Primary Source Activity: Colonial America: Writing Our History

Name: Anna Kichorowsky

School: Program Intern, Salem in History

Date Used: Summer 2006

Grade Level: 3rd Grade (easily adapted to 5th grade frameworks, 5.18*)

I. Source ID

Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence, 1776. The National Archives, Washington, D.C. Online at: [Viewed 9 August 2006].

Type of Source:

.X. written document (specify type below)


sound recording






court document (specify below)                                               

census records

oral history                                                                                   

3-dimentional artifact

other—please specify:                                                            

This government document is designated as seminal primary source document according to the 2003 Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Options - other documents to incorporate:

Bickman, George. The Universal Penman. 1st ed., 1743. Reprinted: The Importance of the Universal Penman in Relation to Modern Calligraphy, by Philip Hofer. NY: Dover, 1941.

This book includes a reprinted edition of The Universal Penman by George Bickman, which was published in 1743. Bickman illustrates and explains changes in letters in use in the English language since the middle ages. Because it was written in the 18th century, it is also an excellent guide for understanding characters that were in use at that time. Available at the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex museum: 652/B58.

Gardner, John. Diary, 1771-1779. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

You may wish to use another 18th-century local diary or letter.

Activity Materials Required:

Large feathers (Canada Geese or Turkey feathers work well), “Safety Exact-0” knives, ink or tempera paint, parchment-like paper (can be either hand-made paper (using newspaper fibers), hand-tinted paper (with tea or coffee), or store-bought), copies of primary source documents (listed above), perhaps writing samples of specific colonial letters (such as the “s”), example of a colonial schoolchild’s horn book (materials needed to make hornbook: balsalm wood, parchment paper, tracing or butcher paper, glue).

II.  Rationale for Source Use

Written documents from the colonial era are notoriously difficult to read, and it is challenging to explain to students how and why the texts appear different from those created today, particularly with the ease and speed of computers.  The Declaration of Independence is one of the most famous documents in U.S. History, and it is a seminal document in the Massachusetts Frameworks.  Yet the intense thought, political complexity, and remarkable originality behind the creation of this text is too abstract and distant from students for them to easily engage with the Declaration. 

By interactively engaging a class with the “technical” processes involved in writing colonial documents, students will gain an appreciation for the skill that was required to write.

This activity, then, introduces students to a larger lesson on the importance and meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the creation of other foundation documents of the United States. In the first lesson, students compare their own experiences in writing and reading with those of colonial Americans through reading this important primary source document and writing with their own quill pens. Then, students can collaboratively write their own classroom "declaration" or "constitution" document, or design and create their own horn book.


III. Correlation with 2003 Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum Frameworks

3rd Grade History and Social Studies

3.6: Identify the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as key American documents.

3.12: Explain how objects of everyday life in the past tell us how ordinary people lived and how everyday life has changed. Draw on the services of the local historical society and local museums as needed

IV. Guiding Questions:

(At first, select and show a middle section of the document so that it is not immediately apparent that students are looking at the Declaration of Independence.)

Look carefully at the writing (penmanship) on this document. Does it look new or old? Why do you think so?

Does the paper look like paper we use today? Why or why not?

Read some of the words. Is it difficult? Why?

When do you think this might have been written? How do you think someone wrote this? What kind of writing utensil do you think that person used?

How long do you think it took to write this document? Do you think this was an important document? Why or why not?

(At this point, reveal the rest of the document.)

What unique features do you notice about this document? How are the signatures different? Can you identify the document?

Ask what students already know about the Declaration's importance and meaning. Be sure to indicate the date of the document. Return to the issue of writing technology in the 18th century.

 Continuing the Activity:

Look together at examples of a quill pen and discuss how they work. How does the ink stay in the quill? How does it flow down onto the paper? (The diagonal cut helps draw the ink up, and the vertical slit in the remaining tip allows the ink to flow down). Ask students if they see any relationship between the ballpoint pens we use now and the quill pens used back then. (If they have difficulty with this question, unscrew a simple ball point pen and point out the ink inside and the shaped tip that allows the ink to flow).

Next, give each student a feather and ask them to create a quill pen by using sample quill pens as models.

Geese or seagull feathers are best to use for quill pens. First cut a diagonal slit at the tip of the feather, as shown on the top feather. Next, cut a vertical slit into the remaining point, being careful to not make it more than 1-2 cm long. Dip the quill pen tip into ink or watered-down acrylic paint and press lightly on parchment-type paper.


Demonstrate how to lightly dip the quill into the ink well and press it onto the paper in order to write. Allow students some time to familiarize themselves with their quill pens and to practice writing.

Pass around the horn book sample and discuss how students would learn to write colonial-style text on the hornbook. Students can also make their own hornbooks.

Hornbooks can be constructed using balsalm wood (cut into a square with a thin handle), and a sample hornbook text. Click on image for an example of the hornbook text. Once the paddle is constructed, make sure the text is the same size. A thin piece of paper, such as tracing paper or butcher paper, will be placed on top. The completed hornbook should be the size of a child's hand. Students can trace on top of the colonial text to learn how to write in the old calligraphy.


Ask students about their experience in trying to write with a quill pen, perhaps even write an entire hornbook with the quill pen. How long do they think it would take to learn to write with the skill of the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Lesson Plan Options Based on this Activity:


*5.18: Describe the life and achievements of important leaders during the Revolution and the early years of the
United States.