Tag Archives: Graphic Arts

Rewards of Merit

This is graduation week, when we celebrate achievement and completion with pieces of paper, as we have for hundreds of years. No one wants a digital diploma! Even that avatar of online higher education, Southern New Hampshire University, has a television commercial showing university representatives traveling across the country presenting diplomas to graduates: their educational experience can be impersonal but not its culmination, apparently. Despite a lifetime spent in education, as a student and teacher, I am a late bloomer when it comes to commencements: I skipped both my undergraduate and graduate ceremonies, much to my regret, and once I became a professor I continued to avoid what I perceived as a long, boring, and formulaic ritual. But when I became chair of my department five years ago, I decided that it was my responsibility to attend, and so I dusted off the unused (and very expensive) gown I had purchased years ago and marched out there. I thought I was going for my colleagues—to be with those that went, to be an example to those that didn’t—but it was all about the students. As soon as the (yes, long and boring) ceremony was over, we ran out into the fresh air, and our students ran to us, sometimes even before their parents. Together, we had reached a destination–a place–after completing a long journey. And you really have to show up to realize that you’ve arrived.

I like nineteenth-century American “rewards of merit”, given by teachers to their students in recognition of certain qualities (diligence and deportment above all) as historical expressions of both the personal and the professional relationships that exist in any educational environment. They look formulaic, like a diploma, but they also represent an individual relationship—and achievement. As an ephemeral genre, they can testify to the evolution of printing and production techniques as well as educational objectives. Rewards of merit were produced in Great Britain too, but they really flourished in the United States, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. I prefer the earlier forms from the first part of the century: written or sparsely printed, just a few images, some “colored in” with watercolors by teachers who wanted to add a more personal touch. Once you get into the later era of polychromatic cards, you lose a lot of the personal connection, and it seems as if they did too.

Reward of Merit 18th century A very early American Reward of Merit, or “conferment of honor” from William Arms to his student Amos Hamilton in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1795 © Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. In the larger towns and cities of Massachusetts, printed reward of merit forms were used right from the beginning of the nineteenth-century, but hand-written citations continued in the country: below, Tirza Lampson’s “diligence and virtue” is rewarded in Charlton, Massachusetts, and Azubah Clark is “presented with this honorary emblem, for her being a good scholar and hereby is recommended for her studious attention laudable improvements, and admirable behavior in school, for which, she merits the sincere thanks of her instructress Rebecca Walton Temple”, both in 1811. 

Reward of Merit 1811 Charlton

Reward of Merit 1811 2And then there were the forms, which were personalized by notes and watercoloring by the instructors and “instructresses”.

Reward of Merit ABA3 1815

Reward of Merit Salem 1818

Reward of Merit ABA4 1819

Reward of Merit ABE 6 1828

Reward of Merit collage

Reward of Merit 1842

Reward of Merit East Bridgewater 1851

Reward of Merit 1868 Methuen

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Reward of Merit 1878Rewards of merit for Philip Harman in Boston (1815); Martha Page in Danvers (1818); Martha Barker in Boston (1819); Marietta Bailey in Newburyport (1828); the Misses Fairbanks and Prebble in Taunton (1934); Nancy Fairbanks in Boston (1842); Grace Cobb in East Bridgewater (1851); Leuella Mills in Methuen (1868), and two certificates received by Master Abner Bow in 1876.  All from the American Broadsides and Ephemera database of collections of the American Antiquarian Society.

These last two rewards are charming but they’re getting a bit busy for me (what is that “sea horse”?): the imagery is overwhelming the student-instructor relationship. From this point on, these little slips of paper become more colorful, flowery, sentimental and generic, with one notable–and striking exception, the monotonal, monographic MERIT “badge” of the later nineteenth century. What other sentiment do you need? Well, maybe ONWARD and UPWARD.

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Reward of Merit HNERewards of Merit cards 1880-1993, Historic New England.


Time Travellers

Generally there are several films on my Salem Film Fest “itinerary”, but this year (the Festival’s 10th) I seem to be focused exclusively on one documentary: Jay Cheel’s How to Build a Time Machine. I don’t think I’m quite as fixated on time travel as the two subjects of the film, animator Rob Niosi and theoretical physicist Ron Mallet, but I’m a Time Machine aficionado too: of the book and both (major) movies. I think there are personal motivations behind their mutual quest, but I haven’t seen the film yet. Beyond Wells’ storytelling abilities, the attraction for me is the steampunky notion of playing with time: I certainly don’t want to conquer or even control it! Like most historians, I don’t have a romantic attachment to the past either: I know it was dirtier, smellier and dark, but not, perhaps, as dark as the future, so I would still prefer to go back, if only for a spell, in my dependable machine.

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time-machine-collage A century of time machines, from Enrique Gaspar’s “time ship” (1887) to the 1960 Wells machine, to TARDIS.

I’m just a casual delver into science fiction, but it seems me that The Time Machine is seldom discussed in the context of its lighter predecessor, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), probably because the latter is so light and not as concerned with the logistics of time travel. It is interesting to me that at this time, the tail end of the nineteenth century, so many people were interested in going back or forward or to anywhere but where they actually were! These two works initiated a time travel genre that will no doubt be with us forever, encompassing everything from Time Bandits, to Back to the Future to Midnight in Paris and everything in between, including my personal favorite, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.

