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Durable Trifles

Jill Shefrin

University of London

“ A Delightful Recreation for the Industrious”: English Children’s “School Pieces”

Children in Enlightenment Britain were surrounded by a steadily increasing quantity and variety of goods and services catering specifically to their needs and desires. At the same time, they participated in a variety of activities not designated as specifically juvenile, from visiting museums and attending science lectures to going to the fair. Rich evidence for this dichotomy can be found in writing sheets.
     Also known as “school pieces” or “Christmas pieces”, these single sheets printed from copper or wood engravings, were issued by print sellers (and, later, children’s booksellers), and sold to children across a broad socio-economic spectrum. “Regularly published at least twice a year”, they were intended as a form of sampler, the child filling in the blank space in the centre of a sheet with a set piece in her or his best penmanship. They were sold in book and print shops “for the use of writing schools, at the vacations of Lady-day—Midsummer—Michaelmas—Christmas, &c.”, as well as by street criers. Schools, and, in one recorded example, a workhouse overseer, distributed them.
      Decorated with engravings illustrating lessons in history, geography, natural science, and scripture as well as Aesop’s fables and popular works of fiction and verse for children, they provide a valuable record of a widely ranging formal and informal curriculum. Many also show scenes from contemporary life—the wild beasts at the Tower of London, a specific military review or theatre production, a naval battle, or a balloon ascension in Hyde Park, suggesting a juvenile familiarity with and participation in popular culture and current events (political, cultural and social).
      Only a small number of sheets have survived and an even smaller number have been filled in by children, but an analysis of the age, gender and socio-economic status of even a sample of those children, together with the schools they attended, is still revealing. Whether intended as gifts or filled in in the hope of receiving prizes, these sheets were part of the complex interrelationship between children and their parents and teachers, but they also suggest the extent of children’s interactions with the wider society.

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