Paradigm, 2/2 (October, 2000)

Handwriting copybooks as a multi-disciplinary resource

Rosemary Sassoon

For many years I had been collecting those small paper copybooks, first issued in the 1860s, costing a penny or twopence. A few were still to be found in local branch of W. H. Smith when my own children were at school in the 1960s. Shops like Philip Poole’s or Images, in Cecil Court, London, occasionally had a few older ones. Those that had been used were more interesting than pristine copies. They revealed such things as how closely children managed to copy the models and what were the most common faults. They were not considered much of an investment so were scorned by collectors of more impressive copybooks.

I began to study them carefully when researching for Handwriting of the Twentieth Century. My interest was mainly in analysing the letterforms and noting any instructions about posture and pen hold, but I enjoyed reading the extravagant terms in which the writing masters extolled their own work, envisaging the animosity between those committed to one slight detail of style or slant or another. The copybooks revealed that they had been produced by over a dozen different publishers. Their backcover copy showed that they were only individual pamphlets in long series, sometimes numbering over twenty. It would have been interesting to study a whole series, but to my surprise the usual sources such as the British Library, V&A, or The Museum of Childhood had only a few single copies, and most of them were from the best known set, by Vere Foster. The most valuable source of information was the long established educational supplier Philip and Tacey, who sent me a copy of their 1898 catalogue. That mentioned another half-dozen publishers of similar material. The country must have been awash with these booklets but nearly all have disappeared.

Students of decorative art would appreciate some of their covers. Beautifully designed, they reflect the changing styles before and after the turn of the last century. Undated, their date of publication can sometimes be estimated from the styles of lettering and decoration on the cover. The earliest-looking cover features a childhood portrait of Queen Victoria although it comes from Vere Foster’s range so could not have appeared before 1860. It is part of a set of drawing copybooks under the slogan ‘If you can teach a child to write you can teach a child to draw’.

This comprehensive series should interest those who study the history of child art. Whereas many copybooks confined their material to moral sayings, other echoed Victorian views of imperialism. Some of these copybooks were marketed right up until the mid-20th century. A few were updated including those published under the name of Vere Foster long after his death in 1900. Later editions included trite letters of invitation, job applications and other forms of correspondence reflecting the formality of the early 1920s. Others remained unchanged. I have two used copies of Brown and Nolan’s Right Line Copy-books dated 1943. We might find it somewhat incongruous today to think that during the Second World War schoolboys should still be occupied copying such sentences as ‘African discovery was long hindered by the forbidding aspect which the land presented. To the early explorers it was an abode of mystery and savage men.’


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