Early American Primers
Primers, originally the name for a prayer book, were simple books for teaching children their letters, prayers, and other subjects. Primers were given to children at least as early as the Middle Ages; Chaucer in "The Prioress's Tale" refers to a child who "sat in the scole at his prymer." Primers usually began with a simple alphabet followed by an illustrated alphabet with a verse for each letter. Biblically-themed sentences with increasing complexity came next and the primer often ended with a catechism. Early American primers reflected the Puritan values of New England. Only in the nineteenth century did publishers combine instruction with humor as a way to keep a child's attention.
A Little Pretty Pocket-book: Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly… Being a New Attempt to Teach Children the Use of the English Alphabet, by way of Diversion. Printed at Worcester, Massachusetts: Isaiah Thomas, and sold, wholesale and retail, at his bookstore, 1787.
Originally published in England in 1744 by John Newbery, Little Pretty Pocket-book was the first children's book to combine amusement with instruction. Among the activities described is the first written description of "base-ball." A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was sold with a ball (for boys) and a pincushion (for girls). Contained in the book was a letter from Jack the Giant-Killer describing the proper use of these toys.
Child's First Friend. Boston: Marsh & Capen, ca. 1800.
Each letter is accompanied by a moral lesson. Because these primers were inexpensive and meant to be used by children, most have been lost.
The New-England Primer, Improved; or, an Easy and Pleasant Guide to the Art of Reading. Adorned with cuts. To which is added, the Catechism. Boston: Printed for Hall & Hiller, 1810.
Although the author of the is unknown, it is clearly a reflection of the Puritan Church which exercised authority over everyday life in early New England. First published in England between 1687 and 1690, it quickly became the most important textbook in the American colonies and went through hundreds of editions over two hundred years. While the words used were simple, the lessons taught were serious, emphasizing respect to parental figures, sin and salvation.
The Child's First Book: or New Philadelphia Primer. Wilmington, Del.: Printed and sold by Robert Porter, 1824.
Published by Robert Porter, an early Wilmington printer, this is crudely printed and bound on low-quality paper.
The Nursery Book for a Child that Loves to Learn. Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, ca.1832.
The American Sunday School Union was founded in Philadelphia in 1824 to promote early literacy and the spiritual development of children. It was a significant publisher and, through its Sunday schools, a significant provider of books and periodicals for children. The Union played a large role in shaping the direction of nineteenth century children's literature in America.
The Pictorial Primer. New-York: C.P. Huestis, ca. 1845.
Each letter is accompanied by a common object. Other images in the books show children studying and at play.
Little Harry's Ladder to Learning. New York: Leavitt & Co., ca. 1850.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, primers had lost their moralistic tone and were using common words and situations.
Nineteenth Century Children's Alphabet Books
By the middle of the nineteenth century, technological advances had made it possible for publishers to produce large numbers of colorful, inexpensive books for children. Urban middle-class parents were able to afford books and were eager to educate their families. These alphabet books combined learning with entertainment.
Alphabet comique. Artiste endiable. Philadelphia: S.D. Sollers & Co., ca.1880.
S.D. Sollers & Company was a Philadelphia firm that sold children's shoes. The alphabet cards would be given away with purchases.
The Absurd A B C. Springfield, Mass.: H.R. Huntting Co., Inc., ca. 1880.
The Baby's Own Alphabet. Springfield, Mass.: H.R. Huntting Co., Inc., ca. 1880.
Walter Crane was the rare children's book designer who brought the qualities of fine press printing to mass-market publishing. He conceptualized the book as a designed whole in which the text, ornaments and pictures contributed to the concept. He incorporated the major design influences of the day -- the Pre-Raphaelites and Japanese prints -- into each book.
ABC of Animals. New York: F.A. Stokes, c1911.
Clara Williams wrote dozens of books for a preschool audience.
Old Aunt Elspa's A B C: We'll Soon Learn to Read, Then How Clever We'll Be. Imagined & adorned by Joseph Crawhall. London Field & Tuer, Ye Leadenhalle Presse, 1884.
Though published in 1884, the style resembles children's books of a century earlier.
Apple Pie A B C. New York: McLoughlin Bros., c1888.
The publishing company McLoughlin Bros. produced hundreds of colorful children's books that were inexpensive and widely available.
The Comic Military Alphabet: Army, Navy, National Guard. New York: F.A. Stokes, c1894.
De Witt Falls was a painter of portraits and military subjects. In a contemporary review, the New York Times critic wrote that the book "is the style of art that appeals to the mischievous small boy, and perhaps to his older relatives."
An Alphabet of Animals. London: Blackie and Son, Ltd., 1899.
Two drawings for An Alphabet of Animals, 1898-99.
Mark Samuels Lasner Collection
Moore Park was born in New Brunswick, Canada and attended the Glasgow School of Art. His first book commission, An Alphabet, was well received by both critics and the public. His drawings of animals were praised for their economy of rhythmic line and bold, asymmetrical composition.
Shown with the book are two preliminary sketches for the work.
Little People: an Alphabet; pictures by Henry Mayer; verses by T.W.H. Crosland. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, c1902.
Little People was one of the Dumpy Books for Children, a series of small-format books published by British publisher Grant Richards between 1897 and 1904.
Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain & Perfect Pronunciation. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mergenthaler Linotype Company, c1936.
Originally published in England in 1811 and in America in 1830, Peter Piper was a popular textbook during the nineteenth century. This 1936 version was produced by a typography firm to highlight its creative printing. The company invited the most celebrated designers and typographers of the day to compose one page each in the alphabet book.
Children's Pop-up Alphabets
Pop-up books for children have grown more intricate and interactive since they were first developed in the nineteenth century. Designers of these books are referred to as "paper engineers" because of the complexity of their works.
ABC Disney. New York: Disney Press, 1998.
Robert Sabuda is a prize-winning children’s book artist and paper engineer. He has produced nearly fifty books, ranging from simple alphabet books to recreations of the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Nathaniel H. Puffer Collection
Christmas Alphabet. New York: Scholastic, 2001.
Nathaniel H. Puffer Collection
ABC. London: Granddreams Limited, 1985.
This "see and say" book is a contemporary example of a primer or early reading book.
Nathaniel H. Puffer Collection
Of the thousands of ABC books for children published in the past 30 years, these stand out because of their continuing popularity among children and adults.
The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents the Z was Zapped: a Play in Twenty-Six Acts; Performed by the Caslon Players; Written and Directed by Chris Van Allsburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Chris Van Allsburg's illustrated books have won critical praise and wide audiences. Two of his best-known works, Jumanji (1982) and The Polar Express (1986) have been made into movies. The Z was Zapped tells the story "in 26 acts," each showing how a letter in the alphabet was attacked or killed.
Alligators All Around: an Alphabet. New York: HarperCollins, c1990.
Alligators All Around, is part of Maurice Sendak's "Nutshell Library" which was made into the musical and animated television special, Really Rosie.
Dr. Seuss's ABC. New York: Random House, c1991.
Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote more than sixty children's books as well as political cartoons, illustrations for advertising and animations. His beloved books have been made into movies, television shows and a Broadway musical.
A is for Annabelle: a Doll's Alphabet. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2001.
Tasha Tudor was an award-winning illustrator of children's books. Her work has a feminine, old-fashioned quality which has appealed to generations of little girls.
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