J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

John Tileston: disabled writing teacher

John Tileston (1735-1826) taught at Boston's public writing school in the North End for sixty-five years, starting as an "usher" or assistant schoolmaster in 1754 and retiring as an octogenarian in 1819.

Before and during the Revolution, the town's three writing schools educated more boys than the two more famous and prestigious Latin Schools. For the most part, the writing-school curriculum was, literally, handwriting: learning how to use a quill pen to create dignified-looking documents in two or three genteel styles. This was an important skill in business, but it also shows how limited public schooling then was. (See Thinking with Type for more on how handwriting lessons led into modern typography.)

According to his 1887 biographer, D. C. Colesworthy, Tileston (pronounced "TILL-iss-tun") came to teach writing because a childhood injury limited the jobs he could do:

When John was an infant, he was severely burnt by falling into the fire, and the consequence was so serious an injury to one of his hands that the complete use of his fingers he never recovered. He was thus incapacitated for mechanical or other employments that required the full use of his hands. Notwithstanding this affliction the defective hand became perfectly adapted to the holding of a pen and for writing. After leaving school, at the age of fourteen, young Tileston was placed under the care of...[the master of a writing school] in Boston, where he served faithfully an apprenticeship of six or seven years.
Colesworthy mistakenly named Tileston's master as Zachariah Hicks; that man was a printer rather than a schoolteacher, the master and mentor of publisher Isaiah Thomas. Education reformer William B. Fowle, who knew Tileston personally, stated that his trainer and model was Master John Proctor of the Queen Street Writing School in central Boston. In 1761, Tileston became a schoolmaster in his own right in the North End.

Edward Everett, the less-remembered orator at Gettysburg, remembered that Tileston's hand, though disabled, was strong and hard enough to give scholars blows to the head that "would have done credit to the bill of an albatross." Corporal punishment was still considered an educational tool in the late 1700s. Everett also recalled how Tileston seized toys he found students playing with:
His long, deep desk was a perfect curiosity shop of confiscated balls, tops, penknives, marbles, and jews-harps, the accumulation of forty years.
Yet Fowle judged that "Master Tileston was not severe in his discipline, as was his great oracle, Master Proctor." Tileston was also known for wearing a powdered wig and Revolutionary-era clothing long after they had gone out of fashion.

Esther Forbes wrote about Tileston and his burned hand in her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942). I suspect the schoolmaster was therefore the inspiration for the injury Johnny Tremain suffers in the novel Forbes published the following year. Tileston is also memorialized in the name of a short street in Boston's North End where his school once stood.

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