School Pieces

Detail from The Progress of Education (R. Harrild, 1810) © John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Detail from The Progress of Education (R. Harrild, 1810)
© John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

A request for help from Jill Shefrin

Jill Shefrin is a Canadian independent historian and bibliographer of children’s books and ephemera published in Britain in the long eighteenth century.  She’s currently preparing a descriptive bibliography and historical study of “school pieces” or writing blanks, and she’d love to hear from anyone holding any English, Irish or colonial American examples.  Although they are today called writing blanks or writing sheets, in the long eighteenth century they were most often described as “school pieces”.

Rich Man and Lazarus (William Mason, n.d.) © Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University Library

Rich Man and Lazarus (William Mason, n.d.)
© Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University Library

Elegant engraved sheets published between about 1660 and 1860 and filled in by children with examples of their best handwriting, often at Christmas (accounting for their alternative name of “Christmas pieces”).  Relatively few examples survive, but there appears to have been a longstanding and thriving market for school pieces.  Jill has identified over fifty English and Irish printsellers who offered them for sale over two centuries, but only a few have survived in more than single copies. Attractive and often colourful, one would think they were the preserve of wealthy and aristocratic children, but in 1840 the Morning Chronicle reported that on Christmas day in the Clerkenwell workhouse “one of the overseers, has generally supplied the children with Christmas pieces to write for prizes”.

Jill Shefrin

Jill Shefrin

Jill’s The Dartons : Publishers of Educational Aids, Pastimes & Juvenile Ephemera, 1787-1876 (Cotsen Occasional Press, 2009), was awarded the Justin G. Schiller (Bibliographical Society of America) & the F. J. Harvey Darton Award (Children’s Books History Society).  She has taught the Children’s Books course at the London Rare Books School since 2008 and is a Senior Research Associate at Trinity College, University of Toronto.  She’s currently also an RBC Foundation Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Library, working with their extensive holdings of school pieces, but she’s interested in seeing any and all examples.

You can contact her—and find out more about her work—through her website

Jill Shefrin / /Senior Research Associate in Arts, Trinity College, University of Toronto

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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