Tag Archives: American Antiquarian Society

Discovery at the Library of Congress

Early Fall on Capitol Hill
Early Fall on Capitol Hill

The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress is one of the finest collections of illustrated books in the US. Calligraphy, both in the form of manuscript as well as printed writing manuals, is well represented in the collection. The Rare Book & Special Collections department has other collections that fill in gaps in the printed writing manual subject area. Acquisitions are made to expand their holdings, and I was allowed to review a number of books that have come into the collection but haven’t been cataloged yet.

I was eager to find hidden books in the uncatalogued book truck. Looking at material that hasn’t been pored over is a thrill because I might find an item that hasn’t been researched yet, or has some other importance that awaits discovery. This time, I was rewarded with discovering a new-found friend, Joseph Seavy.  I pulled a little blue pamphlet off of the truck, placing a flag to mark its location and knew immediately that I was the first to see this as a related item to the Newberry copy.

The Writer's Assistant, Joseph Seavy Library of Congress
The Writer’s Assistant, Joseph Seavy
Library of Congress

The fact that I was looking at another copy, knowing that there may be only one other place that it existed was exciting. The Massachusetts Historical Society’s copy had been microfilmed, but the only images they took were of the cover and inside wrappers. No images of the text pages were available.

I anticipated seeing the watermarked letters, and hoped there would be writing over them to show how people used these instruction books.

Front cover/first page The Writer's Assistant Joseph Seavy Library of Congress
Front cover/first page
The Writer’s Assistant
Joseph Seavy
Library of Congress

You can see the letters in this copy are well-written. And they are of the same style as the letters in the Newberry copy. I turned the page and subsequent pages, and all were filled with a fairly accomplished hand written on both sides of the laid paper.

The Writer's Assistant Joseph Seavy Library of Congress
The Writer’s Assistant
Joseph Seavy
Library of Congress

This is what the Newberry copy looks like:

The Writer's Assistant Volume 4 Joseph Seavy The Newberry Library
The Writer’s Assistant
Volume 4
Joseph Seavy
The Newberry Library

In both books, the letterforms are the same, the scribal version shows the influence of the pressure of the pointed pen. I’ve asked for a light sheet (a paper thin light source) and lay it behind the one of the manuscript pages but cannot detect a watermark. And the book is laid paper, not wove as is the Newberry copy.  So, there’s at least one copy of the book without watermark and LC’s copy doesn’t have a volume number either.

Now I want to know more because this mystery is intriguing. I know of no other copybook where the instruction is produced by watermark. The title and instructions are printed in Boston, 1814 and the price is somewhat inexpensive with a current value around $2.25. That would not be outrageous for a parent  to buy a copy of an instruction manual for a child. If all four volumes were purchased it would be around $9.00 today.

How many copies of this series survive? I go back to Worldcat and fight the digital/book blindspot and try to narrow down where an actual book is rather than the mircorform or its digital equivalent. The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA has Vol. 2 & 4. And I’ll be headed there in a few weeks, so I’ve gotten lucky because I’ll be seeing 2 more examples from this series.

I am convinced that there is no watermark letterform present in this pamphlet  owned by George W. Fenns. He may have been the scribe that filled this book front to back with competent practice lettering. A quick search fails to find him.

The hunt is on. I want to know more about this book. And I want to know where/how one unnumbered volume has laid paper instead of the watermarked paper. I’ve got more questions than answers – and that is exhilarating.


Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving
Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving Photo C. Stinehour

The Motoscribendi tour rolls out in a few hours. I packed all my clothes and camping gear, now the hard part comes: Getting the traveling writing kit together – pens, inks, paper, etc.

Packing the bike
Packing up to leave. Photo M. Smith

The t-shirts are done as you can see and have already been shipped out, so that’s been a relief to have accomplished. Thanks to Meg Smith, other fulfillment will be done while I’m gone. And she and her boyfriend are taking their bikes to escort me to Sacramento on Delta roads and twisties just to get things going.

Where am I going?

I’ve come to the conclusion that an itinerary will help – even if I change things up along the way. The list below is my first attempt at routing.

