Returning to school this fall has been bewildering for students, parents, teachers, and staff. Here’s a post about school books from the past whose illustrations suggest that the process of education has never been especially orderly or free from distractions. Welcome back! And the publishing new posts will resume next week.
One of the interesting aspects about cataloging children’s books is seeing an amazing variety of illustrated materials–fiction, stories, poetry, history, as well as books about history, science, technology, nature, animals, birds, insects–illustrated books of all shapes and sizes. Some scholars don’t really consider instructional materials to be children’s “literature” per se, but these kinds of books, games, and ephemera that were used to “home school” children constitute an important part of the Cotsen collection too. .
As a cataloger, I often encounter a dizzying array of material randomly, since they are described in the order that they’ve been acquired. The sheer variety is part of the fun. But sometimes, I serendipitously encounter books on similar subjects that seem to complement each other or to suggest connections that wouldn’t have occurred to me if only looking at one alone. Just this week, I saw several educational books about teaching children that also pictured children themselves in the accompanying illustrations. Let’s take a look…
The engraved frontispiece of The Boys’ School, or Traits of Character in Early Life (undated but published about 1821) shows a well-appointed (and generally quite orderly!) school-room–notice all the books and several globes on the shelves in the background. A well-dressed boy expounds an astronomical problem to a smiling master sitting at his desk in front of a small class. Note the compass the boy holds, the telescope, and the other astronomy, navigation, or time-keeping paraphernalia in the foreground too. Looking at the illustration, it’s not clear to me how much attention the other boys are paying to the recitation though, but at least they’re in their seats! Generally, a scene of enlightened decorum is effectively presented.
The frontispiece pretty much speaks for itself, but the text it accompanies tells us that this is a private school for a “limited number of boys,” and that Mr. Morton, the master was “good-natured” with a “steadiness of temper.”
It’s worth pointing out that, while the process of education is depicted in the frontispiece, the real object of this book is the moral education of its readers, as the author makes clear in her preface. The main character is one of the “children of affliction”–an orphan named William Falkner of small size and weak body–who is at first ridiculed by other students for his “personal defects” at the school, but who shows his mental and moral strength in the course of the story via his accomplishments. In many respects, this presentation is characteristic of English “moral tales” for children of its era.
Moving back in time, Elementary Dialogues for the Improvement of Youth (published in 1790 as the first English version, of Joachim Campe’s Kleine Seelenlehre für Kinder) is presented in the form of a dialogue between a tutor and his students. While generally benevolent, the tutor employs some educational techniques not exactly in accord with current practices today. At one point, for instance, he appears at the beginning of the day “with a knotted handkerchief in his hand; and without speaking, strikes each of the boys with it.” This isn’t as punishment for misbehavior though, but to demonstrate cause and effect to the boys in a way they’ll remember.
One of the illustrations depicts what I first thought was a studious boy in a library or study–maybe a model scholar?. There’s no caption to key a response, but notice the books, including one open on the desk before the boy. Take a look for yourself and see what you think!
Yet the accompanying text tells a different story. The tutor’s narrative describes the boy as a “poor blockhead at his wit’s end.” Unable to do a merchant’s apprenticeship text in writing and arithmetic, the boy “struck his forehead to correct himself for want of diligence … having profited little by education and…lost his time in running about and at play.”
As the text makes explicit, the tutor first shows this illustration to his students–as he does with the fifteen others presented in the book–and then elicits responses from them as he explains the context–which is immediately apparent to the boys in this case, who “read” the illustration more correctly than I did! Perhaps the moral here–at least for catalogers–is that you can’t tell a story by looking at one picture!
In some books, the illustrations make visible in graphical terms what the author is trying to describe in the text–they play a secondary or supporting role. In other books, such as toybooks by Caldecott, the illustrations ironically comment upon, or even undercut, the text; they can even become the primary narrative element. (And, to be honest, in some children’s books, there’s little relation between text and illustration; the illustrations are essentially decorative.) In Elementary Dialogues, text and illustration work together, the pictures intended to “make sensible” to children the “ideas” that the author wants to present. This method is meant to leave “the pleasure of discovering [the ideas] to the children,” and is consistent with the theories that Locke presented for using illustrations and objects for children’s education.
Having had all this moral and conceptual education, it’s time for a break, don’t you agree?
And so apparently do the students shown in the engraved frontispiece of Christmas Holidays: a Poem Written for the Amusement & Instruction of All Good Masters & Misses in the Known World by Tommy Tell-Truth, B.A., published circa 1767 (some titles are too good to shorten!).Here we see an eighteenth-century English class on the verge of their Christmas break. A benevolent-looking master gives out a prize, or treat, to one student, perhaps a star pupil? The rest of the students look like they’re about to explode with delight. (Remember that feeling yourself when in school?) One boy skates out of the picture at lower right, school-bag and hat in hand; other students stand and cheer (Huzza!) or chatter amongst themselves–a sense of festive jollity prevails over order or decorum. Compare this scene with that depicted in the 1820’s Boy’s School frontispiece above, in particular the number of students, their clothing and the general classroom decor. (We’ve moved from the world of Jane Austen back to the world of Tom Jones, or so it seems to me.)
Of particular interest to me are the boys shown on the left side of the engraving. In the foreground, one boy stuffs his school-bag (his back completely turned to the master) while another sprawls on the floor, holding his stomach in laughter while clutching a paper, perhaps his term grades? Meanwhile, two boys feed the fire with what appears to be the master’s birch rod and disciplinary paddle. The whole scene is one of blissful abandon and festive misrule, not inappropriate considering that another engraving in the book, titled “Twelfth Night,” depicts the festivity of a group of carousing adults, some apparently in their cups.