Tag Archives: Firestone Library

Spelling Alphabets

Writing manuals of the 16th century were created as illustrated training books as one of the earliest forms of distance learning. They were made to instruct literate students the specific hands and practices required to be a commercial scribe or secretary. They were often designed to be advertisements for the writing master as well, and as such, beautiful books in their own right.
The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries expanded the scope and audience of writing books. Books concerned with teaching a wider audience the tools of literacy and communication became common. By the 19th century, British and American books, as well as toys, were being manufactured to address younger students. I wanted to concentrate on early writing manuals, but kept an eye out for material that fell outside of the 3R’s of standardized education. My experience with the Joseph SeavyWriter’s Assistant (more to come) had heightened my interest in the unusual, even if it wasn’t strictly a writing manual. Education expands one’s mind and horizons, just as this trip enlarged my understanding.
Every time I visit a library, I take a trip. Often it’s far away from the present into some distant past. I’m transported to another landscape, another mind, another experience. The librarians I encounter are the custodians of these worlds. I enter through the portal of the reading room. Like any traveler, I consider myself a guest, trying to abide by local custom, leaving my assumptions behind. What passes as an acceptable practice in one library is verboten in another. What is the rarest of treasures here may be a commonplace rare book elsewhere.
At the Firestone, I  called up material from the Rare Books Division, Graphic Arts collection, and the Cotsen Children’s Library. All the material is accessed through the online catalog. The person paging items brings the material to the desk, and the desk attendant (sometimes a librarian) brings the material to the desk. Princeton allows more than one item on the table at a time, making it easy to either scan material or do a comparative review.
The Cotsen Children’s Library holds a number of spelling alphabets in various forms. These are small, hand-held disks or rectangles where the letter is engraved into the surface and colored to show the letterform.
The ivory disks offset the colored letter, making me want to pick them up and hold them. There’s a satisfyingly organic connection when handling them which delighted me. In this particular set, the obverse of each disk had a 3 letter word accompanied by an illustration engraved and painted.
At the same time, I called up “Alphabet of bone letters” which is housed in “wooden box in the shape of a book with sliding lid.” These little letters and their box were fun to play with and arrange. Cotsen’s librarian, Andrea Immel comments about cut out letters and dating from typographic evidence in this post. when I spoke to her about these objects, she was quite helpful in answering questions about this type of educational realia.
Bone alphabet letter box; carved box in shape of book
Bone alphabet letters in box
Bone alphabet letters laid out
Bone alphabet letters in box
Going back in time, this German 16th century disk appears to be a teaching aid as well.
German bronze alphabet
Realia designed to teach the rudiments of the alphabet and spelling (and reading) aren’t writing manuals, but I had to spend time with these materials because they do relate to scribal practice.
On February 3 – 6, I will be presenting a bit of realia and typography at CODEX VII, a biannual book fair held in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have traced and modified letters from Giovann FrancescoCresci’swriting manual.   Entitled Percussive Roman, the typeface is 100pt. type laser engraved by Magnolia Editions on maple dowels.
These are meant to be inked one at a time, then placed on the paper, with the impression being made by a  blow from a mallet. While the typeface plays with reversed ground/figure relationships in type, the thinner, right-reading chip is part of a set of 53 characters in the Spelling Alphabet. I have added an ampersand to the set of upper and lower case letters. These are a direct outgrowth of the material I found in the Cotsen Collection.
Next post, I’ll write about the rest of the writing manuals and primers I viewed at the Firestone Library.

Princeton’s Rare Books and Special Collections

I called up twenty three items and spent two happy days in the reading room of Princeton’s Firestone Library.

There are ten separate collections in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. While the reading room serves these collections, a researcher is dealing with 10 catalogs. Princeton makes it easy to search with its integrated catalog, but there are subtleties to the presentation and cataloging. My research before visiting showed that there were books that would be of interest, but I didn’t have a good idea of their holdings as searching a catalog by title is not an efficient way to do research.

For a specific title, I used WordCat, noting what libraries might have it. This is an inefficient way of finding things as WorldCat is not always up to date or accurate. So, I missed a number of books at libraries along the way. I had no illusion that this trip would net a complete survey, but it was frustrating to come back and realize that I passed by institutions that held a book of interest.

When I arrived at Princeton, I took some time with their online catalog to fill out call slips. The newly renovated reading room is well lit, with large windows that give the room a cathedral-like feel. Coming in and sitting down to look at material, there was no doubt that I was in a research library and not some open-plan office complex.

The Graphic Arts 1535 copy of Ugo da Carpi’s Thesauro de scrittori was rebound in recent years. I had seen two copies (1525 and 1535) of this book at the Harry Ransom Center, and again at the Newberry (1535). WorldCat does the Texas or Princeton copies, thus creating another “hidden book” in two different libraries.  A.S. Osley’s The variant issues of Ugo da Carpi’s T’hesauro de scrittori published in Quaerendo details the changes made in this early writing manual. That da Carpi borrowed freely from Fanti, Arrighi, and Tagliente is well known, and Osley’s article from 1972 delineates typesetting and plate order changes in the three dates the book was issued: 1525, 1532 and 1535.


His description is so detailed that the Graphic Arts cataloger was able to determine which issue (“Designated as “first issue” of this edition in Osley, …”) they own.

Should you wish to travel down a bibliographic side alley, read his Quarendo article, and try to keep in mind which issues you’ve seen at any given institution. It’s a bit much to keep  straight in one’s head.


da Carpi wasn’t the only book on my list, so I moved on to Albrecht Dürer’s geometry book with a section on constructed capitals. Princeton’s copy of Albertus Durerus Nurembergensis pictor huius … is in good shape, sewn on split thongs, laced onto pasteboards. The covering material has been lost, but the book is still intact. This copy was owned by Stanley Morison, whose research and opinions dominate the field of writing manuals, type design, and history of printing.


Dürer first published his book in 1525 at a time when writing manuals were just beginning to be published. Italian writing masters teach scribes how to write with a quill pen. Ugo da Carpi’s book is mostly a compendium of instruction by other writing masters while Dürer’s book includes geometric Roman capitals that would be used for inscriptional purposes. There are constructed gothic and rotunda minuscules in da Carpi’s work, but no capitals. The instructions that Dürer gives on how to make the Roman capitals is not strictly a writing manual, but it involves instructions on how to construct these forms using a compass and a square. Dürer’s instructions are familiar today in the book Of the Just Shaping of Letters.