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chestnut-street-pc-with-knight Knights descend on Salem!


Victoria and Elizabeth

I can’t say that I think the newest PBS series Victoria is very good, but yet I still seem to be watching it: it’s cozy, just what we need for winter and these anxious times. I also can’t put my finger on what I dislike about it: the acting and consequently the characters draw one in, but the world in which the latter live seems somehow airbrushed and empty, hardly the colorful milieu of Victorian London. Victoria should not be thrust into the arcades and slums of course, but when there is a ball at Buckingham Palace more than twenty people should be in attendance. So far, it seems like a 1980s miniseries to me, with less anachronistic hair and clothes. The “downstairs” scenes and storylines seem so contrived, and so desperately anxious to remind us of Downton Abbey. I will say that the second episode piqued my interest, because it touched on something I’ve been curious about myself: the “relationship” between Victoria and the first long-reigning English queen, Elizabeth I. Victoria is wondering about her romantic future, and she gazes upon the coronation portrait of the Virgin Queen and wonders aloud to ever-present sexy Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewall–who probably is the major reason I’ve kept watching) that perhaps she should abstain from marriage as well. Later on she dresses as Elizabeth for a masquerade ball (at which, again, there are maybe 30 people in attendance). Did this ever happen? I don’t think so, but I do know that there were lots of comparisons made between Victoria and Elizabeth in the popular press, both at the beginning of the former’s reign, and later on, when they were “two great queens”.

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Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria in Elizabethan fancy dress.

The comparisons began with Victoria’s coronation procession in 1837, and continued until the end of the century, coinciding chiefly with moments when the Queen had to exercise her limited political powers, such as during the debate over the Irish Church Bill in 1869, or when there was a general concern about her presence, or lack thereof. The later 1860s was clearly a time to summon Elizabeth, the strong queen who ruled alone, in order to compel Victoria to come out of the prolonged mourning state she had been in since the death of her beloved Albert in 1861: in “A Vision” (third from the top): a “frowning” Elizabeth tells Victoria that she has “let grief prevail over duty”. Newspapers with anti-Republican leanings could use the Virgin Queen as a patriotic symbol and make their points without carping editorials. I’m not quite sure what the Hamlet allegory means, but the depiction of Prime Minister Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of Elizabeth’s Cecil ministers, and favorite of Victoria, as a modern-day Walter Raleigh would have been a rather obvious comparison, I think. Ultimately the first great queen (looking very mannish I must say) bows to the second, at the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

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Elizabeth and Victoria in British periodicals from 1837, 1843, 1868, 1869, and 1887, ©British Museum and ©National Portrait Gallery.

 


The Broomstick Brand Emerges

I was working on two things concurrently yesterday and they merged (sort of): a presentation on emerging civic identity in Renaissance Florence for my grad class and a post on yet-another batch of Salem trade cards from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. A lot of time-traveling, but a common theme of projection. Actually the post was supposed to be about candy; I thought I might be able to parlay one lovely colonial trade card into a whole series of Salem-made confections for Valentine’s Day. But no, not enough chocolate and Salem gibraltars are not particularly romantic. So instead I just looked at the emblems on my run of cards and saw an emerging brand and identity for Salem: from a maritime center in the nineteenth century to Witch City in the twentieth, with a few horses interspersed among the ships and broomsticks. This is much too selective a sample to prove anything, but at the very least it illustrates two hypotheses I have about the development of “Witch City” as Salem’s primary civic identity: it came about because of commercial factors more than cultural (or historical) ones, and it really intensified in the 1890s, coincidentally with the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Witch Trials in 1892. Apart from ascribing any wider meaning to this ephemera, I just love to look at it; there’s something about the inclusion of such artistic images and lettering on such everyday items as trade cards and billheads that impresses me: if only our disposable, digital age was interested in leaving as lasting an impression.

A century and a half of Salem commercial ephemera: from seaport to Witch City.

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Salem trade cards and billheads via American Broadsides and Ephemera and Salem State Archives and Special Collections.


You are what you do/like

I was in an antique shop several weeks ago when I spotted some framed prints published by J.N. Toy and W.R.Lucas in Baltimore in the early 1830s. They were that odd kind of anthropomorphic mixture of human, creature, plant and/or materials that always appeals to me, so they instantly captured my attention. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to purchase them, so I snapped some pictures, but the combination of glass and lighting did not capture them very well–later I searched for some better images and fortunately found them, or most of them (The Botanist below is under glass). These lithographs are the products of a short-lived partnership between two Massachusetts-born printers, George Endicott and Moses Swett, both of whom had worked at the Pendleton Firm in Boston. I’ve admired Pendleton prints  for a while, so that’s probably another reason why these odd little prints appealed to me. Apparently these are political caricatures, illustrating an increasing (threatening) feminine presence in these endeavors, but I think this is lost in the translation of time. To me, they just look like ladies who are enthusiastic about their various pursuits (except for maybe the fish lady).

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Lithographs by George Endicott & Moses Swett, published by J.N. Toy and W.R. Lucas, Baltimore, 1831-33, Collections of Winterthur Library and the Library of Conress.


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