Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dating a Reward of Merit

Rewards of merit, as I've mentioned before, are those delightful cards that children of the 19th century received for good scholarship. To look at their designs and verses, one can guage how much more serious (and compliant) students of 150 years ago were.

How lovely, how charming, the sight,
When children their teachers obey;
The angels look down with delight,
This beautiful scene to survey.

Judging by the design, the make of the paper — which has a clay finish — and the hand-tinting, I would date this to well before the Civil War. Indeed, it may have come from a cache some teacher retained for twenty years. But turn the reward over, and look at the back:

On the back, someone has pasted a portrait of General George B. McClellan, popularly known as the "Little Napoleon." It was probably clipped from a newspaper, like Harper's Weekly.

General George Brinton McClellan entered the Civil War with a sterling reputation earned during the Mexican War. And when he was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan was recognized as a good organizer and administrator. But he proved unready to command in battle, more interested in drilling troops than engaging in combat. After the Battle of Antietam, which Robert E. Lee lost, McClellan refused to pursue the retreating southern army, which might well have ended the Civil War years earlier. As the Army of the Potomac bogged down through his own poor leadership, McClellan blamed Lincoln and Lincoln's cabinet, then ultimately came to despise Lincoln. In 1864, McClellan resigned his commission in the Army and ran against Abraham Lincoln for President.

So while the reward of merit is of an earlier design, it probably dates between 1861, when McClellan organized the Army of the Potomac, and 1864, when McClellan was the Democratic candidate for President. My guess is 1864.

George B. McClellan served as the 24th governor of New Jersey (1878-1881) and died in 1885.


  1. Hello Mark:
    What an exciting find on the reverse of the reward of merit. You must have been thriled to discover it.

    And, what an interesting precis you give here of Mc Clellan who, to our shame, we had little knowledge of before we read this today.

    Occasionally, we have come across fly pages of books adorned with 'rewards of merit', or at least their English equivalent, when they have been awarded to some studious student on, perhaps a Prize Day It is always quite intriguing to imagine the scholar and whether the book would have been a chosen gift.

  2. Fascinating as always!! The certificate is charming - but I wonder why they attached the photo of McClellan to the back.

  3. Gee, what a wonderful example of a piece of ephemera that probably served two purposes, however we shall probably never really know why McClellan's picture was pasted on the back.

  4. Hi Mark, You come up with some of the most interesting material. What piqued my interest..."which had a clay finish". Do you know more?

  5. Mark and don't we all enjoy receiving an award of merit!

    Art by Karena

    Come and enter my New Giveaway from Serena & Lily! You will love it!

  6. Lovely wordings in the Certificate, Appreciate it.

  7. Children were treated so poorly in those days. This reward of merit is very pretty and appears somewhat innocent, but reading between the lines, it really says, children should be seen and not heard. The picture at the back makes this reward even more sinister. As usual, very interesting Mark, thank you.

  8. Hello; I've really been enjoying your blog, both its content and its design. We have very similar interests, as evidenced by my very recent posts on rewards of merit!

  9. What was the purpose of coating paper with clay? I have seen Italian marbled papers done on clay coated paper. Do you know of any sources for it?

  10. What an interesting combination. Merit and McClellan. Is the apparent staining on the Merit side caused by the posting/gluing of the McClellan side? Interesting find yet again!

  11. Dear Blogging Friends,

    As you may have guessed, I've been away for a week — away from newspapers, radios, TVs and especially away from computers! Thanks for all your comments while I was away!


  12. Dear Gina and Theresa,

    When a paper has a clay finish, it means that the paper has gone through a bath of clay coating. That in turn can give the paper a especially nice glossy or matte finish — either way the paper will be thicker and look brighter. The clay coating is also important because it provides a surface for finer reproduction of the 4-color printing process.

  13. Jane and Lance,

    As I said in an earlier posting on rewards of merit, not only could merits be attached to a prize, but very early merits were often designed to resemble currency, and were meant to be saved up to redeem a prize.

  14. Stacey, David and Michael,

    Could it be that a teacher was pushing politial views?!

  15. Thanks for visiting, Karena and Web!

  16. Anyes, I quite agree with your point! The message is clearly, "Do your work and shut up!" And rewards of merit repeat that message in many lyrical variations.

  17. Hello, Donna,

    I enjoyed visiting your blog and seeing your own interesting examples of rewards of merit. I've been collecting ephemera and rewards of merit for more than 35 years, and I'll be sharing more examples in future postings.

  18. Michael, you're not seeing glue coming through the reward, but instead a rather slap-dash tinting of watercolors!