If you would like to read more from the Society on this subject see http://www.ephemerasociety.org/news/news-rewardsofmerit.html . Their web site is actually a fabulous reference tool and is terrificly interesting, so I encourage you to explore it.
I find these cards remarkable from a number of perspectives. When I first saw them, I immediately thought of calling cards, which were carried by people who left them in special dishes put out for the purpose in the parlors of friends and neighbors whom they visited. Both calling cards and certificates of merit are very small (and sometimes very ornate) items and evolved as a result of modern techniques for printing. Cards served as a token of friendship, appreciation, and community. When they no longer had to be created by hand, individuals could more readily incorporate them into everyday routines, even creating practices built around the ability to print. The cards are beautiful and I've read more than one description of them that labeled them "charming."
Some of my found merit cards have the name "Libbie Hinkley" handwritten on them by the teacher. The backs of the cards contain remnants from the album or scrapbook from which they were pulled. I find myself longing for the intact book to learn more about Miss Libbie. Did the book contain images of her? Was there any more information about her school work? I am glad to keep her small collection of merit cards, but am saddened that it is such a small collection with no context. While I understand that antique dealers can make more money on individual items than on a whole collection, I am trying to think of a way to encourage the profession to keep intact collections together for historical reasons.
The American Antiquarian Society retains a large collection of Rewards of Merit. More locally to me, Historic New England also has a nice collection. If your organization has Rewards of Merit that you would like to share with readers, please add it to the comment section below.
From an educational perspective, I can't imagine most children in modern society getting excited about receiving this (except maybe my daughter and those of her ilk who have an inbred collecting gene and a love for paper.) Today, my daughter comes home with items from the "prize box," which include things such as little plastic frogs and erasers made in China. In the nineteenth century, students appreciated the new printing process that allowed for the creation of these educational incentives. It makes me wonder if teachers can try out new technologies and personalized documentation today to give praise instead of handing out meaningless cheap toys.