The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Penmanship and Copy Books

In a collection rich in manuscript material like that at the MHS, it's easy to fixate on centuries-old handwriting, whether for admiration of delicate script or frustration at illegible penmanship. I’ve overheard a fair balance of researchers lamenting the eyestrain caused by hours of squinting at spidery letterforms, and those who voice their appreciation for such intricate, time-consuming writing and the character it gives to the writer. Penmanship has an element of individuality, even when students were taught the importance of identical script or the “science” of manually forming words on a page through instruction books like Penmanship Explained, or, The Principles of Writing Reduced to an Exact Science by S.A. Potter.

Today, many of us rely on electronic means of forming words, efficiently typed out and spell-checked. Instead of putting pen to page, we often put fingertips to keyboard. I sometimes wonder if we would be able to decipher difficult handwriting more easily if we spent more time writing by hand as well. Though, if all writers had followed Potter's exact science of penmanship, maybe we would have no trouble at all!

In an effort to learn more about the history of penmanship, I decided to see what resources I could find in the MHS collection. In the online catalog ABIGAIL I found a variety of results for penmanship instruction books and advertisements, broadsides for ink powder and writing instruments, and a few personal copy books in family manuscript collections. One manuscript item (manuscript fittingly meaning “hand” and “to write”) that I found particularly interesting was Tristram Little’s copy book. Tristram Little of Newburyport, Maine was born in December 1784, making him fifteen years of age at the time of this book’s use beginning in early 1800.

Copy books often provided written lines and blank spaces for a student to copy the text. In the case of Little’s book, there are no printed lines to copy, which indicates he must have copied from a separate volume. On one delicately lettered leaf, Little has copied from a cover or title page, “Round Text Copies, Written for the Use of Schools and Academys by D. S…Engraved by J. Ellis.” Perhaps this is from Bowles's elegant set of round hand copies, round text copies and comprised in a set. Performed for the use of schools & Academies by D. Smith, written by I. Trinder of Northampton, or a similar copy book circulated by this publisher.

Some penmanship books are literally by-the-book, with lines written directly from a published original. Others are strewn with more personal touches. The pages of Tristram Little’s penmanship practice book mostly contain repeated lines of proverbial advice. Some are of general instruction, “Beware of idleness & sloth”, “Quarrel not at play,” and some loftier lines: “Rouze up your Genius & exalt your mind” and “Honor attends virtuous actions.” Tristram’s personal touches include original poems, one an illustrated epitaph titled “On the death of General Washington,” complete with tombstone frame. He notes on the top of the page, “He died…December 15th 1799” – which is actually one day off, the correct date being December 14.

The poem reads:

Ah! while we gather round your urn,

Joins your blest bands great Wasington [sic],

Hark to that knell, a NATION sighs,

Waft his PURE SPIRIT to the skies.


Newbury Port

The bells were then tolling.


On a previous page, Little recorded an ode to the “glorious George Wasington [sic],” asking, “What mortal praise can equal thy great claim?” Clearly, Little had a great regard for George Washington’s reputation. This common copy book offers an insight into the mind of a teenager growing up in America’s early years, looking up to his nation’s leader and lamenting his loss. Other pages include lists of personal names and cities (Newburyport and Philadelphia). Little’s embellished pages, glorifying poems, and ornate illustrations add another level of character to his already unique handwriting, as we might consider it today.

Tristram Little’s copy book is just one example of penmanship study and practice in the MHS collection. You can find other penmanship practice books and copy books for arithmetic exercises, many as part of family manuscript collections. If you would like to explore this topic further, visit the library and enjoy these personal copy books – or fascinating handwriting throughout the collection – in person.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 7 December, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

Got a history itch? Maybe this week's programs can help!

- Tuesday, 8 December, 5:15PM : "Rerouting Risk: New Orleans and the Mississippi River" is an Environmental History seminar presented by Craig E. Colten of Louisiana State University. This project looks at the impacts caused by flood diversions and offers a perspective on the environmental consequences of the impending transformations. Steve Moga of Smith College provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 9 December, 6:00PM : MHS Fellows and Members Holiday Party. MHS Fellows and Members are invited to celebrate the season at the Society’s annual holiday party. Enjoy festive music, holiday cheer, and the annual tradition of reading the anti-Christmas laws. Registration required. Become a Member today!

