Her accompt booke

Rebecca Steele was 13 years old when she started her math workbook in 1702. We still have the book, and it’s amazing!

Manuscript mathematical cipher book written in 1701 and 1702 by Rebecca Steele, a young student in Bristol. Pages exemplifying specific mathematical operations and concepts are embellished with calligraphic designs and command-of-hand drawings, and some lessons are dated. Many processes and operations are described in long word problems, including one (p. 30) where Steele is set the problem of figuring her exact age. She gives her birthdate as 28 May 1689 at 8:12pm and the present date as 17 April 1702 at “about 10 in ye morning.” She is likely the Rebecka Steele who appears in Quaker birth records for the city of Bristol as a daughter of William and Melior Steele, born on 28 May 1689 in Thomas Street.

Browse through it online, and you might be astonished. Thirteen year olds nowadays don’t generally have the ability to produce work like it. It’s a math book, but it mostly seems like an exercise book in calligraphy — I imagine that in the early 18th century much of the practice of teaching had to be taken up with mastering the art of quill and brush and ink, and that even when working on something as basic as multiplication tables, there was all this ancillary effort required required to put it on the page, and that there was a great deal of social reward for doing it artfully.

That got me thinking about the Flynn effect, too. Was Rebecca Steel less intelligent than your typical 21st century 13 year old? I rather doubt it. You ought to be impressed at what she was doing in her work book, even if the math seems trivial. But what she was doing was exercising a collection of important skills that wouldn’t make the grade in the standardized tests of today.

It also says something about the enabling effect of the progression of technology. We can pick up a ballpoint pen or a pencil and make marks on plentifully available perfectly white paper, without having to even think about the tech that makes it all possible. There was a time when writing was a complex skill that required an appreciation of the physical properties of ink, of the shape of your pen nib, of the texture of the paper. I’d be utterly confused if someone handed me a bottle of ink and a goose feather, and if I had to write a short note it would be a blotchy mess, and my hands would be smudged black.

I salute you, Rebecca! I wonder what happened to her?


  1. cartomancer says

    Bristol in 1702 was a city thriving on the profits from the transatlantic slave trade. I would not be at all surprised if the educational opportunities afforded to Rebecca Steele were made possible because of the wealth brought in to the city from slavery. One wonders quite what sort of accounting she might have expected to do in later life. Though as a Quaker she might have had moral qualms about slavery. There was a Joshua Steele active around the same time, a plantation owner and campaigner for better conditions among the slaves in Barbados. I wonder if they were connected at all.

  2. madtom1999 says

    I call it the Shakespeare effect. When you have a quill and ink on expensive paper and no tipex (backspace for paper) then the effort of writing is significant and rather than just type your thoughts as they come you correct the errors in your head before you devote the expensive time and ink and paper to your thoughts. The end result is the paper work is of much higher quality in all respects. The hand coordination is improved through the requirement to devote more time to your penmanship so even the doodles demonstrate greater control.
    In currency the use of pounds shillings and pence in the UK gave greater numeracy to most of the population – the easier decimal system doesnt force the brain to be trained as well.
    Its a bit like trying to throw a pebble rather than a baseball – you’d think you would be able to throw a small pebble a lot further than a baseball but practice with the baseball builds up musculature whereas throwing pebbles will result in joint injury and a collection of pebbles not far from your feet.
    In electronics its called impedance missmatch – putting 2ohm speakers on most amplifiers will result in less sound than 8ohm and probably blow the amp.
    Writing shit on a computer keyboard is easy and results in trolls and other low value writing.
    Like this!

  3. jrkrideau says

    I’d be utterly confused if someone handed me a bottle of ink and a goose feather, and if I had to write a short note

    Knife, knife, you forgot the knife!

    There is a reason they are called penknives.

    I just recently bought a new fountain pen and even this relatively minor change from a ballpoint or gel requires adaptation.

    So far the local Canada Geese have been too elusive for me to try a quill pen.

  4. prostheticconscience says

    It is not terribly difficult for a modern person to learn to write with a quill pen. The best way is actually to work backwards through the history of pens.

    Begin by writing with a plain nib fountain pen. The only difference you must learn at this point is that you do not need to apply pressure to put ink on the page.

    Move to using an italic nib fountain pen or calligraphy pen. The difference you must learn at this point is that you cannot ‘push’ the nib, only pull it. At this point, you should also learn a hand that is appropriate to an italic nib, such as chancery italic. This will also repair your horrible modern handwriting.

