The Shell Book: One of the Most Beautiful Books Ever Published

Gifts of the Ebb Tide (The Shell Book), which matches poems about sea shells with exquisite pictures of the shells, began with a visit to the seaside. On a sunny spring day, probably in 1789, the poet Akera Kankō set out from Edo (modern Tokyo) by boat with six companions from his Yaegaki Circle to spend the day on the long beach at Shinagawa at the southern edge of the city. Strolling along the beach at low tide, they found delightful "cherry blossom" shells, "bamboo blind" shells, and "oak leaf of the waves," and began to extemporize verse. They conceived a modern anthology of thirty-six poems modeled on a traditional poetry contest on the theme of shells, and after their return to Edo, Kankō invited other members of the group to complete the collection. Kankō's friend Tsutaya Jūzaburō offered to publish the book, and the young artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806) agreed to design pictures to accompany the poems.

As though the reader has stooped down to look more closely at the "gifts of the ebb tide," Utamaro presents six exquisitely printed pictures of shells mentioned in the poems floating over them. The shells are not labeled, and many were unfamiliar, so readers would, as they read the poems, glance down to see if they could match the words with the shells.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806), artist; Yomibito Shirazu and others, authors. Gifts of the Ebb Tide (The Shell Book), second edition. Edo: Tsutaya Jūzaburō, undated, probably 1789.
The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection.

More Images from The Shell Book

Exhibition Brochure: Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan

Related Publication: Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan

Reading Ehon: A Detailed Look at "Nesting Cranes and Pine Tree" by Yamaguchi Soken

About the Spencer Collection

Classic Ehon at The Library Shop: Momotarō and the Island of Ogres

More Ehon at The Library Shop