Rewards of Merit

Rewards of Merit have been part of the American educational system for more than 300 years. Typically paper and either printed or in handwritten form, teachers bestowed Rewards on their deserving students to recognize their classroom achievements and to acknowledge exemplary attendance. Even though youngsters received them, many times parents later wound up with the Rewards as gifts from their children. A mid-nineteenth century verse reads:

See, Father, Mother, see!
To my Brother, and to me,
Has our Teacher given a card,
To show that we have studied hard!
To you we think it must be pleasant
To see us both with such a present.

In 1994, the Ephemera Society published the first book length study on this particular kind of ephemera. Entitled Rewards of Merit: Tokens of a Child's Progress and a Teacher's Esteem as an Enduring Aspect of American Religious and Secular Education, the book highlights the collections assembled by the late Rockwell Gardner (affectionately known to just about everyone as Rocky) and Alfred P. Malpa. To complement their paper Rewards, dozens of examples of school medals from John M. Sallay's collection are depicted. The chief author of Rewards of Merit is Patricia Fenn, and the principal designer is Jack Golden.

Rewards of Merit provide insight into a number of areas of United States history. As folk art, they chronicle influences of contemporary design on original drawings and calligraphy. They are excellent sources for tracing the development of American printing technology. Rewards that eighteenth-century printers pulled from their presses and then perhaps colored by hand are far different from Rewards produced by the chromolithographic process a century later. For the study of American education, the proliferation of Rewards of Merit signals the efforts of many reformers to furnish schooling to children of many social and economic classes, not just the privileged few.

Because the earliest printed Rewards bore pietistic sayings and sentiments, American religious history is reflected in their texts. One early Reward shows children praying on one side and on the reverse contains a biblical verse:

Be thankful, children, that you may
Read this good Bible every day:
'Tis God's own word, which he has giv'n
To show your souls the way to heaven.

Charles Magnus was probably responsible for printing the most Rewards of Merit during the last half of the nineteenth century. Magnus came to the United States from Germany after that country's political upheavals in 1848 and brought his publishing talents with him. Primarily a lithographer, Magnus soon had a devoted following, selling such things as maps, games, playing cards, envelopes, stock certificates, city views, Civil War battlefield scenes, lettersheets, news sheets, and Rewards of Merit. What makes Magnus fascinating to study is his use of the same image on a vast array of his works. A vignette appearing on a stock certificate, for example, might later show up on the border of a large map or even decorate a Reward of Merit card.

For those who are interested in finding out who produced and distributed printed Rewards of Merit cards, Rewards of Merit has a comprehensive directory of booksellers, engravers, printers, publishers, and stationers toward the end of the volume. Listing individuals and firms from Theodore Abbott, a Boston bookbinder and bookseller, to Samuel Young, a Baltimorian engaged in book selling and publishing during the 1820s and 1830s, this comprehensive directory features almost 225 individuals and companies that made and sold Rewards from 1762 into the twentieth century.

Rewards of Merit consists of 224 pages and is profusely illustrated with hundreds of colorful images. An informative bibliography and extensive index round out the volume.

The trade edition of Rewards of Merit costs $39.95. A limited number of copies with a special binding, containing two medals mounted in the front cover, and including a separate portfolio of reproductions of Rewards of Merit costs $595.

To order a copy of Rewards of Merit, contact Oak Knoll Press, 310 Delaware St., New Castle, DE 19720, or visit their web site at and place an order online.

E. Richard McKinstry

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America