Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wisdom is admired. Xeno was wise.

I cannot deny that sometimes I spend (or waste) more time examining a new book I get than, perhaps, it deserves. Today's book is probably one such example.

The book in question is No. 5 from B F Foster's series, Foster's Elementary Copy-books (Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1838). This copy was used by a schoolgirl, Mary Livergood, and her name appears on the front cover. The book was filled completely with her writing exercises, and she seems to have had a fine hand on the whole.

Among the innovations of Foster's series of books was that advertised just below the title: "a new and improved Plan of teaching; by which the Trouble and Loss of Time in Ruling Horizontal and Diagonal Lines, and Setting Copies, are avoided." This benefit, of course, was an advantage to the teacher.

Yet the provision of engraved exemplars for students to copy (as above) was surely a useful thing, as was the provision of ruling lines, though the latter are so pale as to be nearly invisible, at least today. Providing these in print ensured that students were not entirely left to the mercies of teachers' willingness or ability to make the effort to provide exemplary examples.

This little book has 32 pages plus the printed wrappers (the front cover is shown in my second image). The interior pages are 8 bifolia, a single gathering sewn onto the wrappers at the center. The bulk of the interior pages feature a nearly alphabetic series of maxims or precepts that students were expected to copy out, moral instruction to accompany their practice in writing. "Nearly alphabetic," I had to write, because, after "Force is repugnant to true liberty" and before "Honour and fame procure praise" we find not an aphorism beginning with G, but "Beware of inordinate passions." 

A quick check confirms what some readers may anticipate: the conjugate leaf of the bifolium where we expect G reads "Grandeur cannot purchase peace": an error in the layout of the individual pages has switched these two pages. In a humble production like this one, it seems the error was left to stand, an example of the hazards of even the most simple imposition of pages.

Mary Livergood, for better or worse, seems to have been a good student, though I think on the following page we can see that her teacher did, on occasion, feel the need to provide a demonstration of the sort of writing that was wanted.

The third of the handwritten lines here, I think, is the teacher's, as it demonstrates more clearly than the student writing that a careful use of the pen can result in attractive shading of the different strokes. The teacher, too, has a fine understanding of the formation of cursive "w" in this style, while, towards the bottom of the page, poor Mary seems to have been writing "Avoid nhatever is unbecoming."

Elsewhere, we see other evidence that the tedium of the task has led to an unthinkingly mechanical performance on the student's part: 

"Death subues every individual," Mary has written twice, before sense reasserted itself.

Yet the purpose of the exercise, as Foster seems to have understood it, was to require the student to practice the strokes and letter shapes: neatness and facility were real goals, alongside accuracy. 

It may be worth noting that Foster's book includes diagrams for proper posture, for the proper holding of the pen in the hand, and for the proper way to cut a quill into a pen. Wikipedia suggests that steel nib pens became popular in the 1820s; here in 1838, a goose quill remains the standard. Likewise, the posture diagrams show women or girls, which may be of interest since books 7 and 8 of the same series are apparently intended for the "teaching [of] mercantile penmanship."

Like many another old or unusual book or manuscript, even a humble student's copybook can sometimes surprise us with interesting features--and the mistakes may be more revealing than the successes, whether made by a professional printer or a student.