A day in the life of an 18th century Dutch child

I hear the birds sing, If only I sang with them!

I hear the birds sing,
If only I sang with them!
Sp Coll S.M. Add. 483

What might a day in the life of child growing up in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic have looked like? Well fear not, for with the help of our newest acquisition, a small illustrated Dutch children’s book from the period, we can help you answer this most burning of questions! Johannes Hazeu’s Kinder-pligt in zinnebeelden [A child’s duty and emblems]1 is a short book of moral emblems for children describing a (Protestant) child’s Christian duties and virtues through a series of engravings and poems depicting daily activities, from getting up in the morning and getting washed to saying prayers at night and going to bed. As such, it doesn’t really describe a day in the life of your average child so much as a day in the life of the model, most perfect and virtuous Christian child!

Each of the fifteen full-page engravings is titled with an activity and accompanied by a two or three line verse caption culled from a longer poem usually found on the facing letterpress-printed page. The day starts with a plate entitled “HET ONTWAAKEN” [Waking Up]2 showing Our pious Hero climbing out of bed and is accompanied by the verse “Ik hoor de vogels zingen, Ach, zong ‘ik met hun meê!” [I hear the birds sing, If only I sang with them!]. The delightful engraving, by Barent de Bakker (1762-1805) (nb. all the engravings are signed as being either drawn and engraved or just engraved by him), lets us see into the bed chamber with clothes laid out over the back of a chair, shoes left lying beside the bed and the room’s various fixtures and fittings including the fabulous canopy over the bed, a chamber pot, sconce on the wall and a washstand with ewer and basin.

But Our Hero isn’t for using the washstand. Oh no! We next see him out in the countryside performing his ablutions in a fountain in a plate entitled “HET WASSCHEN” [Washing] with the accompanying verse “Wat is het frisch, in ‘t morgen uur, Met water zich te waschen!” [How fresh it is, in the morning hours, To wash yourself with water!].

Els Stronks has written about the role of moralising children’s emblem book in the religious education of children in the Dutch Republic. She argues that these books were not so much about teaching specific confessional or theological issues as performing a social instruction role, describing the books as “mirrors, in which everyone can observe his or her own duties”3. Most readers would struggle to come up to scratch against Our pious Hero. The image of him washing in the fountain en plein air is more than just a celebration of the splendours of God’s natural world; as Stronks comments, by reading the full poem it’s clear that an analogy is being drawn between the ability of the fountain to wash away dirt and Jesus’ blood to wash away sins:

How refreshing it is, in the morning hours To wash oneself with water!

How refreshing it is, in the morning hours
To wash oneself with water!
Sp Coll S.M. Add. 483

How refreshing it is, in the morning hour
To wash oneself with water!
In brooks or ponds
Feathered creatures learn from nature,
That they should always strive for cleanliness
As soon as they see dawn appearing
Out of dusky night;
The duckling dives and comes up wet;
Every bird is gently splashed
With dewdrops from the trees.
Sleep, that makes each creature sluggish,
Is driven away by washing,
And all who are eager to undertake their tasks
Then do so with great pleasure.
If only I could see my soul’s impurity
Which I can never wash away;
Ah! That I might strive to flee from wickedness
And in the pools of Jesus’ all-forgiving blood
(O great and invaluable good!)
Be cleansed of my guilt!

So were these little moralising emblem books actually read by children? Well books with engravings weren’t usually particularly cheap, a point the author of this one acknowledged in the preface to the unillustrated second part of the work where he comments:

“It is true, one could have added an image to every emblem, but if one does not want to lose sight of the benefit for the general public, we are obliged to ensure that our fellow human beings who are less well-off will not be deterred from purchasing edifying works of this kind because of the high cost…”4.

But the compositor appears to have gone out of their way to make the book as attractive to children as possible for, in addition to the plates, various unusual and attractive type and woodcut ornaments, headpieces and tailpieces have been incorporated to break up the text and keep things interesting. No early provenance inscription can be found in our copy that might prove early ownership by a Dutch child but it certainly does bear marks of use, including blue crayon marks on a few of the plates and pages which might just betray some reader engagement from a youngster. Not one evidently as dutiful and virtuous as Our Hero admittedly…

To follow the rest of our little friend’s perfect day see below:

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References and thanks

1The National Library of the Netherlands has a fully digitised copy of the work
2 A massive thanks to Dr Sjoerd Levelt (@SLevelt) for translating the engraving titles and captions into English after a desperate appeal for help on Twitter!
3Els Stronks Negotiating Differences: Word, image and Religion in the Dutch Republic (Leiden, Brill, 2011) pp 291-5
4Els Stronks’s translation – see Negotiating Differences, p. 294

Categories: Special Collections

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1 reply


  1. Learning to read with Mrs Barbauld – University of Glasgow Library

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