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Cyphering Books

Dr. Nerida Fay Ellerton is an Australian mathematics educator and historian of mathematics, who works at Illinois State University as professor of mathematics education. 

As well as studying the present state of mathematics education, she and her husband Dr. McKenzie A. (Ken) Clements have researched the history of mathematics education, in the process discovering school worksheets in the Harvard Library that are among the oldest known writings of Abraham Lincoln.

The Museum emailed Dr. Ellerton concerning our cyphering books (Arithmetic Manuscripts) along with some photo's, below is her reply.

Almost certainly, the 1810 and 1815 manuscripts by Samuel Tuck, to which you refer, were “cyphering books.” Up to about 1850 it was common for boys aged between about 10 and 16 to prepare such books while attending school during winter months—during the rest of the year they didn’t attend school, but worked at home or in the fields.


The pictures you sent show very neat penmanship and calligraphy. Cyphering was an important part of the curriculum, taken very seriously by students, teachers and parents.


A teacher’s job in the next semester might hang on whether parents were suitably impressed with the quality of their children’s cyphering books. And, because they were so carefully prepared many cyphering books have been well preserved for two centuries or more.


It was sometimes said that within a family household the two most important books were the Bible and the children’s cyphering books. Cyphering books by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln survive today.


We have written much about cyphering books, and what we have called the “cyphering tradition”—see

Ellerton, N. F., & Clements, M. A. (2012).

Rewriting the history of school mathematics in North America 1607–1861, which was published by Springer.

Altogether we have examined about 2000 cyphering books

An Arithmetic Manuscript

 Written by

Samuel Tuck

December 5th 1810

An Arithmetic Manuscript

 Written by

Samuel Tuck

December 5th 1815

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