If you know your Tom Sawyer, you probably remember the chapter where the hero swops the detritus in his pockets for any reward of merit tickets his mates have in theirs. Tom reports to Sunday School, where he proudly presents his stash of tickets–nine yellow, nine red, and ten blue for a total of ten–to Mr. Walters and claims his prize, a Bible illustrated by Gustave Dore.
Did the Dore Bible also have a reward of merit bookplate pasted inside with a neat inscription noting that it was presented to Thomas Sawyer on the occasion of his having “warehoused two thousand sheaves of Scriptural wisdom?” That detail isn’t mentioned by Twain, unfortunately. Imagine the price that copy would sell for at auction!
No famous children owned any of Cotsen’s nineteenth-century British books with reward of merit plates . The British labels I’ll highlight here are not as heavily illustrated or color-printed like the better known American reward of merit tickets and bookplates. The examples in Cotsen may be more modest, but are interesting as relics from particular schools.
A master at Mr. Clarke’s Academy at Enfield for dissenters presented one of Mrs. Wakefield’s tours to different parts of the globe to a pupil. The names of the recipient and the teacher are written on the blue engraved label, but they are now so faded as to be very difficult to make out. The signature at the head of the title page may be that of another owner. Incidentally the poet John Keats was a schoolboy at Clarke’s Academy.
This neat little abridgment of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was given to a Master Trafford for excellent marks on his final Greek exam by his two clergyman teachers, who may have been private tutors like Fielding’s Thwackum and Square. The little manuscript plate has been carefully designed and elegantly calligraphed, perhaps in imitation of the engraved ones.
A full-length biography of Dick Whittington for young readers was thought suitable for presentation to Master Wilkinson of J. H. Abraham’s Milk Street Academy in Sheffield late June 1816. Milk Street was another dissenting academy with a good reputation. The master J. H. Abraham (1777-1846) was a Quaker. A member of Sheffield’s scientific community, he was among the first teachers in England to integrate modern science instruction into the curriculum.
School masters might paste printed or engraved labels in the books they presented to good students, but some teachers personally inscribed copies. A teacher noted that Miss Caroline Weston was receiving The Picture Gallery Explored, with the awe-inspiring frontispiece of a father and his three daughters taking in the canvases hung floor to ceiling, for “good behavior and attention to her studies in school.” There’s not enough evidence in the book to even hazard a guess as to the location of the school, there having been several schools named “Albion House” in Victorian England later in the century.
A recently acquired prize book from the 1890s bound in red calf stamped with the school’s arms shows that the practice of giving books to outstanding students had been reduced to a fine art. The large printed reward plate states that Annie Rawbone of the upper third form received this adaptation of Josephus for getting first place in arithmetic with a mark of 93. Annie’s school, which was founded in 1873, still exists today in a different location.
You can see more examples of rewards of merit in a post by my colleague Julie Mellby on her Graphic Arts blog!
I suppose some teachers chose with the student’s interests in mind. In other cases the school might have ordered a number of one title to distribute to all honorees. If the school were small, was the selection more likely to be individualized–or is that purely modern thinking? Another thing I’ve been wondering about is, how many books would an average student have owned? Maybe any book would be welcome–although Becky Sharp wasn’t! Andrea
Fascinating as always. I wonder how the books were actually chosen? jacqui