August 6th – Saturday 8th: Oakland/Santa Fe, NM
August 10th – Tuesday 11th: Santa Fe/Austin
August 12 – 18 Austin, TX
August 18 – 21 Houston
August 22 – 23 Houston/Iowa City
August 24 – 25 Iowa City, IA
August 26 Iowa City/Chicago
August 27 – September 2 Chicago, IL
Sept. 2 Chicago/Ann Arbor, MI
Sept. 3 – 4 Ann Arbor & Detroit, MI
Sept. 5 – 6 Detroit/Charlottesville
Sept. 6 – 7 Charlottesville, VA
Sept. 8 – 9 Richmond, VA
Sept. 10 Richmond/Washington, D.C.
Sept 11 – 15 Washington, DC
Sept. 16 Washington, DC/Princeton
Sept. 17 -18 Princeton, NJ
Sept. 19 Princeton/NYC
Sept. 20 – 26 NYC
Sept 27 NYC/New Haven
Sept 28 – 29 New Haven, CT
Sept. 30 New Haven/Worcester
Oct. 1 – 3 Worcester, MA
Oct. 4 Worcester/Cambridge
Oct. 5 – 8 Cambridge, MA
Oct. 9 -10 Hanover, NH
Oct 11 Hanover/Scranton, PA
Oct. 12 Scranton/Philadelphia
Oct 13 – 14 Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 14 Philadelphia/Cleveland
Oct. 15 – 17 GBW, Cleveland, OH
Oct. 23 – 24 APHA Rochester, NY
Oct. 25 – 31 Return to CA, no fixed itinerary

Remember, this is a motorcycle tour of libraries that have writing manuals and copybooks, and to keep that in mind, here’s a few more items to look at.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library Photo NGY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NGY

I’ll see you in a few days with a report.

Finding Libraries with Writing Manuals

What is a Writing Manual?

Writing manuals teach a student how to form letters and write a particular style of writing or hand. Often, a writing manual discussed ink recipes, paper selection, how to cut a quill into a pen and how to hold it. They came into widespread use in the first quarter of the 16th century as a way to teach students how to be scribes. The first writing book to be published was written by Ludovico degli Arrighi’s La Operina and was printed from a text cut in wood.

Books with text cut in wood had been available prior to the invention of moveable type, but those books were meant to be read for the text only. With metal type, there was no way to illustrate how to form letters, and Arrighi had his text engraved in wood and printed from these blocks of text. Writing manuals quickly became Renaissance best sellers. Writing manuals were popular books because they showed how to write specific styles and they were designed to be beautiful books.

Because the text was cut in wood (later engraved in copper), the blocks were saved for later printing and often printed by different printers. Their useful life could extend beyond a century. This gave rise to a dizzying number of variants and titles.

Giovanni Batista Palatino composed and published Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivener  in 1540. As you can see from the title, the advertiser’s favorite “New and Improved” marketing technique was born. Julie L. Melby at Princeton’s Graphic Arts collection does a fine job of writing about these books in Palatino’s Tools of Writing.

The Bancroft Library’s copy Compendio del gran volvme dell’art del bene & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri… from 1588, shows a previous owner’s attempt at writing out the text in the margin.

1588 Palatino @Bancroft Library. Student has copied part of the text in the lower margin.

Where are these books located & how do I find them?

The heavyweights in the history of writing have written about these books for a century. People like Stanley Morison, Alfred Fairbank, James Wardrop and Nicholas Barker dove deep into this subject. These guys were interested in how handwriting influenced type design and how these books were made and printed because they were primarily illustrated books about letterforms. Illustrated in wood or metal, the text might be all cut (therefore illustrated, not typeset) or an admixture of typographic and xylographic (woodcut) or copperplate. If you’re really interested in this, you can get lost in the subject and never even see one of the actual books. There is so much literature in both books and journals that you could spend a year reading and know only a little.

Because I have spent a lot of time looking at these books all over the US, I’m familiar with their location and know where the major collections are. Making a census of books by location will assist scholars in their research. Without this type of finding aid, it is difficult to know what is in an institution since items are not cataloged in a way that they can be found online.

I invite readers to suggest institutions with writing manuals and copybooks that I may have missed.

Map it!

I am drawing a map that will give you a view of where I’ll be headed – and loosely, when. Then you can follow along, and if I discover more institutions along the way I can visit them. The trip will begin in the Bay Area and head in a counter-clockwise direction around the US and into Canada.

Leaving the locals till last, I’ll give you a quick highlight: Huntington Library, Harry Ransom Center, UTAustin, Library of Congress, Folger Shakespreare Library, Scranton, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York Public Library, Columbia University, Yale, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard, Toronto, Chicago, Iowa City, and home to the target-rich environment of the Bay Area.

Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive. First horizontal writing book.
Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive.
First horizontal writing book.

Locally, the Bancroft Library at UCBerkeley has a number of items, San Francisco Public Library, Stanford and the Letterform Archive. You’ll be hearing about this new institution as my friend Rob Saunders has turned his private collection of material about letterforms into a nonprofit organization that offers digital images of the collection as well as on-site study for type designers, calligraphers, lettering artists and historians.

I’ve got a few things to prepare for my Indiegogo launch on June 19, and will be back in a day or two with more.

Here’s a few woodblock items I’ve done and printed letterpress.

Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock printed letterpress
Woodblock printed letterpress