    Then move to using a steel-nibbed dip pen. The difference at this point is that you, rather than the fountain pen’s capillary mechanism, are responsible for the amount of ink on the nib and on the page.

    At this point, writing with a quill pen is no different, except that you must shape the nib yourself, and periodically re-shape it as it dulls.

  5. latveriandiplomat says

    FWIW, the typewriter probably did more to kill the cult of penmanship than the ballpoint. And the computer keyboard finished the job.

    Once the bulk of commercial correspondence was typed, penmanship became a much less important practical skill.

  6. madtom1999 says

    #7 at a drinking competition at college I won a pen. It was a strange fibre tip thing that, after about a week of use taking notes in lectures, and copying up lectures moulded itself into my hand and the paper and I found I could write attractive legible things on the page. I still have my notes and often refer back to them and the sections where I had the pen stand out. I still remember the pain of losing that pen but went back to standard ball points and my handwriting returned to its previous meanderings. I hardly write at all now but after my dad died I played with his fountain pen to the point of getting a new tip for it and things started to get legible again.
    It may not seem like much – but actually being able to read a hastily scribbled (and hence important) note is actually very useful.

  7. Erp says

    I don’t know about Rebecca Steele but an Isaac Steele got into the type foundry business with the Bristol Quaker Edmund Fry in the late 1700s (Edmund Fry is the brother of one of my ancestors which is why Steele, Bristol, and Quaker triggered a quick check).
    I’ll note that the Quakers kept good records so if her family remained Quaker she can likely be traced. They also emphasized that women as well as men should be educated.

  8. blf says

    I use (modern) nib pens with reservoirs, albeit not as much as I used to (at one time, I used them almost exclusively). Doesn’t do shite for my handwriting, which is about as legible (even to me) as, as, as, as… well something so illegible even I have problems reading it. Very much non-cursive writing, however, the only(?) thing cursive is my absolutely illegible signature plus a few hangers-on in some the printed letters.

  9. nomadiq says

    As a left handed I say ‘screw penmanship’ although I also applaud anything that impedes the far too easy ability to empty our brains into the public record. Once we write it we often refuse to accept how dumb our thoughts can be.

    Again, as a left handed, I wish I grew up writing Arabic or Hebrew or vertical East Asian languages. I might have been able to impress my teachers and receive more support and respect for my talents than I did. So in the end, fuck ‘penmanship’.

  10. Ed Seedhouse says

    amp.madtom1999@2: “putting 2ohm speakers on most amplifiers will result in less sound than 8ohm and probably blow the amp”

    Not quite. The amp will happily deliver more and more power as the impedance declines, not less. Very low impedance will cause it to overheat and blow itself.

    Most modern speakers will go below 2 ohms that at some point in their frequency range – a loudspeaker is *not* a resistor and it’s impedance varies with frequency. 2 ohms of pure resistance will not be a problem for any typical commercially available amp. What causes problems is reactance, not resistance. A loudspeaker will typically be purely resistant only at it’s main mechanical resonance frequency. Everywhere else it’s impedance is at least partly reactive and will be described as a complex number.

    It is the combination of low resistance and high reactance that will fry your amp.

  11. rejiquar says

    @11: I have no desire to deprive you of a handy excuse for avoiding penmanship but there is actually an easy hack for left-handed people to do calligraphy with L-R written languages such as English: just turn the paper upside down, and start in the lower right corner, working up. Seems obvious to me, but none of my calligraphy books suggest this, just awkward, ugly `left-handed fonts’ and the like. Keeps the ink off your hands, too.

    If you want to [really stand out|encode for a quick glance] simply write right to left, the way da Vinci did (he was left handed, & reportedly wrote mirror style for this reason.) I found it’s actually not that difficult to write that way, but learning to read was a bit trickier.

    Writing with your right hand will really slow the process down, and bonus, give you an old person’s `shaky’ handwriting should you wish to pull some prank requiring this deception;)

  12. Zeppelin says

    @rejiquar: What’s wrong with just tilting the page slightly and writing the lines as normal, so that your hand travels across the paper underneath rather than right behind? That’s what right-handed writers of right-to-left scripts do. I don’t see Arabs constantly smudging their lines!
    (I actually am asking. I can kiiind of write Arabic, and didn’t have any issues with smudging. But I’m extremely slow, so maybe some problem appears when you write faster?)

