear. I have dated the cards c.1850, and I do not think that they date later, but can’t be certain of it. Card “C” shows and references a steel breastplate, very rarely worn after 1850, and more characteristic of earlier times. The “D” card has a stovepipe hat of the type associated with Lincoln, as does the “E” card. The “O” card shows an officer with a plumed bicorn hat – associated with the British military c.1800 – almost as if the scene is contemporaneous with British occupation; this would place the set in the 18th century. The poem on the back of the “P” card references both Poll Parrot and Miss Molly, nursery rhymes from the mid-19th century. The drum and bugle of the “T” card date to 1850 or earlier. The watchman on the “W” card has a horn, associated with British watchmen of the 17th century, but used in later times. The “L” card has a boy reading by the light of a candlestick that has the look and design characteristic of the mid-19th century candlesticks.
There are 2 particularly unusual cards that may provide a clue to their origin. The poem of the “N” card references the banks of the Neva, a river in northwestern Russia, and shows soldiers on the banks of the Neva. This appears to me to be a reference to the Battle of the Neva in 1708, and suggests to me that these cards may have something to do with Russian America. I cannot imagine why the Neva River would be selected from thousands of “N” words in a set of alphabet cards, unless the intended users of the cards already had a familiarity with Russian geography and/or 18th century Russian history.
The second particularly unusual card is the “X” card. Admittedly, the letter “X” is a difficult one to match with an object, but this set of cards uses “Xerxes” as the “X” word – a very unusual choice, unless one considers the role of Xerxes in Byzantine Christianity and the adoption of Byzantine Christianity in Russia. Xerxes would not have seemed such an unusual reference to a Russian in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is difficult to see these as children’s cards. In addition to Xerxes and the Neva River: the “H” word is for “Hungary”—the nation; the “K” word is for the vegetable “Kale”; etc. – not exactly children’s favorites. The poem on the back of the “D” card has a reference a “doughty” knight with “cumbrous” gear; others have similar adult wording.
This theory may be entirely wrong. I welcome any suggestions. As noted there are a total of 28 cards, one for each letter of the alphabet, one for numbers 1-5, and one for numbers 6-10. The cards are made on very thick cardboard; seven cards stacked on top of each other are the approximate thickness of a standard deck of cards and all 28 cards stacked together are about 3 inches high. The cards are close to square, measuring 83mm x 73mm. There is no box.
If I am correct that the cards are at least 150 years old, then I think it is fair to say that they are in excellent condition. The faces of all 28 are shown so that their condition can be evaluated; the backs of a representative sampling with the poems are also shown.
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