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ABCs

Bone hornbook, English, late 18th century, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation YP96.15

Have you recently found yourself thrust into the role of homeschool teacher? Maybe you have a small child learning her ABC’s or a youngster practicing her penmanship.

Eighteenth-century children began to learn to read as young as 4 or 5, aided by tools such as this late 18th-century hornbook in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Small hands could easily grasp this 4 inch x 1 ¾ inch bone paddle to study the engraved letters—uppercase on one side, lowercase on the other. These hornbooks taught children the alphabet and familiarized them with printed letters, not script or cursive—an important skill for children to grasp so they could continue their instruction with the printed word, including the Bible.

Study the upper class letters—the “u” and the “v” seem to have switched places. This could have been a mistake, however, until the 19th-century printers often viewed the letters “u” and “v” as interchangeable. Notice on the reverse, the lower case “u” is included in the list of vowels. Now search for the lower case “s.” It’s there, I promise—between “r” and “t.” The symbol that looks like a modified “f” is actually an “s.” Eighteenth-century printers knew this as the “long s” and employed it when an “s” begins a word or as the first “s” in a word spelled with a double “s.”

While young children learned their ABC’s early, practicing penmanship came much later as little hands grew more dexterous to grasp writing instruments and create elegant flourishes.

A small copy book in our collection is a delightful example of how children and young adults practiced their penmanship. By copying practice letters, words and phrases from exercise books into their own notebooks, students learned proper letter formation as well as grammar, short quips, and even proper writing posture and arm movement.

Catharine Cooke, the student scribe who owned this practice book, may have been as young as 9 or 10 years old when she began practicing her letters. Late 18th and early 19th-century penmanship exercise books included pages of phrases, organized alphabetically, for students to repeatedly practice forming both capital and lower-case versions of script (think of this as an earlier form of “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”). Here, young Catharine is practicing her “w’s.”

Women and wine though they smile make men pine
Would you be wise be studious, if rich industrious
Women and wine are very fine
Women will smile and will beguile
You from wine + that is fine
To prevent the ill effect of too much wine.

Penmanship copy book, United States, possibly New England, 1770-1820, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation YP95.5

Research is ongoing to discover which published exercise book Catharine may have been referencing for her practice phrases. While we haven’t yet been able to find the “women and wine” stanzas in any published book, the phrase “Would you be wise be studious, if rich industrious” is common in many late 18th- and early 19th-century manuals, and also appears in other identified writing exercises from the early 19th century in other collections.

In the 18th century, young girls in wealthier families with the income and leisure time to afford it could benefit from the instruction of private tutors for reading, writing, mathematics and the classics. The aftermath of the Revolution, however, ushered a new emphasis on young women’s education and saw the advent of ladies’ academies, specifically in New England. Research has not yet revealed much about young Catharine Cooke, or whether she practiced her penmanship at home or in one of New England’s bourgeoning academies.

Catharine was probably born after the American Revolution and practiced her penmanship in the earliest years of the new United States. Some of the words Catharine copied in her practice book—“Washington,” “Victory,” and “Jamestown” speak not only to new sentiments of patriotism but also to shared national origin stories growing in popularity and importance in the early 19th century. Notice, too, the effortlessly rendered stylized eagle at the bottom of Catharine’s practice page, a symbol well entrenched in the new nation’s identity by the turn of the century.

Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

For further reading:
• Richard S. Christen, “John Jenkins and ‘The Art of Writing:’ Handwriting and Identity in the Early American Republic,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 3 (September 2012), pp. 491-525.

• Laetitia Yeandle, “The Evolution of Handwriting in the English-Speaking Colonies of America,” The American Archivist (Summer 1980), pp. 294-311.


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