In 1914, Ralph Mayhew was working for Harper & Brothers on a children’s book of verse in which he planned to have “a child sitting blowing bubbles which ascended and burst into the little pictures and nursery rhymes.” Mayhew struck upon the idea of incorporating small phonograph records in his Bubble Book, and was eventually able to convince Harper & Brothers and Columbia Records to back him, with the first edition of the Bubble Books pressed in 1917. The first Bubble Book – which contained three single-sided 5 ½-inch records featuring musical versions of traditional children’s verses and an accompanying package with illustrations – met with immediate success, and subsequent editions were released through the early 1930s. The Bubble Books were the first book and record hybrids marketed to children, and so represent a pioneering instance of cross-media synergy between book publishing and the record industry. As we can hear on this example, the Bubble Books consisted of a repackaged oral tradition of children’s nursery rhymes and songs.
Forms of children’s entertainment like nursery rhymes were well-suited to the time limitations of early records: with only approximately four minutes of recording time per side, it was difficult to develop longer narrative forms. But nursery rhymes also helped to associate these mass-produced records with oral traditions of parenting. In fact, the rhetoric of Columbia’s ad campaigns connected Bubble Books to a timeless matrilineal oral tradition, and at the same time attempted to upstage that tradition by arguing for the supremacy of the modern media: records could stockpile and reproduce all the old familiar rhymes, and with accompanying pictures lovelier than anything available in the past. Further, while mothers were portrayed as the vehicle of a beloved tradition, ads imagined a future in which her role was replaced by the phonograph. Note how a 1918 ad in Ladies’ Home Journal presents “Tom the piper’s son,” who asked mothers, “Let me sing to your child…I’ve always wanted to tell those children of yours my story, and to sing them a song – and now at last I can do it.”
We find here the substitution of the phonograph for the mother’s voice and a tradition of oral nursery rhymes. Bubble Book ads were aimed at mothers as the “middle term” in the chain of family consumption, but implied that the phonograph could “cut out the middleman” between oral tradition and the child; the middleman being the mother, who was reminded of her parental responsibilities even as her role was threatened. Bubble Book ads took part in a larger tendency of advertising copy of this era to address feelings of regret at the loss of earlier traditions, and to offer consumer goods to assuage anxieties about the passage to a culture of mass consumption. Such ads suggested that the modern consumer could simultaneously enjoy both the modern and the traditional via the product, and so, in Roland Marchand’s words, civilization could be “redeemed.” Bubble Book ads claiming that traditional characters like “Tom the piper’s son” wanted to speak directly to children may have made their media products more innocuous to parents, but that rhetoric also reveals some of the underlying anxieties that parents were feeling concerning their children’s consumption of mass produced media. It was of course, the record companies and Harper & Brothers, not “Tom the piper’s son,” who were looking for new ways to speak directly to children.