Writing Blanks and School Pieces

The Progress of Education

Just the other day I was lamenting how rarely I find actual examples of handwriting practice by learners. Lo and behold, I soon happened across a little treasure trove of school-children’s handwriting along with a category of print I’d never heard of before!

I was browsing through an online exhibit at the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, when a “Writing Blank” caught my eye.  It was a sheet of paper with a blank space in the middle surrounded by colorful engraved designs.  A student who was learning penmanship at school would write a few lines in his or her elegant hand in the blank space then give it to friends or family ro show off the new accomplishment.  Jill Shefrin, a scholar of the history of children’s books and education, likens these “school pieces” to needlework samplers. The top image is from a writing blank published by Robert Herrild in 1810 titled “The Progress of Education”, which features in pride of place a scene in which a school-boy is “Shewing his friends his Schoolpiece,” likely written on just such a writing blank. (Image Source – For all the images in this post, click on the source to go to a catalog entry and a detailed, zoomable image)

Luckily, writing blanks in the Bodleian’s collections have been digitized and made viewable online as part of the Oxford Digital Image Library’s project on “Educational ephemera and children’s games of the 18th and 19th centuries.”  The writing blanks in their collections are illustrated with a stunning variety of themes, from flowers to farm labours to biblical stories. Some seem especially calculated to appeal to school boys, like those illustrating soldiers and battles of the Napoleonic wars. In the following image, a student has matched the martial imagery in the print with his or her writing:” Britannia & Victory. / the memory of Nelson and Abercrombie / how the glorious subject fires / my Breast.”  The pencilled lines that guided the writer are still visible.

Writing blank entitled "Defeat of the French forces in Egypt by the English, fought on the 21st March 1801 in which Genl. Abercrombie was mortally wounded," published 1805 by J. Shea. The student-calligrapher has signed it with only a surname, Burrowes. (Image Source)
Writing blank titled “Defeat of the French forces in Egypt by the English, fought on the 21st March 1801 in which Genl. Abercrombie was mortally wounded,” published by J. Shea. The student-calligrapher has signed it with only a surname, Burrowes, and the date 1805. (Image Source)

Only a small percentage of the writing blanks in the collection have been filled in by students- many more remain blank- but I was glad to see any examples of student writing at all. Some are very confident and accomplished, but others are more tentative.

Writing blank of 1808 entitled “Adventures of Franklin”, published 1808 by W. & T. Darton. (Image Source)

Thomas Hatton was eight years old when he picked out “The Adventures of Franklin” for his school piece in 1813.  It’s striking that this hero of American history appealed to an English boy in Warrington, Lancashire!  Thomas’s writing sample is a formal address to his uncle, almost like a letter: “Be pleased to accept this from one whom has not presumed to trouble you before with an improvement made at School your affectionate Nephew”.  Thomas Hatton’s hand is not quite as elegantly formed as some of the other students’- which means it looks much more like mine!

I found just a few school pieces in the collection that were definitely by girls. Most of the writing blanks that included a handwriting sample were signed by boys, and a handful had no name or just a surname.  The disparity isn’t surprising, since at this period boys were likely to spend more years at school than their sisters.

Writing blank titled “Penn’s treaty with the Indians with a description of the manners of the Americans,” published 1742 by Edward Langley. Handwriting sample by Elizabeth Whitby dated December 19, 1805. (Image Source)

I wonder why Elizabeth Whitby chose a writing blank that had first been printed in 1742, 63 years before she added her very elegant flourishes in December 1805? The style of the print must have looked old-fashioned to her. Maybe she loved the images of the exotic Americans, both native and colonial?   Her handwriting sample consists of moral maxims of the kind that filled copy-books- learning to write so often meant learning virtuous slogans worthy of Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  She also demonstrates the ability to write an elegant hand in three different sizes. Some of the more ambitious school pieces show off the student’s proficiency in several different styles of writing as well.

Writing blank entitled “The life of Nebuchadnezzar,” published by John Fairburn. Handwriting sample by Susannah Whittom, Dec. 22, 1820. (Image Source)

Susannah Whittom also showed off her ability to write both large and small in her piece dated 1820.  In addition to maxims like “New things delight”, she includes a charming poem perfectly suited to the school piece’s function:

These lines I here present unto the sight
Of you, my friends, to show how I can Write;
My Master unto me has shown his skill;
And here’s the product of my hand and quill.

Like Elizabeth Whitby, Susannah Whittom dated her school piece in December, within a week before Christmas. Jill Shefrin notes that school pieces were often associated with school holidays, especially Christmas. Perhaps both these girls gave their proud parents these pieces as Christmas presents!

Seeing the school pieces of all these long-ago school children, I’ve decided I must make my own handwriting sampler (once I’m comfortable writing whole lines of connected prose).  I won’t be able to just pick up a writing blank at the print-sellers, but there is a digital alternative!  Peacay of the wonderful image blog BibliOdyssey has made several large, high quality images of blank writing blanks available here!  I will try printing one out on good writing paper.  Now I just have to choose which one- Flora’s Fancy? Captain Cook’s last voyage? Robin Hood? I just don’t know!

All of the images in this post are from Oxford’s Digital Image Library. To see catalog entries and a zoomable version of each image, click on the “Image Source” link.

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