Hot Corn

It seem fitting in a week when announcements are issued concerning Playboy as mandatory reading for certain Architecture graduate students and masturbation being prohibited in Princeton bathrooms, that we post something from a temperance book devoted to showing the “lamentable conditions” to which the wicked are apt to fall.

Solon Robinson (1803-1880), Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated. Including the Story of Little Katy, Madalina, the Rag-Picker’s Daughter, Wild Maggie, etc. (New York: DeWitt and Davenport, 1854). Half title and six full-page illustrations by John McLenan (1827-1865) and one by Frederick M. Coffin, all engraved on wood by N. Orr. Graphic Arts Hamilton 1043.

This is a collection of stories first published individually in the New York Tribune, then released, according to an 1853 advertisement in the New-York Daily Times, in an edition of 15,000. The book sold in a cloth binding for $1.25 and in a gilt edition for $2.00. It was a best-seller. The sad stories focus on the beggars, the alcoholics and the prostitutes who lived in and around the Five Points area in the lower east side of Manhattan.

So popular were the stories that three separate theater productions were developed around the character of Little Katy (who sold hot corn in the winter and peanuts in the summer) at Barnum’s American Museum, the Bowery Theatre, and the National Theater. At the latter venue, Little Katy ran in repertory with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

There are many such books on our collection. See also Ernest Gray or The Sins of Society by Maria Maxwell (1855) Graphic Arts Hamilton 1055

According to Sinclair Hamilton, the artist John McLenan was discovered by the publishers working in a pork-packing plant in Cincinnati and making drawings on the tops of barrels. He became one of the most prolific of our early illustrators. Besides the American temperance books, McLenan illustrated many English novels for Harper’s, such as The Woman in White, Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations, as well as being well-known as a comic draftsman.

Unfortunately McLenan died in 1865 at the age of thirty-eight. The memorial which appeared in the May number of Yankee Notions called him:

…one of the best draughtsman America has ever produced…. Equally at home in caricature and in sketches from the life, with a quick perception of the ridiculous and a fine appreciation of the picturesque, he soon took his place among the illustrators of our current literature, second to none.

See another biography at