- Thursday, 10 December, 5:30PM : "A 'fine looking body of women': Woman Suffragists Develop Their Visual Campaign." This seminar from the History of Women and Gender series is presented by Allison Lange of the Wentworth Institute and looks at how suffrage leaders began to change the way they represented themselves and fellow prominent figures. Susan Ware, Schlesinger Library and American National Biography, provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Friday, 11 December : Library Closing at 3:30PM

- Current Exhibitions : Remember that our exhibit space is open to the public free of charge Mon-Fri, 10:00AM-4:00PM. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 6 December, 2015, 12:00 AM

Dashing Through the Snow: A Tale of Boston’s Horse Railroads

Growing up in a small Midwestern town in rural Minnesota, I had what some might say was a quintessential upbringing -- complete with a horse farm! This, however, was a long time ago. Moving to the Twin Cities to attend college, and more recently Boston three months ago, I thought I left whatever rural nature I had in me behind for ‘bigger and better’ things. Yet, being in the ‘big city’ makes me nostalgic for my country childhood.

As I began to explore the extensive collections at the MHS, I found myself drawn to a number of items related to cities and working horses in the nineteenth century - particularly the ‘Horse Railroads’. This material intrigued me having worked with horses for the first thirteen years of my life and the romantic notions of a city filled with horse drawn carriages and trolley cars. Mentioning this to one of my coworkers, the joke became that after last winter’s transit halt,  it might not be a bad idea to return to these simpler roots. I wonder though, would New England snowstorms really be any easier to weather if the city ran on hooves rather than rails?


Cover of Rules and regulations for the government of horse railroads, 1865. Boston (Mass.). Board of Aldermen.


A 1865 pamphlet, “Rules and Regulations for the Government of Horse Railroads”, helped to shed some light on this question. It was declared, by an act of the legislature in 1864, that regulations on horse railroads were needed to address “the interest and convenience of the public.” Any instance of noncompliance with the rules would result in a penalty of “not more than five hundred dollars for each offence.” Today this would be a maximum fine of seven thousand dollars per offence, not a small sum at all!  

Much of the language in the rules and regulations pertain to maximum speeds allowed (five miles per hour in Boston proper, seven miles per hour outside of these city limits, and a walking gait when taking corners), and all the restrictions around when stopping of the horse railroad car is allowed and for how long. Most restrictions prohibited the stopping of the car for longer than one minute between “six o’clock in the forenoon and eight o’clock in the afternoon” (6:00 AM to 8:00 PM.) and then only at a station or designated stop. The only exceptions which allow for unscheduled stopping, repeated throughout the small four page document, are “unless detained by obstacles in the track or to avoid collision.”

Map showing horse rail roads and the surface steam roads with 104 stations in and around Boston...1878.

(A 1876 version of this map is available online at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.)


Yet, it was the regulations of Section 11 and 12 that proved to be the most valuable when thinking about surviving a winter with horse railroads. Section 11 spoke to the removal of snow, [] stating that if depths were sufficient “no plough shall be allowed to pass over” unless permission was granted by the Superintendent of Streets. In this case alternative methods could be employed by the railroads, in the form of sleighs, to transport citizens until rail tracks were again accessible and normal transit methods could resume.

Similarly, Section 12 discusses the use of any salt, brine or pickle or any other material employed in the melting of snow and ice would only be allowed after receiving a permit from the city. Such permits would only be given if such use would not be detrimental to vehicles crossing the tracks and rails.


Highland Street Railroad Tickets. [No Date]


These restrictions make me imagine that if such a winter as the one last year were to have occurred during these times, the breakdown in public transit would have been far worse. While the Rules and Regulations document spoke little to the care of the working animals, the necessity of keeping the horses in working condition alone would have extended delays in transportation and confined citizens as city and transit officials worked to clear the streets.

So as we approach another winter season, and my first in Boston, a joke about returning to horse powered public transit may seem like a good idea, but I hesitate to think that the ability to combat the snowstorms of nature would be any easier won.

These are just a few samples of the material at MHS about transportation and horse railroads. If you are interested in further exploration of our collections, please visit the library or contact us for further information.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 3 December, 2015, 1:52 PM

This Week @ MHS

Back from one holiday and looking forward to more. It is another shortened week here at the Society but there is no lack of good programming to enjoy. On the schedule this week:

- Tuesday, 1 December, 5:15PM : "Faces, Beauty, and Brains: Physiognomy and Female Education in Post-Revolutionary America." This Early American History seminar is presented by Rachel Walker of the University of Maryland and explores how the "science" of interpreting facial features was used to distinguish between the minds of men and women in early republican America. Robert A. Gross, University of Connnecticut, provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wedndesday, 2 December, 12:00PM : "Liberty Ports: Sex, Crime, and Policing in World War Two America" is a Brown Bag lunch talk presented by Aaron Hiltner of Boston University. His project tracks interactions between American civilians and troops, the military's policing of stateside servicement, and the transformation of American cities during wartime. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Wednesday, 2 December, 6:00PM : Transforming Boston: From Basket Case to Innovation Hub, Program 4 - What's Next. This program features a panel discussion with John Barros, chief of economic development, City of Boston; Marc Draisen, MAPC; Cassandra Campbell, Fresh Food Generation; and moderator David Luberoff, Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI). The program is open to the public with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS, BARI, or Rappaport Fellows or Members), registration required. 

