With Christmas just two days away, it seems a good time to post this little bit of history. In one sense it’s self-explanatory, a poem written out by hand and signed by John Remsen on Christmas Day, 1803. But it’s also a perfect example of a slightly more obscure practice. It is precisely what the Encyclopedia of Ephemera describes as a “schoolboy’s piece.” That is, a pre-printed sheet left blank for a young scholar to write a selection of text, commonly for his parents. These were often religious, and typically the child completed it for Christmas.
Here, young John Remsen chose to copy an appropriate poem from Isaac Watts, “Shepherds rejoice, lift up your eyes” which first appeared in print in 1706. More than likely you’ve heard of the Watts hymnal given that it’s one of the more recognizable of its kind, and clearly Remsen knew it well, himself.
Unfortunately, the broader context of the form’s printing, who created it, and further details about its distribution seem a bit murkier. Certainly the series of vignettes depicting moments in the life of Jesus fits entirely well with the Encyclopedia’s definition. But try to look for an example held, or discussed elsewhere, you’re unlikely to have much luck. It’s all the more disappointing given that its title “The Sequel of Our Savour Christ” suggests it was one of two makes it harder to believe another of either part does not exist.
The lower portion of the document reads “Printed & Sold by the Proprietor, A. Lamb” though Lamb’s name is penciled in and it’s not particularly clear if that’s what the original print reads. Still, there is a man active in New York from the middle to late 18th century who might fit the bill. Admittedly, Anthony Lamb’s personal skill appears to have been in making mathematical instruments not engraving. However, American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel speculates that his boarding of a known engraver by the name of Henry Dawkins could suggest Lamb merely employed engravers rather than doing the work himself. This seems perfectly reasonable. That said, both Lamb and Dawkins appears to have died by the end of the 1780s (it is believed Dawkins was hanged in 1776 for counterfeiting), meaning the school sheet Remsen used was either purchased well before he used it, or, someone continued printing from the plate. The latter might explain the issue with his name on the document; perhaps whomever inherited it simply tried to scratch out Lamb’s name.
Either way, it’s a fun holiday document and curious little piece of printing history.