The Rocket Book: A Conceptually Ingenious, Stunningly Illustrated 1912 Children’s Book About Urban Living
An irreverent wink at the challenge of separate lives sharing space in the city.
By Maria Popova
“How alive the city is,” Alfred Kazin exclaimed in his journal in the late 1950s, “how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it… A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive.”
But this elated sense of the city as an arena for communion with humanity didn’t exist a mere generation earlier. It was made possible by the rapidly accelerating pace of urbanization in the early 1900s — by the end of the eighteenth century, only about one out of twenty families in America lived in cities, but by the second decade of the twentieth, the proportion had grown tenfold to one in two. Urban living also meant changing not only where people lived but how they lived — single-family homes were gradually replaced by large apartment buildings, where neighbors had to contend with maintaining separate lives in extreme proximity to one another.
That’s what Peter Newell (March 5, 1862–January 15, 1924), an artist endowed with Arthur Rackham’s superb draughtsmanship and Dr. Seuss’s irreverent wit, explores in his 1912 gem The Rocket Book (public library).
In this consummately illustrated story, the janitor’s mischievous son lights a rocket hidden in the basement of a towering building, a skyscraper by the era’s standards, and sends it blasting vertically upward. Each page depicts the ruckus the rocket creates as it rips through the twenty-one floors — through a writer’s typewriter, through a taxidermist’s prized walrus head, through the silverware drawer as a burglar is about to ransack it — until a can of frozen cream extinguishes it at the very top.
In shooting up through the all building’s apartments, the rocket pierces the artificial architectural boundaries between separate lives and becomes a vehicle for what E.B. White would later call “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation” in his superb meditation on what makes a great city. Like in Newell’s conceptually groundbreaking book The Hole, published four years earlier, an actual die-cut hole punctures the physical book in the same spot on every page as the rocket blasts its way through the twenty-one stories.
Woven into the timelessly delightful verses are the particular predicaments and norms of the time — the inhabitants of the various flats bear names as charmingly dated as Fritz, Mamie, Burt, and Gus; in the seventh flat, a woman plays the piano badly to please a man; we’re told that the man in the sixteenth flat is “a stupid guy” because he is unable to awaken early enough without an alarm clock, thus betraying the new cultural ideals of speed and productivity.
Complement Newell’s The Rocket Book, which is in the public domain and available as a free ebook from the Library of Congress, with legendary graphic designer Paula Scher’s The Brownstone — a lovely vintage children’s book offering a very different, equally delightful take on the challenge of compressing multiple lives into a space as confined as an urban apartment building.
Published August 8, 2016