Remarkably appealing set of early 19th-century calligraphies by a Massachusetts schoolgirl

Abigail Bishop Putnam, [Set of six schoolgirl calligraphies]. Medford, Massachusetts, 1805.
Six calligraphies on laid paper, four in ink and watercolor, and two in ink only. Edges somewhat irregular, but sheet size from 15 ⅝”h x 12 ½”w to 23”h x 17 ½”w. Old folds, minor soiling, and staining, with some mends and restorations to edge wear, but very good condition.

A lovely set of early nineteenth century schoolgirl penmanship exercises, remarkable for being an intact group of specimens all by the same hand, variously designed, accomplished in a range of scripts, and embracing a variety of moral sentiments and instructive texts.

These calligraphies by a fifteen-year old Massachusetts schoolgirl serve as an excellent and unusually ample representation of the work of one student and provide insight into the nature of the instruction at the school or academy she attended (presently unidentified but located in Medford). The most striking piece in the group is a large, boldy conceived, and colorful composition consisting of two Doric columns connected by an arch of roses, the whole forming a frame for three sentiments. The first of these, fitted neatly into the arch, is untitled and reads as follows:

“In contemplating on the various scenes of life, the vicissitudes of the seasons, the perfect regularity, order, and harmony of nature, we cannot but be filled with wonder and admiration, at the consummate wisdom and beneficence of the all wise Creator.”

This is followed by passages entitled On Virtue and On Sympathy, each penned in a different script. The sheet is inscribed at the bottom “Abigail B. Putnam Medford. June 1805.”

The use of columns and arches was a convention in American penmanship specimens of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and doubtless derived from a long tradition of their use on the title pages of printed books. Examples by both schoolgirls and schoolboys are known. See for instance a specimen incorporating double columns with arches illustrated on page 51 of Robert Shaw and Jane Katcher’s The Instruction of Young Ladies : Arts From Private Girls’ Schools and Academies in Early America (Cooperstown, 2016).

The other sheets included here consist of: 1) a specimen entitled Select Sentences, incorporating four sentiments in various scripts between a headpiece consisting of watercolor swags with a spray of flowers and a tailpiece blending two watercolor fronds and Miss Putnam’s signature; 2) a sheet of four passages in various scripts within a single-rule border, each with a watercolor title, including On Modesty, Female Instruction, A Birthday Ode, and On Sobriety; 3) a sheet with an alphabet border in an ornate script framing three sentiments, one in watercolor, including Reflections on Spring, On Summer, and On Winter; 4) a pen and ink design consisting of two ovals with floral borders, each containing a text, one entitled Desolation, drawn from James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian, and the other entitled Oratory, consisting of a standard passage that appeared in elocution textbooks of the day, beginning, “Oratory is the art of speaking gracefully upon any subject” and, 5) a short essay entitled On Reading.

Decorative penmanship was part of the curriculum at private schools for girls throughout the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and was taught along with such arts as pictorial needlework, drawing, painting, and furniture decoration. Where geography was taught, the drawing of maps and the practice of penmanship were often allied arts. Decorative flourishes and scripts similar to those represented in the specimens offered here can be found on many schoolgirl maps produced in private boarding schools and academies. Indeed, at some schools distinctive styles emerged which can sometimes aid in the identification of the school where a map or penmanship exercise was produced.

Abigail Bishop Putnam (1790-1829) was the daughter of Dr. Archelaus Putnam (1744-1800) of Danvers, Massachusetts (where he died) and Abigail Putnam née Bishop (1753-1807), originally from Medford. Following the death of Archelaus in 1800, Abigail (the mother) apparently returned with her children to Medford, where Abigail (the daughter) attended the school where she created the calligraphies offered here. A distinguished New England family, the Putnams trace their roots back to John Putnam and Priscilla Gould, who settled in Salem in the 17th century.

Shaw, Robert and Jane Katcher. The Instruction of Young Ladies: Arts From Private Girls’ Schools and Academies in Early America. Cooperstown, NY: Fennimore Art Museum, 2016, pp. 9-13 and 51. Dr. Archelaus Putnam at Putnam Family at