Doodling in Your Math Book: An 18th-Century Arithmetic Manuscript

September 21, 2016

Doodling in Your Math Book: An 18th-Century Arithmetic Manuscript

One of our recent acquisitions is a delightful 18th-century math workbook that shows how little things have changed as far as doodling during your lessons goes.

The manuscript's owner was eleven-year-old William Killick (1752-1837) of Shipley, West Sussex, who used it between 1763 and 1764. The content comprises arithmetic and a little basic algebra, including short notes describing each type of mathematical operation followed by practice problems that Killick completed. Most of these are practical in nature. For instance, there are sections devoted to calculating with money and working with troy weights (the system used for precious metals), wool weights, apothecaries' weights, square mileage, time increments, and beer, wine, and cloth measures.

The word problems are of particular interest, as they set the manuscript firmly within its time and place. One begins "A medalist lays out 6" 8' on curious coins...", and another asks the student to imagine a merchant ship that was loaded with gold lace, rich silks, logwood, and "sundry other goods", but "tempestious weather arising was obliged to cast overboard" part of the cargo. One even tells us about the owner: “William Killick being 11 years old in the date 1763. In what year of our Lord was he born in?”

Based on the contents and what we know of Killick’s life, it is reasonable to assume that he was middle class, perhaps the son of a tradesman or shopkeeper, and was being given a practical, career-focused education. But it seems that, like many children, William was less interested in mathematics than in doodling in his notebook. In addition to his often very large and elaborate calligraphy he has added a series of charming drawings, including human faces, animals, pen trials, and floral patterns.

I'm particularly fond of this bird and the disapproving looks it's receiving:

Do some of these faces reflect William's own feelings about math homework?

It’s possible, though not certain, that portions of the text were written out by a tutor - some of the titles, notes, and word problems are in a more controlled and adult hand than the one used to solve the problems. A good example is a sophisticated calligraphic title, “Addition of Money”, which incorporates a face and a bird, and seems to have inspired Killick’s more clumsy attempts at similar designs later in the text. (Speaking of clumsy, there also seems to have been an accident with the red ink bottle, as the cover and a few leaves have been splashed.)

This gorgeous bird also appears as a header probably drawn by an adult:

Overall this is a wonderful example of an 18th-century educational manuscript. It's still in its original vellum binding, with Killick's name and the subject on the upper cover, and it's in remarkably good condition given that it was used by a child. It provides superb evidence of how mathematics was taught to middle class boys during the 18th century, as well as evidence of how eagerly one of them received it.