Thomas Earl Part III:
Copybooks, often referred to as ciphering books, played a key role in eighteenth-century education in colonial America. They were handwritten manuscripts prepared by schoolmasters for students to transcribe. As pages were copied from them, students learned penmanship and how to solve a myriad of problems involving practical issues that required mathematics and navigational knowledge. As they did so, they also created their own books to refer to when needed.
Enhanced by their remarkable state of preservation, Earl’s pages explode with dazzling color that greatly intensifies the intricacy of his designs. Some of his more elaborate pages are reminiscent of the “carpet pages” found in medieval manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (held in the British Library, London) and the Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland).Fig. 4, Fig. 5, Fig. 6, Fig. 7)These and other illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created in Great Britain by clergy for devotional purposes. As the aesthetic Earl embraced is so unusual for colonial America and varies so much from his 1727 copybook’s muted primary color palette and somewhat staid embellishments, one wonders what may have inspired him to proceed in such an extravagant and painterly manner. (
From the very first pages of his 1740/1741 copybook, it is clear he learned graphic design by studying the English masters of calligraphy, who in turn drew their inspiration from writing books dating to the early Renaissance. These were often engraved on copper plates and ultimately derived from medieval manuscripts.By carefully copying their designs, Earl was not only building his own repertoire of skills as a teacher, but also exploring a way to introduce aesthetic delight and excitement into the lessons he was preparing for his students to copy. He was also clearly enjoying himself by proceeding in this manner.
Earl’s page 29 is an exact copy of page 28 from John Ayres’s A Tutor to Penmanship (1695).Fig. 8, Fig. 9) This was a book that many schoolmasters drew on including Pennsylvania Quaker Joseph Knowls. And, thirty-four pages of Earl’s book are copied directly from plates in John Seddon’s 1695 Penman’s Paradise both Pleasant and Profitable, which was published in London in 1695. Seddon (1644–1700) had served as the writing master of Sir John Johnson’s free writing school in London and was considered the premier calligrapher of his time. Penman’s Paradise remains his best-known book; it featured plates engraved by John Sturt (1668–1730), the leading engraver of English books on calligraphy, along with an engraving by the master himself. As one critic observed, “Seddon exceeded all of our English penman in fruitful fancy and surprising invention in the ornamental parts of his writing.”(
After page 120, Earl’s focus shifts from calligraphy to lessons in mathematics and its practical applications. Just as his inspiration for calligraphy was drawn from English writing masters, he similarly drew on English printed sources, including John Mellis’s Arithematic (1662), Will Leybourn’s Arithematick Recreation (1699) and Nine Geometrical Exercises for Young Sea-men (1669), and John Ward’s Mathematician’s Guide: Being and Plain and Easy Instructions to the Mathematicks in Five Parts (1728) for these lessons.Given that between 1680 and 1730 hardly a year passed without an important English book being published in London and sold throughout England’s empire, and the fact that he was English-born and educated, it is not surprising these were among his sources.
Many of Earl’s ensuing topics are introduced with elaborate title banners highlighted with watercolor, and some topics are introduced with titles that fill an entire page. Pages 128 to 393 are devoted to lessons in commerce, such as how to measure products, calculate losses and gains, establish the value of one’s crops or shipments, estimate labor costs, and how to barter and exchange currency.Occasionally, Earl’s lessons are presented in verse, such as “A Country spark address’d a charming she/ In whom all lovely features did agree” (page 279). Other pages are simply tables for calculating such things as interest rates (pages 308-313) and liquid measurements (page 431). Very seldom does he introduce other subject matter into his lessons unless it is to illustrate how principles such as adopting the serial method for suicide of forty men left only Josephus, author of the War of the Jews, and another man (page 455).
Often the playful design of his title pages, for instance that for “The Extraction of the Square or Quadrate Root” (Fig. 7), provide a distinct contrast to the weightier mathematical problems that follow, in particular “A Collection of Pleasant and subtil [sic] Questions,” consisting of 133 questions in total with their solutions (pages 465-515). With each page, the lessons grow steadily more difficult. According to scholars Nerida Ellerton and Ken Clements, lessons such as “Substraction of Whole Quantities” (page 572) are found in less than ten per cent of ciphering books. By page 693, Earl’s focus had shifted to new subject matter, beginning with “To find the Time of High Water in Any Harbor.” He also included subject matter not usually found in early America, such as Middle Latitude (see pages 848-859). Again, this raises more questions. Who were his students that sought these advanced lessons? (Fig. 16)
How Earl gained access to such a broad range of source material is not known either. Books, in early America, were rare and expensive. If his lessons were not drawn from another schoolmaster’s copybook, he may have secured access to the libraries of a private citizen like James Logan of Philadelphia. A Quaker merchant and secretary to William Penn, Logan built one of the colonies largest personal libraries, which he made available “to all properly introduced persons.” During these years, Benjamin Franklin also set up a new subscription library (now known as the Library Company) to make books more accessible.
