Writing Books

A significant collection of works devoted to the practice of handwriting.
Lorenzo Ortiz, El maestro de escrivir, 1696
Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Houghton Library

Houghton Library's collection of writing books reflects the evolution of handwriting in Italy, France, Spain, England, the Netherlands, and America over a span of several centuries.

The core of the collection was formed by Philip Hofer (1898–1984), founding curator of Houghton's Department of Printing and Graphic Arts. The department continues to add to the collection as suitable works become available.

The oldest piece in the collection dates to the 1460s, but the majority 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. Still, 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: There were copy-books, which simply presented an assortment of alphabets. Then there were writing manuals, which offered advice on posture, diagrams to aid in the proper cutting of pens, and step-by-step instructions for forming individual letters.

Ugo da Carpi, Thesavro de scrittori, 1535.
Ugo da Carpi, Thesavro de scrittori, 1535.
Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Houghton Library

Some manuals also featured speculative histories of handwriting, advice for the tremulous and clumsy, and specially adapted scripts for women.

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 Cresci
  • Johann Neudörffer der Ältere
  • Jan van de Velde
  • Jean-Baptiste Alais

Accessing These Materials

Printed writing books are classified in HOLLIS under the prefix TypW.

Manuscript writing books are included in the broader MS Typ classification, but can be located by searching on Form/Genre = Calligraphy (visual works).

Many of the printed books in this collection are described in The Practice of Letters: The Hofer Collection of Writing Manuals 1514–1800.

These materials do not circulate and must be consulted in Houghton Library's reading room. Those wishing to examine materials at Houghton must request them using HOLLIS Special Request. More information about accessing Houghton Library's collections.