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Image of Writing Blank or School Piece

Writing Blank

  Printed & Sold by W. Belch, Bridge St, Union St, Boro & J. Phelps,
  Paternoster Row, London. 15¼ x 18½in (387 x 470mm)
  Written by Ann Ayling, December 15, 1836

Q I am engaged in bibliographic research on writing blanks / writing sheets. Also known as "school pieces" or "Christmas pieces", these were single sheets printed from copper or wood engravings, issued by print sellers (and, later, children's booksellers), and sold to children across a broad socio-economic spectrum. "Regularly published at least twice a year", they were intended as a form of sampler, the child filling in the blank space in the centre of a sheet with a set piece in her or his best penmanship. They were sold in book and print shops "for the use of writing schools, at the vacations of Lady-day-Midsummer-Michaelmas-Christmas, &c.", as well as by street criers. Schools, and, in one recorded example, a workhouse overseer, distributed them.

Published between about 1660 and 1850, these highly ephemeral "school pieces" were increasingly popular in the second half of the eighteenth century, when they were published in large numbers, a development contemporary with the expansion of the children's book trade. Children's booksellers began to issue writing sheets at this time; popular printsellers continued to do so. For some surviving sheets, the engraver and / or the writing master responsible for the design can be identified, although in many cases the former would be the printseller or one of his craftsmen.

Decorated with engravings illustrating lessons in history, geography, natural science, and scripture as well as Aesop's fables and popular works of fiction and verse for children, they provide a valuable record of a widely ranging formal and informal curriculum. Many also show scenes from contemporary life-the wild beasts at the Tower of London, a specific military review or theatre production, a naval battle, or a balloon ascension in Hyde Park, suggesting a juvenile familiarity with and participation in popular culture and current events (political, cultural and social).

I am attempting to compile a bibliographic checklist of all the writing blanks I can identify, either from surviving copies or from contemporary advertisements, including establishing printseller, engraver and writing master wherever possible. I also plan to identify and index the subjects illustrated in the engravings, and I will attempt to identify some of the children who filled in surviving writing blanks.

I have identified a number of institutions with holdings of this material, but I would be very interested in hearing from any private collectors or ephemera dealers who have or have had sheets. Please contact me at:

Jill Shefrin



This regular feature invites answers by email to members’ questions on an item of ephemera.