“A B, … C D, … E F G, …”
We all know the children’s song that helped us learn the alphabet.
As we move into back-to-school mode, the history of learning the English alphabet takes us from our modern smartphone apps such as “Endless Alphabet” or “Dr. Seuss’ Alphabet,” back through McGuffey’s Readers (started in 1836) to primers like the New England Primer (dating back to 1690).
The New England Primer, with real printed pages, grew out of something called the hornbook — not exactly printed pages. These were used to teach children their alphabets from the 1500s to the 18th century. Hornbooks were first developed by monks in England — who were already experienced at creating manuscripts covered with perfected lettering.
The hornbook consisted of one sheet of paper affixed to a wooden paddle, The paddle was covered with a piece of translucent animal horn — to keep it clean and damage-free when held in students’ sometimes dirty hands. The translucent horn was made by soaking an animal horn — usually from cows, sheep or oxen — in water until the horn’s clear substance separated from the bone. Then this filmy material was boiled to make it pliable and, finally, pasted on the board.
The hornbook contained several lessons. These included the alphabet, the first 10 numerals, the Lord’s Prayer and a reference to the Trinity.
(Sometimes, the Trinity reference was very brief — three dots, signifying a pause or stop. Children would read the dots aloud as “tittle, tittle, tittle” signifying three things making one whole — just as the Trinity is “Three in One.”)
Another unfailing hallmark of a hornbook was that the alphabet printed on it was preceded by a cross. Because of this cross, the hornbook’s alphabet became known as the “criss-cross row.”
“Criss-cross” is not a made-up word that sounds cute — like “ding-dong” for a bell’s sound. It is actually is a condensation of the words: “Christ’s cross.” The students started each lesson by pointing to the cross on their hornbooks and saying “Christ’s cross be my speed.”
(“Speed” came from an Old English word meaning “success” or “good fortune.” It’s the same word that gave us “God’s speed” for “good fortune.”)
After these words, the children would proceed through the alphabet, reciting what was neatly printed on the hornbook. Some hornbooks actually had the letters carved into the hornbook’s wood base, and the pliable horn was etched into these carved letters. (Some hornbooks were made of ivory or metal. Sources even say gingerbread was sometimes used to make hornbooks to be used as special treats). Children could use a quill to trace the letters as they learned to write.
Hornbooks usually had handles with holes bored in them, so that a strong string or cord could attach the hornbook to a student’s belt or be hung around their neck.
While the first hornbooks were created by monks who were part of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation influenced later alphabet tools. These included the New England Primer, which followed the Puritan approach on church teachings. The primer was created by Benjamin Harris — a British journalist (and anti-Catholic) who had created a similar primer in 1680 in England. In 1690, Harris produced the first “New England Primer Boston.” Since the new primer had multiple pages, the lessons became longer. For example, each letter of the alphabet had a little rhyme associated with it to teach a moral lesson: So, for the letter “A,” there was: “In Adam’s Fall/ We sinned all.”
Various editions of the primers contained more prayers. For example, in the 1737 version, we see the introduction of the now famous bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep. …”
The primer came to be known as “the little Bible of New England,” but was popular throughout colonial America and millions of copies were printed — though relatively few survive. There was even a version translated into the native Mohawk language.
Following the New England Primer were the McGuffey Readers, which had six grade levels and first appeared in 1836. Their editor was William Holmes McGuffey, who had started his career as an itinerant school teacher.
According to the National Park Service, at least 120 million copies of his readers were sold between 1836 and the 1960s. Even though they were eclipsed by the “Dick and Jane” books of the 1960s, the readers remain popular today with many homeschool parents.
Sources: Bill Federer at “The American Minute,” Salem Radio Network; americanantiquarian.org; wordhistories.com; hbook.com; www3.nd.edu; Colonialworks.pbworks.com; www.nps.gov; and “The Encyclopedia Britannica”