Technologies of Writing children's exhibition

The secret code in Wits interpreter, the English Parnassus. Folger Digital Image 5681.

This article collects the children's exhibition material featured in Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

Shorthand and Secret Codes

In the 1600s, people began to make up forms of shorthand so they could take notes faster. You can see some of these symbols in John Willis's book, The Art of Stenographie, from 1602.

Have a look at this image from John Willis's book and this one from John Cotgrave's Wits interpreter, the English Parnassus. Now try making up your own symbols for letters of the alphabet and write a letter to a friend using them. See if you can use some of the same symbols Willis used. Don't forget to give your friend a copy of the symbols and what they stand for!

Writing in White

Another trick you can try is writing white letters on a black background, using the directions in Girolamo Ruscelli's book from 1558:

Mix the yolk of a raw egg with a little water.
Use the mixture to write your message on white paper.
After the paper is completely dry, paint over the message with black paint or ink.
When the paint is dry, rub over it with a rag: the letters will appear white.

This was a popular trick 400 years ago—many books in the Folger collection mention it!

Invisible Ink

If you enjoyed writing a secret code, you might also enjoy writing a note that was completely secret. To write with invisible ink, try the directions in a Folger manuscript from 1600:

Squeeze the juice out of a fresh lemon into a small bowl.
Dip a quill pen or other pointed object into the juice and write your message on plain paper with it.
Let the paper dry.
To read the message, (have an adult) hold the paper near a flame (or any other source of heat, like a light bulb.) The message will appear as if by magic!

Writing a Pangram

Look at the example of a pangram by Stephen Poyning. A pangram is a sentence that uses each letter of the alphabet at least once.

Here's an example:

The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.

Do you know any other pangrams? Try writing your own—be sure it makes sense! For an extra challenge, try using one of the words in Poyning's pangram in your own. Click on the image to see it more clearly.

For help writing a pangram, click here.

Making a Miscellany

In the 1500's and 1600's, many people created miscellanies, personal notebooks in which they wrote, drew pictures, and copied things they wanted to keep. Many of these were similar to today's blogs or diaries.

Thomas Trevelyon wrote and drew a large and famous miscellany in the early 1600's; you can see one of its pages here. Try creating your own miscellany.

  • What kinds of writing would you put in it?
  • What kinds of illustrations?
  • Would you want to start your writing with big colored letters like Trevelyon has?