Curator’s Choice: Pen Flourish Figures in a Dutch Boy’s Copybook ca. 1733

This week when I was retrieving some manuscripts, I got distracted and made a discovery.   I didn’t remember ever having looked at the materials on the shelf where the one manuscript lived and stopped to see what a few of the archive boxes near it contained.

One of the treasures was a eighteenth-century copybook that had been filled in between January and August 1733 by Jan Haverman, who lived in Amersfoort, a Dutch city on the river Een in Utrecht.

Jan Haverman’s signature on the leaf pasted down on the front marbled paper cover. Cotsen 91631.

Cotsen has quite a few American and British copybooks, but I wasn’t aware there were Dutch examples too, so I was eager to peek inside the marbled paper wrappers.  The pages are not ruled with carefully spaced lines that make it easy for the student to write the practice text across the page.  The margins of the odd numbered pages are decorated with highly stylized decorations composed of swirling lines and whoever calligraphed these beautiful figures was something of  an artist.

The woman with a cap and curls down her back on leaf 1. Cotsen 91631.

Jan Haverman signed the bottom of every page he copied out, but did he have the control of the pen to have drawn the figures in the margins as well?

The man in the feathered hat on page 3. Cotsen 91631.

The hissing snake on page 5. Cotsen 91631.

The dancing dog on page 19. Cotsen 91631.

The sly fox on page 21. Cotsen 91631.

The clever ape on page 67. Cotsen 91631.

The bird eating cherries on page 35. Cotsen 91631.

Maybe the fantastic people and creatures be the work of Jan’s writing teacher.  Scholars who study the history of writing instruction often call attention to the parts in an exercise that the student executed and the parts his instructor corrected.  Could the writing master done the drawings as Jan’s reward for having finished his lesson?

A sprig of flowers on page 27. Cotsen 91631.

There ARE some blots, misformed letters, and wobbly lines on this page, so perhaps the figure in the margin here was intended as an incentive to do better at the next lesson!


The Spirit of 1776: An American Copy Book Older than This Country (Slightly)


34370, front wrapper with an engraving illustrating a fable.

Since we are inaugurating a long weekend celebrating Independence Day today (huzzah for a holiday on Monday!), I thought it might be appropriate to share an equally important contemporaneous manuscript to the Declaration of Independence from the Cotsen collection.

The above image is the front wrapper of Samuel Holbrook’s copy book. Composed between June and September 1776 in  Hartford, Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts, this copy book is a rare written artifact that has survived from the time of the founding of this country. A copy book (or copybook) is an educational practice book in which a pupil practices penmanship and the basics of reading (and often arithmetic) by copying as closely as possible passages from an engraved instruction manual. So of course, they often contained alphabets of Roman and italic letters, upper and lower case to copy.

page [8]

page [8]

Sam Holbrook’s copy book happens to have an entry that is a day earlier than a very auspicious date for this country:


page [1]. Notice that Sam is using red ink for the headings and black for the precepts.

As you might have guessed, besides learning the rudiments of penmanship, copy books were often meant to be morally instructive  by providing life advice. These kinds of proverbial couplets pictured above, and other aphorisms, are typical  fodder for copy books and other forms of moral instruction throughout the  eighteenth century (think of the various kinds of “sayings” from the wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac).

page [11]

page [11]. Notice that Sam used red, blue, and black ink on this page.

 Either Samuel Holbrook hadn’t heard the recent news about independence or had (Gasp!) Tory sympathies. In the image below, Sam has copied out an extensive praise of British merchants and their far-reaching benefits:

page [13]

page [13]. Sam was probably using a British copy book, which might also explain all the pro-English sentiments.

 If you want to read more about how this Cotsen copy book has been featured in our public outreach program, Cotsen in the Classroom, check out this blog post by Dr. Dana on her blog: Pop Goes the Page.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!