- Friday, 4 December : LIBRARY CLOSED. Galleries remain open, 10:00AM-4:00PM.

- Saturday, 5 December, 9:00AM : Teacher Workshop: Roosevelt, Lodge, and the Rush to Empire. To register for this event, complete our Registration Form and mail/email it to the MHS Education Department. For more information, contact the education department at or 617-646-0557.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 29 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Christmas in Asswan

Today we rejoin our anonymous diarist as she journeys down the Nile in the winter of 1914-1915. You can read previous installments of this series here (introduction), here (Cairo to Aysut), here (Aysut to Asswan), here (Asswan to Abu Simbel), and here (Wadi Halfa to Asswan), and here (At the Cataract Hotel, Asswan).


In this sixth and final installment of the “American Woman in Egypt” series, we will follow our anonymous diarist through the final ten days of the year as she celebrates the December holidays far from home. While this section of the diary doesn’t conclude the diarist’s trip to Egypt, I will be picking up with a new writer’s diary in January. Hopefully, you have enjoyed this vicarious journey!


From Cairo to the Cataracts by Blanche Mabury Carson (1909)

Dec 21. Went to English church, then walked to village & back. P.M. Busy in my room till 3.45 then we went out for a sail up toward the dam among the islands. Got back & saw the sunset from my balcony.


Dec 22. Read in the garden for awhile, then at 11.40 left the hotel and took train for Shellal with party from Ramses the Great. Got back & went round first to the dam. had lunch at Cook’s resthouse, then walked nearly across the dam and back, got back in boats & went through two locks rowing back to steamer which we reached for tea. Found Mr. Wood, returned from Khartoum.


Dec 23. Sailing along all day & very cold. Began a letter after lunch. Could not sit out. Reached Luxor at 4, but decided not to land & stayed on boat overnight.


Dec 24. Landed at 9.15 & came in bus to Hotel Savoy. Miss Merrill did not feel well. I walked back to Cook’s & looked in the shops. Afternoon sat in garden & then had tea on terrace outside. Wrote in garden.


Dec 25. A.M. Xmas day. Went to church at 10.30. Dr. Hudson ill but he did officiate. P.M. Wrote till 4 in garden then went to Winter Palace for tea with Miss. M. & Miss Ensign. Saw end of some sports & met Mr. Pratman who stayed with me & escorted us home. After tea saw a Xmas tree there & Santa Claus. Listen to the music, then saw sunset on the terrace. We had our own tree for dinner with presents at each plate & a 9 course dinner.


Dec 26. Went to village & bought cards and in P.M. sat in garden & wrote then went out on terrace to see sunset.


Dec 27. Started at 9 for Karnak. Walked there & spent whole morning. Started to walk back but was taken into a carriage by a couple who picked me up in the road. After lunch sat in garden, then walked to village to P.O. - Cook’s & also went into shops. Got back just in time to see sunset from terrace.


Dec 28. Went to church, met Mr. Pratman after it, who walked home with me & sat in the garden. P.M. Wrote in the garden, then went to see Miss Gillander & had tea with her at the Hotel du Nil. Saw Miss Kerr’s pictures after lunch & in evening again.


Dec 29. Walked to village to P.O. & then went into Luxor Temple. P.M. spent in garden & on the terrace.


Egypt: Ancient Sites and Modern Scenes by Sir Gaston Maspero (1911)

Dec 30. Walked to Karnak first to temple of Ptah then up by eastern ave. of sphinxes to the great temple. Tried to find some friezes from Mr. Tynsdale’s book, but could not. P.M. spent in garden & on terrace.


Dec 31. Went across the river met Miss Gillander & we three went to Deir el-Medina - tombs of [illegible phrase], temple Medinet Habu where we ate our lunch & tombs of Nobles [illegible phrase]. Got back to boat at 4:30. Came back & had tea on terrace. Very hot in sun.


We will leave our diarist here, an American abroad enjoying the mid-winter sun on the terrace of the Cataract Hotel. For those of you interested in exploring more of this writer’s story, remember that you can visit the library or order reference reproductions.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

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