Blog—Donor Digest

Acquisition Spotlight: Mexican Alphabet Cards


Three views from [Set of educational Spanish-language alphabet cards], Case Wing PC4153 .S48 1830

The Newberry’s collection is a living one, and it grows to the tune of hundreds of new acquisitions every year. One recent acquisition highlights some of the unusual niches within the Newberry’s manifold unique and expansive collections.

The John M. Wing Collection on the History of Printing, stewarded by Jill Gage, is one of the Newberry’s earliest collections. Wing was a Chicago eccentric and early supporter of the Newberry; the collection he endowed has grown to over 50,000 objects over the past century. Gage is always on the lookout for unusual additions to the collection, which by dint of its expansive nature can accept a wide variety of different kinds of objects.

One recent item acquired for the Wing Collection is a set of Spanish-language alphabet cards thought to originate in Mexico between 1830 and 1850. No clear information about the publisher is known, but it appears that these cards may now be uniquely held by the Newberry. “Most popular books don’t survive,” says Gage. “They get read to bits because they’re used constantly. It’s very uncommon to find a popular-use print item that’s survived for nearly two centuries in this condition.”

The set consists of 24 small cardboard cards, each featuring a letter of the alphabet and a Spanish word with which it begins (such as G for “gato,” U for “uvas,” I for “inundación”) alongside an accompanying rhymed couplet and illustration. As the set follows the Spanish alphabet, it includes cards for the double-L as well as the ñ, among others. The card for the latter is particularly clever, as, since words in Spanish rarely begin with ñ, the subject of the card’s illustration is the letter itself.

Many questions remain about the cards. Were the illustrations commissioned expressly for this set, or were they repurposed from elsewhere? Are the couplets unique, or were they quoted or excerpted from other sources? As much of the verse is ribald and satirical, it remains an open question whether the set had an intended audience of adults or children. It is not even certain whether the set was produced in Mexico, or in the US with an intended Mexican audience.

The acquisition represents both a gesture in a newer direction for the Wing Collection, as well as the latest entry in one of its established sub-collections. Wing curators have traditionally been Europe-focused, but in collaboration with other selectors and curators at the Newberry, Gage has been actively on the lookout for more opportunities to represent the history of Latin American printing.

The set of cards also joins the Jane Gilmartin Gilchrist collection of alphabet books. In 1999, upon Gilchrist’s passing, the Newberry acquired as a bequest her collection of hundreds of alphabet books collected over the past half-century from countries around the world. With subsequent acquisitions, the Gilchrist collection now numbers 859 items, all viewable in our reading rooms, including this new set of Mexican alphabet cards.

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Holiday 2023. In this newsletter, we share with donors exciting stories of the work made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.