Huguenot Street Cipher Books

According to the Ciphering Book Collection on the official Huguenot Street website, cipher books are handwritten workbooks that were used by students in the early times of education in New Paltz. Many students used these workbooks to learn mathematics, handwriting, spelling, and other disciplines. Most of these books date from the early 19th century and are bounded in cloth, leather or board. They are very old and the pages have turn a light brown. The cloth that was used to cover the book feels like cardboard, slightly thick. The sides of the pages have what looks like watermarks and the bottom of the pages are worn, from the constant turning of the pages. The majority of the books contain entries in English, French and Dutch. The math content in the books were typically simple operations such as addition, subtraction, measurement, and problem solving with several different currencies. As the pages go on, the mathematical operations become more complex with application problems, proportion, interest, decimals, fractions and more. Some of the application problems referred to events that occur in our history, which revealed social issues of the time. Religious and moral lessons, along with simple doodles were written throughout the books.

I was curious about how the curriculum of education began in New Paltz, so I was directly to In a Valley Fair: A History of the State University College of Education at New Paltz. According to the first few chapters of this book, the Huguenot landholders hired Jean Cottin as their headmaster when they settled in New Paltz in 1689. The school was connected to their church, and the headmasters were hired only if they were condemned as a good man, teacher, and true Christians. During the early order from the Classis of Amsterdam, schoolmasters in the Dutch colonies instructed their pupils not only in reading, writing, ciphering and arithmetic, but also in the customary form of prayers. This would explain the writings doodled into some of the cipher books. There was a mantra that was spotted in some of the cipher books, including in DuBois’ cipher book, which I will explain more later on. The school curriculum in 1812 was limited, so it was mostly reading and writing. By 1827, subjects such as math, grammar, and geography became the common branches of public education. In 1828, a group of leading citizens founded the New Paltz Classical School, which began its sessions on the second floor of the Common School. The classical school was meant for the higher class, with more money because those who supported this new school were decedents of the original families: Deyos, DuBoises, Eltings, Hasbroucks, and LeFevres. Those who attended the classical school, paid more money and were taught Greek, geography, history, natural philosophy and math. Those in the regular English schools were taught grammar, French, reading, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping and elocution. Education in New Paltz in the late 18th/early 19th centuries was largely focused on business and commerce, and was tied in with religious rhetoric. These next two ciphering books will demonstrate this in various ways.

The first Cipher book I chose to analyze was Josiah LeFevre’s from 1822-1824. This cipher book was part of an artificial collection, meaning that the donor is unknown and the Huguenot team put the book together. Carrie from Huguenot Street believes this cipher book might have been donated by Sadie Mott, but is unsure. According to Historic Huguenot records, Josiah was born July 7, 1810 and died December 15, 1888. He married his first cousin, Catherine Maria Lefevre and had four kids. On the left side of the first page of the cipher book, he writes “last of May or the first of June; May 31, 1822” and on the other, he writes “Josiah LeFevre his Cyphernbook May the 28th 1822 Tuesday. The arithmetick Printed By Nicoles Tike in the year 1809”. I’m not sure who Nicholes Tike was, but his name was on the inside cover. Maybe it was the author of the workbook he was copying problems from. The cipher book starts off with easy mathematical operations and then they get more complex.

Their long division looks like what we currently learn in schools except they had lbs:g:lbs on top of the equation. I’m not entirely sure why they wrote that before starting the problem. However, whenever Josiah starts a new concept, he defines it and its many rules before creating word problems for the concept. As I continued flipping through the pages, I noticed that their application problems were more about how to deal with purchases of a certain product. “By inventing the order of the _____, it will be 2^n. If ____ (illegible handwriting) buy all of sugar, how much will ___ buy at that rate?”. There were other word problems that spoke about picking up pounds at certain ports and delivering it to other ports for certain rates. These math problems illustrates the business and commerce life that kids Lefevre’s age were learning in school. There were also application problems involving our past history. One word problem said, “America was discovered by Columbus in 1492 and its independence was declared in 1776. How many years elapsed between those two years?”. The next word problem mentioned the Boston massacre and the Battle of Lexington.

There were also doodles throughout Josiah’s cipher book such as his initials throughout the book. At one point, he wrote the word “Ans” 32 times halfway down the bottom right side. Josiah also kept records of people who paid him for their bills through their bank accounts. It’s very detailed and it runs on for half a page with a chart. Josiah also compared federal money and english money as examples to a new concept. I did not understand why there was different markers on top of each amount and I wonder if that was how they distinguished their money back then. (insert pic) Midway through the cipher book, there were two pages of different measurements of products: ivory weight, avoirdupois weights (system that uses pounds and ounces), apothecaries weight (pharmaceutical measuring system), cloth and long measure, and time. The next two pages had land, square, solid, hhine, hole and beer, and dry measures. These must have been the different ways they measured the goods they traded and sold. The second cipher book was a lot like Lefevre’s, so I wonder if they were in similar grade levels or schools.