It is also possible Earl owned some of these books and may have even brought them with him when he sailed for America in 1731. Teachers were known to assemble their own collections.Fig. 17).As noted earlier, Earl’s estate inventory listed books and other objects in his study and valued them at £18.16.6. Less than two weeks after Earl’s death on October 4, 1751, Philadelphia schoolmaster William Milne was selling some “curious Copper-plate books, done by some of the best English Masters,” including “32 Folio plates” from “Penman’s companion.” (
While many questions still remain, Earl was unquestionably a uniquely gifted artist with a steady hand, a keen eye for detail, and a deep understanding of how to use color to dramatic effect. He was also a dogged, even obsessive, copyist; his 1740/1741 copybook of at least 910 pages may well be a record size for such an endeavor. He was not always careful, as he sometimes had to carry his words into a second line or interject them with an arrow. This can perhaps be attributed to the speed with which he must have worked.
Although he drew heavily on others for his text, calligraphy, and charts, the detail and brilliant coloring of the pages of his 1740/1741 copybook places him at the forefront of a new aesthetic for manuscripts in this country. Such intricacy, vibrancy, exuberance, and vividness have visual parallels to the illuminated works of Pennsylvania-German artists, known as fraktur. They incorporated similarly lavish calligraphic flourishes and colorful ornamental embellishments into their works, so it is not surprising that Earl’s 1741 copybook has been described as an early American fraktur manuscript. They are of the same idiom.
But Earl was inspired by British pictorial traditions rather than Continental ones, and his masterpiece was created just as fraktur was beginning to be practiced in Pennsylvania.Fig. 18, Fig. 19) Earl was America’s first master of illuminated calligraphy, and his work stands above and apart from everything that came after his brief and largely unheralded career.(
About the Author
1 These pages were dubbed carpet pages because of their resemblance to carpets from the eastern Mediterranean.
2 See Britannica’s entry for: “Writing Manuals and Copybooks, 16th–18th Century”
3 John Ayres, A Tutor to Penmanship. The Writing Master. A Copy Book. Shewing all the Variety of Penmanship and Clerkship as now practiced in England. In II Parts. Sturt sculpt. (London: 1695) Sold by Author.
4 Writing book. Philadelphia. Inscribed by former owner “Joseph Milnor his Copy Book March y 1, 1732–43”. Newberry Library, Chicago, MS ZW 783.M632.
5 Ed. Sidney Lee, Dictionary of National Biography 1855–1900, Vol. 51 (New York: The Macmillon Co., 1897): 176.
6 W[illiam] Mather, The Young Man’s Companion or Arithemetick[sic] made Easy, 13th ed. (London: S. Clarke, 1727): 69.
7 For information on Gerardus Mercator and his map, see: National Geographic, Gerardus Mercator
8 Many of these early English mathematical references can be accessed via Google Books: books.google.com
9 Carroll Hopf, “Calligraphic Drawings and Pennsylvania German Fraktur,” Pennsylvania Folklife 13, no. 1 (Autumn 1972): 5.
10 On page 356, the value of various foreign coins is compared to English coins. The problems that follow all relate to exchanges between to merchants in London and cities in Europe such as Naples, Antwerp, and Amsterdam.
11 Earl’s sixteen lines of verse were probably copied from The Ladies Diary, published in London by G. Robinson in 1710: The Diarian Repository. On page 289, Earl again inserts verse in his lesson on Double Position.
12 Email correspondence from Professor Ken Clements to the author dated November 2, 2020.
13 For example, Abiah Holbrook had assembled his own professional library, which is now housed at Harvard, see: Ray Nash, American Writing Masters and Copybooks: History and Bibliography (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1959) which can be accessed at: https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/663
14 The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, PA) November 29, 1750, 3.
15 The era of Pennsylvania-German fraktur is generally considered to span 1740–1850.