By Collections Officer, Henrietta Lockhart
On 18 May we celebrate International Museums Day, and one of this year’s themes is “the power of community building through education”. Here at Winterbourne, education takes many forms, from Royal Horticultural Society courses to University of Birmingham internships. Our collections also provide a useful resource for academic departments.
I have recently been preparing a session on children’s literature for a group of students, and my attention was drawn to one particular aspect of our book collections which has tended to go unnoticed.
Opening the cover of a vintage book can often reveal an unexpected bonus – a prize label. For many children, particularly from lower-income families, a book was indeed something to be prized and treasured. In 1917, Hilda Robinson was presented with a copy of Little Women and Little Women Married by Louisa May Alcott. She attended the Salvation Army Dewsbury Corps, and the label is also headed “Young People’s War”.
This elaborate Art Nouveau label sets out the virtues expected from the children: good conduct, diligence, regular attendance, and setting a good example. The reference to the war suggests that the children’s attendance was regarded as part of their contribution to the war effort. With 100 marks out of 104, Hilda was clearly an exemplary student! One gets a sense of pride from these labels, and above all, the importance of the book.
Archie Jeanes attended the Smethwick Gospel Hall Sunday School. At the bottom of this label, we find that the printer, C. Combridge, is a “prize specialist”, suggesting that there was a huge demand for these custom-designed labels.
In 1895, Elsie Smith received the works of Lord Tennyson as a prize for literature from the King’s High School for Girls, Warwick. This elegant diamond-shaped label has a very modern look about it, and tones perfectly with the magnificent marbling on the flyleaf of the book.
Some of the most touching prize inscriptions are those done by hand. The scholars of section 3 of the Kings Heath Adult School went to enormous trouble to inscribe this copy of The Life and Works of St. Paul for David French in 1904.
The inscription is presented like an illuminated manuscript, with the initial letter beautifully decorated, and the depiction of bulrushes is perhaps a Biblical allusion. What were David’s particular achievements? The inscription doesn’t say, but adult schools offered courses in many subjects. It certainly looks as though some of the scholars were skilled in calligraphy!
While these prize labels take us back to the distant past, they also have relevance for the present. Even in the digital age, books are still central to education, and giving a child a book is a powerful thing. They also remind us that there are always surprises to be discovered in our museum collections!