Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York
Book of Arithmetic Problems of Johannes Whisler
Schoolbooks are shared spaces between a teacher and student; were the drawings on the pages of this ciphering book intended to be seen, or were they the private musings of a restless mind? Johannes Whisler’s fantastical doodles evoke Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “All Boys . . . begin to make Figures of Animals, Ships, Machines, &c. as soon as they can use a Pen.” The left-hand page displays mathematical problems using examples from history and commercial exchanges. Unlike the personal notations that follow in German, they are written in English, attesting to the importance of mercantile and legal interactions between Pennsylvania Germans and their English neighbors. Perhaps not coincidentally, the facing page shows a drawing of two mounted figures leveling pistols directly at these word problems.
Whisler was around nineteen years of age when he began these computations, according to the earliest date that appears in the pages. His entries progress from business-related math problems to personal narratives. His courtship and marriage to Esther Shearer on December 5, 1815, is entered in a simple substitution code that, when deciphered, records the day and hour they met. Other pages reveal cures, reports to public school directors, and drawings of hearts and animals, as well as a portrait of a young clerk—perhaps Whisler himself?
Stacy C. Hollander, “Book of Arithmetic Problems of Johannes Whisler,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.