A French Boy Illustrates his Arithmetic Work Book (1833)

A splendid cahier d’arithmetic made for a pupil by his teacher recently on the market.

Workbooks of arithmetical problems sound like the least likely of any elementary educational work to use illustrations as relief from the columns of figures.  That is a perfectly reasonable assumption if you learned basic arithmetical operations from the average twentieth-century textbook, which need not  appeal to the eye or imagination (there are exceptions, of course)..  While this may be true of printed workbooks, it is not really true in the case of the modern print genre of playful, colorful counting books or manuscript workbooks made before 1850. These manuscripts are frequently highly visual, decorated in a wide variety of styles, and their design and illustration offer intriguing evidence about how children acquired basic numeracy 1660-1850, that also raise questions with no easy answers.

Cotsen has added another example of a manuscript arithmetic workbook to its collection.  Le petit livret d’arithmetique was made by Jacques Gounon, a student  of M. Michel Francois “instruteur elementaire” in Moussac, a commune near Uzès in the department of Gard in southern France. The title page is dated 1833, but it is unclear if the year indicates the date of the beginning or the completion  (sometimes the student recorded the dates exercises were completed, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule).  Jacques used a very black ink that showed through the pages, making some of them appear to be covered with patches of scribbles that are more or less indecipherable.  The exercises on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division look as if they embody the traditional rule-driven arithmetic pedagogy dating back to the eighteenth century, but a historian of numeracy might able to identify the printed source Jacques’ teacher assigned or detect changes in the pedagogy after studying the manuscript.

Jacques, who seems to have had some artistic talent, drew headpieces throughout his workbook, none of them with any connection to the lessons below. His subjects are ones which would interest a boy—harlequins, horses, and soldiers.

The choice of some subjects, such as headpieces of the rooster perched on a trumpet, the dragon clutching a man in its claws, and the camel and reindeer bearing  flags, are opaque without some explanation.  My preliminary research indicates that Jacques’ illustrations and decorations had contemporary political overtones.

The two quadrupeds are expressing their solidarity with the current regime by flying the tricolore, whose use had been suspended at the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration in 1815 and recently restored after the July Revolution of 1830.  The rooster has long been an emblem of the French nation based on the play on words between gallus, a cockerel, and gallus, a resident of Gaul.  Somewhat eclipsed by Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic’s chief values of liberté, égalité et fraternité, it may have been a token of Jacques’ loyalty to Louis Philippe, Duke of Chartres, who ascended the throne after his cousin Charles IX was forced to abdicate by the July Revolutionaries.

The meaning and source of the dragon is somewhat mysterious.  Perhaps the beast  was inspired by cheap French popular print, like this block on the cover of a Valentine and Orson chapbook.  Its victim is wearing a hat.  Might it be a clumsy rendering of the Phrygian bonnet or liberty cap worn by French revolutionaries?

Was he directed by his teacher to illustrate some of the arithmetic assignments? If it were mandatory, was it a way of practicing other skills the teacher wanted him to learn? Or was the option of decorating  the workbook been offered as an inducement to plough through the material?  Was he free to chose the subjects without approval?  To answer these questions, we would have to know more about the school’s master and the curriculum he taught.  Was M. Michel Francois a writing master?   Was he trained by a professional calligrapher, who would have been more likely to have his pupils lay out the pages elegantly with embellishments?  Or was he a master who advertised his ability to teach his pupils the essential skills of writing and ciphering that would serve them well in trade and commerce?

Manuscript arithmetic workbooks are not just attractive because of their illustrations, but because they also present complicated puzzles for historians of education to crack.

More Pretty Little Pocket Books for Children

A woman’s hanging pocket in the collection of the V & A.

The word “pocket book” was a term for a wallet or small purse for money and personal objects in the eighteenth century.  That wasn’t its only meaning, however.  It also referred to books– especially memorandum books (i.e. “diaries” in British English) or vade mecums, compilations of useful information– that could be comfortably stowed in a weskit pocket  or the hanging bag attached to a tape that tied around a woman’s waist.   Related to almanacs, they were revamped for adults by enterprising publishers in the 1740s, among them John Newbery, more famous for his children’s books.  Twenty years later he went back to the drawing board and reconceptualized the pocket book for younger customers.  Newspaper advertisements confirm that the publisher really was its compiler. .The Important Pocket-Book or Valentine’s Ledger (ca. 1765), which was also a tie-in to The Valentine’s Gift, may be the first of its kind and a good model for the genre as a whole, whether or not  Continental children’s books publishers were influenced by it.

Cotsen 5354.

The more famous Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which could be carried on its owner’s person without any trouble, was not meant for ready reference or record keeping. The Important Pocket-Book was, with its  tables of money, weights, and measures and a  calendar for recording daily expenses over a twelve-month period that was not keyed to a particular year, making it saleable over a long span of time.  On the facing pages Newbery added a second calendar for tracking good and bad deeds, a feature which does not seem to have caught on.  He also selected stories from classical literature such as Cornelia, mother of the Graecci, and combined them with anecdotes from modern history, and short fiction reprinted from others of his juveniles. Selections were accompanied by both copperplate engravings and wood cuts. Shown below is the cut of Father Time illustrating a story about a time-wasting school boy and an opening from the moral ledger that was marked up for about a month.  Someone tried to erase the notes, but “Bad” is still visible on the right hand side.  The entire package of material was attractively bound in boards covered with Dutch floral paper shiny with gilt.Prentjes Almanach voor Kinderen, a charming Dutch pocket book bound in pale apple-green printed boards (Cotsen 3466), is much smaller than The Important Pocket-Book  and appears to have been issued annually by its publisher W. Houtgraaf. In 1799, the contents featured a page of information about eclipses, which was probably suggested by the three forecast between April and October, culminating in a total solar eclipse. The selection of literature was somewhat lighter in character than the stories in the Newbery book.  Prominently featured was a series of illustrated poems about children’s pastimes,  itinerant street vendors, and strolling players.  English street cries for children often portray as many sellers of foodstuffs as small commodities, whereas the Almanach shows just one vendor tempting children with sweet teeth with a basket of “china apples, i.e. oranges.”  A somewhat unusual subject is the man crying umbrellas, a convenience that was still something of a novelty in  Europe. Children were surely more likely to flock around the bagpiper with his trained animals than the seller of useful objects, especially when the musician undoubtedly would perform for anyone with pennies burning in their pockets.  While it was a well-established practice to draw vendors full-length,  I can’t help but wonder if it was deliberate that the attractive nuisance is shown without an audience, whereas the ink vendor has a customer that looks like a school boy to his left.The daintiest of the three pocket books is, of course, French, but it may come as a surprise that Reveries orientales (Coten 65141) was issued in by Louis Janet in 1794 during the French Revolution.   I did look at a near contemporary catalogue of moral, instructive, and amusing children’s books issued in Lyons by Bohaire  (Cotsen in process)  to see what pocket books he stocked and found three or four for ladies with elegant engravings and bindings that sound as fashionable as this one in embroidered cloth with tiny drawings under isinglass (or horn) with a little pocket lined with rose paper on the inside of the rear board.  The tiny engraved plates are based on the ones by famous Roccoco artists for the celebrated Cabinet des fees, a multivolume anthology of French fairy tales and stories from the Thousand and One Nights.  The rather perfunctory monthly calendars of accounts surely could not compete with the illustrations, like the one for the tale of the miserly merchant Abou Cassem.John Newbery probably would not have approved of this frivolous approach to a kind of children’s book that he believed ought to help form good habits and regular self-examination, but the French and Dutch examples here suggest that the conventions for pocket books were just as fluid as they were stable.