Wednesday 9 September 2015

Mrs George Cupples

Recently, I was doing some research for an article for SlipKnot, the magazine of the Knitting & Crochet Guild.  The subject was Mrs George Cupples, who wrote two small books on knitting - or booklets, really, of 32 pages each.  They were published in Edinburgh,  apparently in 1871, when the publisher advertised them.  

Mrs Cupples was a prolific author of children's books - the British Library catalogue lists nearly 50, under what we would now consider to be her proper name of Anne Jane Cupples.  So the knitting books were more or less a sideline.  They are not instruction manuals for children, as you might expect, but rather specialised works, one on knitting stockings and the other on  “Counterpanes, Toilet-Covers, Pin-Cushions, &c.”  The Stocking-Knitter’s Manual gives general directions for stockings for all ages and sizes of foot, and finishes with a few open-work patterns, while A Knitting Book of Counterpanes gives stitch patterns for squares and strips that can be made up into counter-panes (not to mention Toilet-Covers, Pin-Cushions, &c.), with some patterns for edgings.

One thing that surprised me in researching her story is that her two knitting books were reviewed in newspapers across the country.  Perhaps that was because she was already known as a children's author. But the writers of the reviews I have seen are all men, who evidently knew nothing at all about knitting.  They took the opportunity to make fun of the abbreviations that she used - here, for instance,  are her own descriptions from The Stocking-Knitter’s Manual:             
O means put over the thread. T is knit two together. A is slip a stitch,  knit 2 together, and take the slipped stitch over.  Ts is slip a stitch,  knit 1 plain, and take the slipped stitch over. P is plain 1.   B is one pearl.
They are not abbreviations that are used nowadays, but any knitter could understand the need for them, and decode her instructions quite easily.

 Here's the Essex Standard reviewer, writing in July 1871: 
We have been requested in our editorial capacity to notice this little manual, published by Johnstone, Hunter, and Co., of Edinburgh.  We must, however, beg to be excused from vouching practically for the accuracy of the receipts, and must leave it to our lady readers, who no doubt are au fait as every lady should be, at interpreting B 1, S 3 times, O, P 7, T and repeat, &c., contenting ourselves with observing, that judging from the illustrations, we gather that a dexterous fingering of the pins or needles, according to the prescribed rules should produce cockle shells and cowries, coral and cable patterns, stars and diamonds, snowdrops, honeycombs, van-dykes, apple, rose, and olive leaves, finishing up with a fringe; and that in some of the receipts ladies are instructed to take in and in others to take off
Ho, ho, very amusing. 

And similarly, the Bath Chronicle reviewer picks on the abbreviations:   
A KNITTING BOOK OF COUNTERPANES. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter, and Co.—A handbook bearing the above title has been sent for review.  Of the merits of such a work we confess ourselves unable to speak, and we can only recommend those who are curious to know its contents to buy the book and judge for themselves.  We were half inclined to give a page or so from the work by way of an extract for our literary column: but we shall be excused from this when we say that line after line is made up in this fashion:— P2 × ⊥, B11, ⊥, repeat from × P2 —and so on. What it means we leave others to guess.
(The ⊥ symbol was printed in those days as an upside-down T - easy to do in those days of movable type, when the printer just took a letter T and turned it upside down.  Fortunately for me, there is a logic symbol that looks about right.)   

The reviewer in the Alnwick Mercury, does not mock the booklet, but acknowledges that he knows nothing about the subject: 
"The art of knitting has become such a favourite and congenial employment for female hands, whether in the drawing room, the workroom, or by the sea side, that the providing of any number of suitable patterns is sure to be warmly received."  Such is a portion of the introduction by Mrs Geo. Cupples to a little manual just issued under the title of  "A Knitting Book of Counterpanes, Toilet Covers, &c.," which seems to contain, as far as our limited knowledge of so recondite a subject enables us to judge, a great variety of very pretty patterns upon which our fair friends might feel inclined to try their skill, and for which the price is a mere trifle compared with the trouble of obtaining only one or two like patterns from their friends. 
It seems extraordinary to me that a newspaper should publish a book review by a reviewer who clearly knows nothing at all about the subject, rather than asking a woman who could knit to write it.  Perhaps it wasn't thought suitable for a lady to write for a newspaper (even though all the reviews above were anonymous), though I can't imagine why not, when by then there were many magazines being published that were written for women and by women.   I hope that the women readers of these ignorant reviews found them infuriating.   


  1. For the record, both of Mrs. Cupples knitting books (plus some of her children's books) are available in the free on-line archives of the University of Pennsylvania:

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. The copies available via the UPenn site are actually those in the Richard Rutt collection at Winchester School of Art. As far as I can see the Counterpanes copy doesn't have a front cover, but it seems complete otherwise. Members of the Knitting & Crochet Guild can download pdfs of the Guild's copies (with covers in both cases) from the Guild website.
      Among the children's books, The Adventures of Mark Willis might be worth a look - her husband (George Cupples, of course) went to sea as a young man, and wrote a best-selling novel about his experiences. I assume that Anne Cupples' book uses material from his early life too, but adapted for children.

  2. Those books have wonderful covers - I particularly like the one with the 'Toilet-Covers' title!

    1. I suspect it didn't mean what we might think it means today....


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