The second cipher book was written by Josiah DuBois in 1792. He was born on December 18, 1781, was baptized in New Paltz in 1732 and died March 11, 1869. He married twice and had many kids. Mr. DuBois was very successful in his early mercantile days and resumed the agriculture upon his ancestral acres, and lived for many years. He carried out his business in what is now the Jean Hasbrouck Memorial House, in partnership with Col. Josiah Hasbrouck. Mr. DuBois was also one of the original trustees of the New Paltz Academy and one of the owners of the Academy grounds. Josiah DuBois started his cipher book with the written words, “Numeration; August 20, 1792; Teacheth to read, Write, or Corprefs, any Number or turn proposed”. He then drew the place value chart up to hundred million. At the bottom of the first page, he wrote “ Josiah DuBois is my name/America is my Nation/New Paltz is my dwelling place and Christ is my Salvation/When I am dead, and in my grave and all my bones are rotten, when this you see remember me that I am not forgotten”. Unfortunately, the rest of that message was crossed out and doodled on top of and illegible. His message illustrates the closeness of the church in schools and in his life. This was the mantra that I had mentioned above that was seen in other similar cipher books. I believe that this saying was probably taught to students in schools, something they lived by, which was why it was doodled into their workbooks.

Josiah DuBois’s cipher book was similar to Josiah Lefevre’s book, except that DuBois’s book mentioned the selling of goods such as cloth and food, while Lefevre’s book emphasized on the money part of the business. In Dubois’s cipher book, there were word problems about buying or selling things such as, dog buttons at 3/6’/4 per dog. The problem asked DuBois to find the price, if he were to buy the whole. He also had two pages full of what his customers bought on a specific day. He had six different categories for who bought what. He had someone who was a cheese monger, milliner, carpenter, and baker. For example, he recorded all the products that Thomas Hantloy bought on May 19, 1793. The list consists of “raisins of the sun, malaga baifins, currants, sugars, sugar loaves, rice, black pepper and gloves”. Another interesting thing I found in Josiah DuBois’s cipher book was two poems on mathematical roots such as squared or cubed. One poem had 14 lines and the other had 20 lines, but both followed an aabbcc pattern. The first poem doesn’t make any sense no matter how many times I read it, however before the poem, Josiah wrote at the top of the page that this poem was a “Rule to be got by heart”. I can only assume he means they must memorize this poem to help them understand the rule to the concept of roots. As for the second poem, the first three lines says, “The cube of your first period take/And of its root a Quotient make/Which root into a cube must grow/And from your period taken fro, To the Remainder then you must”. I don’t understand what he was trying to say in the poem, but it looks like something that was taught in their schools to help them memorize rules and concepts. The last interesting thing I found towards the end of the cipher book was a Mariners Compass. According to Webster Dictionary, a Mariners Compass is a navigation compass that consists of magnetic needles permanently attached to a card that marks the direction and degrees of a circle. Josiah DuBois wrote down numbers related to the climate between the Equator and the poles using the compass.

Overall, both Josiah Lefevre and Josiah DuBois’s cipher books had many similar writings and methods to their education. I conclude that it was possible they could have been in similar school grades because the math was so similar. I am assuming that Josiah Lefevre’s education was more focused on the business aspect of commerce, while Josiah DuBois’s education seemed to be more focused on the actual goods they were selling. I may be wrong, but judging from the different kinds of word problems they were given, that was my conclusion. I have learned a lot in my research and I’m glad I picked cipher books as my topic of discovery because I am an Education major and learning about how schools taught back then, was fun to read through. It’s interesting to see what goes on in a child’s head as they are in school. It’s also fascinating to see the methods they used for learning and how it is compared to today.

Works Cited

Lang, Elizabeth and Lang, Robert. In a Valley Fair: A History of the State University College of Education at New Paltz, NY. 1960. 

Hedged, William. The American Decedents of Chretien DuBois of Wicres, France Part 3. Du Bois Family Association, Huguenot Historical Society of New Paltz, NY Inc. 1969, Revised and updated 1999. 

Roth, Eric. Cipher Book Collection (ca. 1730-1849), Published 28 August 1999, last updated 14 January 2013. 

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