  13. vucodlak says

    Relatedly to the calligraphy:
    Just yesterday the Governor of Illinois vetoed a bill that would require students to learn cursive by the 5th grade. I support his decision. I’ve always seen learning cursive as a pointless exercise. Cursive takes longer, it’s generally harder to read (unless the writer’s handwriting is excellent), and just about every bit of paper-work I’ve ever filled out has included a disclaimer somewhere telling me NOT to use it.

    On the other hand, I suppose we have to teach people to read it, at least, since some people still insist on using it.

    My handwriting is atrocious, despite the countless hours I’ve spent practicing. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never had any trouble reading it, and most people with a vested interest in reading it (i.e. someone who needs to borrow my notes) never have any trouble, but some of my teachers have absolutely hated it. Now that I think about it, I suspect it wasn’t so much that people can’t read my writing as it is that my writing is ugly. I’ll freely admit it’s that; big, blocky, printed letters that lean every-which-way.

    No, I don’t know why they lean every-which-way. It doesn’t seem to matter how hard I try to make them all lean the same way, or to stand up straight; they sway like drunks. My “O”s and “D”s wobble, my “T”s wind up crossed a millimeter over their verticals or turn into “+”s if I’m not careful. I suspect it may be related to my inability to draw, in spite of doodling on everything I could get my hands on as a child. What’s in my brain will not come out of my hand. I can’t even trace something reliably. My hands just will not do it.

  14. kaleberg says

    Could she just have been doodling? I used to get funny looks in meetings because my notes were full of doodles. Granted, that kind of written ornament was encouraged back then, particularly for women.

    We’ve forgotten a lot of writing technology. I was recently reading a murder mystery in which it helped to know that one could unclog a fountain pen nib by sticking it into a jar full of small shot and that they made shot just for this purpose. Cursive writing with its emphasis on a consistent “carrier” also let one write multiple messages on a single page by writing the first part horizontally, then rotating the page 90 degrees and writing the rest of the message over the original. Some folks used a 60 degree angle and wrote three overlapping messages. This really only works with cursive, but it can save on paper and postage.

  15. says

    Those old skills take time to master. My friend who is a master calligrapher normally writes left-handed but his calligraphy instructor was adamant that nib shapes and the strokes involved for writing were so specific that he had to learn to write with his right hand before he would teach him. It took him a year of practice before he could use his right hand.
    I went to school in the days when you practised writing by dipping your pen into the inkwell in your desk. I am left-handed and I always got terrible marks for writing. Thankfully they no longer indulged in acts of bastardy like they did with my grandmother by tying her left hand behind her back and forcing her to be right handed by belting her any time she used her left hand.
    One teacher described my writing style as “the waltz of the fly in ink time”. When Monsieur Bic introduced the Biro my state education system briefly banned this instrument of Satan. I also wanted to train as a teacher and was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to until I could write on the blackboard, (yes we were also politically incorrect and didn’t have green chalkboard paint).
    I am something of a writing Luddite and prefer to use a fountain pen because it forces me to write a little slower and helps me form letters better. Old technology does have its drawbacks though. My hands are currently stained black after my pen developed an airlock while I was filling it and it exploded all over them. Thankfully the ink missed my new white shirt but it made a mess of my desk.

  16. rejiquar says

    Zeppelin @ 14: this is a hurried reply, so apologies if it doesn’t make sense, but angling the paper doesn’t fix the issues of holding the nib at the correct angle, or pulling it along the paper. Also, it’s hard on the wrist. Your Q about arabic is interesting, must research it but a v brief look suggests they’re still using angles comfy for right handers even tho writing R-L.

    Kaleburg: doodling—those decorations were adornments, displays of line weight control & ways to fill a page, but they were a bit more formally encoded into expectations for page layout than an excuse to make marks on the page while bored. As OP noted, making this stuff was time-consuming & paper was expensive. Hence, `badly crossed lines’ —that 18ca version of palimpsests…

    garydargan: Exactly: you can purchase `left-slant’ nibs—but the font comes out looking a bit weird and ugly for chancery type fonts. (Oddly enough, modern nibs for copperplate have this weird bend in them for RH people but according to my book, we lefties can use standard nibs.)
    Hence, the upside down uncial, OE & the like, which is much easier to do than for a left hander to write RH. Also, I *swear* the clogs I get in my henna cones are some sort of air lock, not merely lumps in the paste. Will ask fountain pen using friend, mebbe he’s got some tips for avoiding this problem! Thanks!