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A primer, originally the name for a prayer-book, was used to describe simple books for teaching children their letters, prayers, and, later, other simple 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 the alphabet, followed by an illustrated alphabet with a verse for each letter. Biblical sentences with increasing complexity came next and the primer often ended with a catechism. During the seventeenth century in England, various primers were published reflecting the beliefs of different religious and political groups. By the end of the eighteenth century, primers became less religious and the verses more humorous.

Reproduction of a Horn Book. Boston: Printed by Otto H. Miller for The Horn Book, 1939.

The hornbook was the earliest form of children's primer, common in both England and America from the late 16th to the late 18th century. A sheet containing the letters of the alphabet, simple words, and a Bible verse was mounted on a wooden frame and protected with thin, transparent plates of horn. The frame was shaped like a paddle, had a handle, and was usually hung at the child's belt.

The Uncles Present, a new Battledoor. Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson, circa 1810.

Considered a cheaper ABC learning tool than the hornbook, a battledoor consisted of a folded sheet of stiff paper. This example is unusual for having an extra folded sheet attached. The copper-engraved alphabet series depicts London street vendors and tradesmen who called our phrases or jingles to draw the attention of potential customers. Called "street cries," they were a common subject for illustrated children's books in the late eighteenth century. This American publication is modeled after an earlier series of cries by Thomas Bewick, the great English wood-engraver. The name "battledoor" came into use because children often used the stiff paper covers as a game paddle for hitting a shuttlecock into the air, in a game similar to badminton.

The New-England Primer Improved: for the more easy attaining the true reading of English: to which is added, The Assembly of Divines, and Mr. Cotton's Catechism. Boston, Printed by Edward Draper, sold by John Boyle, 1777.

The New-England Primer was probably first published about 1686. For over a hundred years, the Primer was, next to the Bible, the book most frequestly given to children. The author was thought to be Benjamin Harris, a London printer who came to Boston around 1686. It is very similar to other works by Harris including The Protestant Tutor of 1679 and the Holy Bible in Verse published in 1724.

Little Harry's Ladder to Learning. New York : Leavitt & Co., circa 1800.

Although meant for young students, some of the phrases such as "Xanthornus a kind of black bird" would challenge the brightest scholar.

My Little Primer. Worcester: S.A. Howland, 1800.

The verses in this small book include "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "The Lord's Prayer."

The Child's First Book: or New Philadelphia Primer. Wilmington: Printed and sold by Robert Porter, 1824.

Published by Robert Porter, an early Wilmington, Delaware printer, this is crudely printed and bound on low-quality paper.

Lyman Cobb, 1800-1864.
Cobb's Juvenile Reader, No. 1: Containing interesting, moral, and instructive reading lessons, composed of words of one and two syllables: designed for the use of small children in families and schools. Philadelphia: James Kay Jr. & Brothers, 1835.

In the preface, the author describes his educational philosophy, including the following: "The practice of giving children dialogues between wolves and sheep, cats and mice, etc, ...containing statements and details of things which never did, and which never can take place, is as destructive of truth and morality, as it is contrary to the principles of nature and philosophy."

Alphabet of Different Nations. For Teaching Children to Read. Hartford: E.B. & E.C. Kellogg & Co., 1844.

The costumes aren't authentic and the vocabulary isn't very useful, but the illustrations are large and clear.

The Pictorial Primer. New-York: C.P. Huestis, 1845.

The large, well-executed illustrations give us a view of the clothing and activities of early nineteenth century children.

Mrs. Lovechild, 1743-1813.
Infantine Knowledge: a spelling and reading book, on a popular plan. New York : Charles S. Francis ..., circa 1850.

Infantine Knowledge is organized much like a modern first reader, progressing from simple sentences with three letter words to longer passages with words of two syllables. Even the simplest sentences are used to convey a moral message.

William Holmes McGuffey, 1800-1873.
McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Second Reader: containing progressive lessons in reading and spelling: revised and improved. York: Clark, Austin, and Smith; Cincinnati: W.B. Smith, 1853.

The McGuffey Eclectic Readers were the most widely distributed American schoolbooks for at least seventy five years from their first appearance in 1836 until the First World War. The Readers consisted of short passages of prose or verse often selected from the works of celebrated authors. While the Readers have been criticised for their moralizing and unattractive presentation, they were important for introducing American children to a wide range of high-quality literature.

Walter Crane, 1845-1915.
The Baby's Own Alphabet. Springfield, Mass.: H.R. Huntting Co., Inc., circa 1880.

Influenced by the Pre-Raphelite artists and William Morris, Crane incorporated text and illustrations into a visual whole. This double-page spread balances design and color and uses the text almost as an additional decoration.

Vernon Quinn.
The Kewpie Primer. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1916.

Rose O'Neill's images of cherubic children called Kewpies were very popular from their first appearance in Ladies' Home Journal in 1909. Kewpie dolls, marketed from 1912 until at least the 1940s, were popular with children then and with collectors today.

The New Fun with Dick and Jane. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1956.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Dick and Jane books were synonymous with learning to read. The illustrations were updated slightly over the years, but always portrayed an idyllic suburban world.

Introduction Early Works Fables and Fairy Tales Books of Instruction Poetry Popup and Movable Books Stories before 1850 Stories after 1850


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