A studious skeleton

Have you ever asked yourself if there were pop-up books or jigsaw maps in former times? Or what kind of guides governesses and Sunday school teachers might have had to hand? Some answers can be found in an auction catalogue of teaching and learning materials from Bonham’s.

Education: the book collection of John and Monica Lawson lists over 950 items in great detail, with many title pages, book covers and engravings beautifully displayed.

Examples include a print of a flea under the microscope of 1811; a hand spelling system for deaf people of 1680; and a pensive skeleton bent over a standing desk from 1656 (it was not clear to me from the book title whether or not it was trying to learn Latin).

There are alphabets sweetly illustrated for the youngest; alphabets carried out in needlework, bound and sold to promote a charity school; and songs “for the Amusement of Good Little Boys and Girls”. From this catalogue, you also get a vague idea what happened to the Bad Little Boys and Girls…

There is plenty of published advice by parents for their children, there are sermons on the duties of the poor and proposals for the education of the poor – one ambitious scheme promises to lift “Ten Thousand Poor Children” out of poverty through education.

What struck me is the clear-cut social class system. Some advice books are for housemaids and footmen and others for courtiers or noblemen, some for young ladies to achieve domestic happiness and others for gentlemen to achieve success in the world. It does not look as if you were able to step over boundaries of class or gender: only improve your situation within your section of society.

There are also sections of language books, covering English and Latin as well as a wide range of other languages, including Aborigine and Inuit tongues!

The oldest items of the former Lawson collection go back to before 1600, and the youngest date from the early 1900s. You would have to follow up the bibliographic records to find the actual books; yet, you will be informed and entertained whenever you glance at this lovely catalogue.

If you are looking for a research subject in the history of education or social history, you could turn here for inspiration.

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