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Collecting Rewards of Merits: Vintage Antique 19th c. Victorian Cards

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1840-50's Hand Tinted Reward of Merit to Holland Philips from Florence E. Ballard. 
1840-50's Hand Tinted Reward of Merit to Holland Philips from Florence E. Ballard. Found in Orlando Florida in Seminole, Orange and Brevard Counties. Hand tinted bird labeled a "Western Red Shouldered Hawk". We found evidence of an early Holland Philips family living in Greene or Dobbs County, NC, and later in the 20th century in Alleghany County PA.

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An Article on the history of 19th c. Victorian era School Rewards of Merit
by Debra Clifford, Ancestorville

At Ancestorville, we have over 100 family identified Rewards of Merit cards for sale on our site, all searchable by surname and noted where they were found. They range from the early coated cardstock, hand colored or tinted cards from the 1840-50's which are handwritten in beautiful old script, to ornately printed stone chromolithography cards from the later 19th and early 20th century.

Rewards of Merit History:
During the Victorian Era, school children were given paper ephemeral rewards for good behavior, called a Reward of Merit. The top of the card usually reads "Reward of Merit," with the well behaved students name written below, followed by the signature of the teacher who issued the reward. A family may have saved these tokens of merit and recognition throughout the years. The beautiful early bird reward at our page top was cherished enough to have been saved as a family memento for over one hundred and fifty years. We sincerely hope it finds its way back to the Holland Philips (or Phillips) family.

These cards were often pasted into the popular Victorian era scrapbook albums to show a child's achievement, and performance at school. Rewards were given by a teacher to a student for punctuality, attendance, proper and good right conduct, Sunday school work with younger students, and overall signs of improvement in the early 19th century one room schoolhouse curriculum. Often we find the same family surnames on reward cards, from student to teacher. Many early 19th c. children were taught by their own family members at home.

In 1780, Robert Raikes (1735-1811) an editor of the Gloucester Journal, opened his first Sunday school in Massachusetts. He began a reward of merit system to maintain discipline, appropriate behavior and good and punctual attendance. It is said he walked the back streets of Gloucester one Sunday afternoon to find hundreds of idle, and often misbehaving children. He then had an idea to bring this young population into a better relationship with God and themselves. Within a short time, he opened four large schools in Gloucester, and when the Sunday school concept soon took hold, it spread like wildfire across a pioneer America.

18th century hand drawn, colored and had painted reward of merit cards from this early era are uncommon and highly prized, as most would be considered American folk art in nature. A majority of the rewards of merit we find today in our travels are printed. The earlier cards are usually religious in nature, with poetry, sermons and verses from the bible. Beginning in the early to mid 1800's, rewards of merit became less religious and pious in nature, gearing themselves more toward children's topics, games, child scenes, and patriotic flags and eagles, especially those printed at the time of the American Civil War.

Publishers began printing standardized mass produced rewards for the American public later in the 19th century. The teacher might simply fill in the name of the student, write a signature, and be done. There were also actual material objects for rewards, such as sterling medals, cups, spoons, knives, mugs, porcelain ABC dishes and pitchers, etc. These pieces are unusual and difficult to find, and are highly collectible today.

1850-60's Early Reward of Merit Card to George W. Greaf from T.J. Journy. Found in the region of Michiana, Berrien County, Michigan, and South Bend, Saint Joseph County, Indiana. 

The early coated stock reward cards from the 1840-60’s on our site, are a cousin to what we call "Friendship Cards", a signed surname related paper card we often find mixed with calling cards. Often these friendship cards have moral lessons, poetry, quotes, or verse indicative of the time period. They also may be religious in nature. Below we see a beautiful Hildreth family example from our ancestor site. These cards are usually hand tinted or colored, as they were printed before the advent of color printing or chomolithography. Although they do not have the word "reward" printed on them, they may well have been used as such in early classrooms and/or Sunday school settings.

c. 1850-60`s Early Friendship Calling Card for Ellen C. Hildreth
c. 1850-60`s Early Friendship Calling Card for Ellen C. Hildreth
Found in in Berkshire County, Western Massachusetts, MA.

Many of our 1840-90's rewards of merit from teacher to child were found by us all together in certain regions of the country, of which we always make note. Please note that where an object is found, is not necessarily an indication of where a family lived. Although sometimes a clue, ancestral migration made the mailing and movement of ephemera common between separated family members.

1880's Reward of Merit to Hertie Searing by Ransom Williams, Teacher
c. 1880-90's Reward of Merit School Card, Presented to Hertie Searing by Ransom Williams, Teacher. Found in Cheshire, New Haven County, CT Connecticut. (Hertie may be a nickname for Hortense, or other names)

Charles Magnus, a German publisher who came to America around 1848 started a very prolific New York City American lithography firm in business from 1854–1877. The Magnus firm printed many ephemeral images in the Civil War era for use by military and the public in the form of billheads, letterheads, stationary, writing paper and envelopes. These souvenirs of patriotism were often sent back home. His firm also printed a great abundance of the rewards of merit in the USA during the second half of the 19th century. He was well known for his large and small folio prints and maps, card and paper printed games and game boxes, early vintage playing cards, Civil War battlefield scenes, specific American city view prints, and overall printed ephemera. Often the same typography and lithographic scene may be carried over to much of his work, giving the Magnus style a common look, especially in the area of patriotic eagles, maps, and his early iconographic typographic work.

Overall, we see each reward on our site as a one of a kind piece of family history, and with the added benefit of a family surname attached! The ancestors who owned these school related conduct cards lay in graves across America, and await being found.We invite you to "adopt" a family and do some online genealogy research. We will be happy to add the info you may find to the listing. These spirits await being found by their 21st century families and historian friends. Enjoy!

— Debra Clifford, Ancestorville

...and click here to view 1000's of antique ID'd family photos on Ancestorville.

debra clifford ancestorville    Join ~debra on facebook at Ancestorville Genealogy on the topic of lost family antique items, early photographs, genealogy surnames and family history topics. Search our site for your lost family antique material by family surname, county, town, city and state.

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