Houghton Library

Writing Books

TypW 525.35.260

TypW 525.35.260

Houghton maintains one of the world’s most significant collections of works devoted to the practice of handwriting. Philip Hofer, founder of the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts at Houghton Library, was a great lover of writing books, and his personal collection forms the core of Houghton’s current collection. All told, Houghton’s holdings include over 500 printed writing books and around 50 manuscripts. Together they reflect the evolution of handwriting in Italy, France, Spain, England, the Netherlands, and America over a span of several centuries.

The oldest piece in the collection dates to the 1460’s, but the majority of Houghton’s writing books were produced between 1500 and 1800. The ascendancy of the printing press during the Early Modern period made writing books available to a much larger segment of the population, although the task of reproducing the delicate curls and hairpin turns of master writers’ pens in woodcut or intaglio presented formidable technical challenges. A would-be calligrapher of this period could avail himself of two kinds of guides: copy-books simply presented an assortment of alphabets, whereas writing manuals offered advice on posture, diagrams to aid in the proper cutting of pens, and step-by-step instructions for forming individual letters. Some manuals also featured speculative histories of handwriting, advice for the tremulous and clumsy, and specially-adapted scripts for ladies.

TypW 625.96.657

TypW 625.96.657

Writing books had an educational purpose, but they also provided an opportunity for master calligraphers to exhibit their extraordinary skill. They often contain extravagantly embellished alphabets that sacrifice legibility for beauty. Some of the manuscripts in the collection feature elaborate decorative borders and charming renderings of animals, plants, and people, executed in crimson, sepia, and gold. The printed works are less colorful, but often just as ornate.

Particularly renowned and important writing-masters whose work features in the collection include Ludovico degli Arrighi, Giovanni Battista Palatino, Giovanni Francesco Cresi, Johann Neudörffer der Ältere, Jan van de Velde, and Jean-Baptiste Alais. Many of the printed books in the Hofer Collection are described in The Practice of Letters: The Hofer Collection of Writing Manuals 1514-1800.

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