In England in the 18th century the ability to write was a skill associated with the social elite or with young men trained as clerks for careers in commerce. Children of the working classes, on the other hand, might attend small village ‘dame schools’ or charity schools where writing was taught only when reading had been mastered – and often not at all. The elite had access to private tutors while clerks studied with a writing master, learning to write from copybooks by tracing and copying letters and writing aphorisms. Many writing masters published their own copybooks. Richard Langford’s The beauties of penmanship, first published in London in 1785 and printed in a new edition in 1797, is a late example.

The use of copybooks, in the Australian colonies as well as England, gradually became widespread in the 19th century with the expansion of educational opportunities for the majority of the population. As more people learned to write,significant changes took place in the design of tools for writing, first in the production of goose quill pens and later in the manufacture of steel pens.

Poonah painting is a mechanical method of painting a picture by applying watercolours through a series of stencils cut out by the painter. The name ‘poonah’ comes from Poona (now Pune), India, which was the source of paper and brushes used for this type of work. The technique also has several other names: theorem painting, oriental tinting, mezzotinting, formula painting and velvet painting – the last because finely cut white velvet was often used as a substitute for paper.

Poonah painting became a popular pastime for genteel girls and young women in the early 19th century. Tuition in poonah painting in Sydney was first advertised in the 1830s and continued to be offered for many decades. The craft was soon more widely practised – many young women could master the art of poonah painting from a raft of books and journals published in the second half of the 19th century. In the late 19th century, artistic homeowners used poonah painting to decorate curtain and mantle borders as well as timber door panels. And well into the 20th century, it was a popular category for entries in craft shows and agricultural society exhibitions.