State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 77 Autumn 2006


Horn-Books. Facsimile, from Andrew Tuer, History of the Horn-Book, Vol I, 1896. *J 099 T81. Children's Literature Collection

Juliet O'Conor
The ABC of Horn-Books

The History of publishing for a child readership spans 400 years, and though the nature of childhood during that time is a contested subject it is certain that it was very different from what it is now. Historians struggle in attempting to describe the experience of childhoods of the past because children themselves leave few records. Books designed specifically for children, however, can contribute significantly to our perceptions of past childhoods. The State Library of Victoria's Children's Literature Collection is a source of information about children's reading from the sixteenth century to the present day, publishing and printing developments over that period, content and literary style changes, and social and educational expectations of child readers.
The path to literacy in western society begins with the alphabet, and the earliest form of alphabet book used in English-speaking countries is the horn-book. Facsimiles of horn-books1 and their successor, the battledore, are examined here within the context of a selection of contemporaneous English language alphabet books from the Library's rare Children's Literature Collection. In combination, these items provide a perspective on childhood learning, social history, and the aspirations for an early education in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and America.
Though the strength of the Children's Literature Collection lies in the comprehensive holdings of Australian children's books, the social history of the education of the very young child brought to, or born in, Australia during the nineteenth century has not been extensively researched. To establish whether teaching materials similar to those described in this paper were used later in the colonies would require considerable research into such sources as correspondence, book auction records, newspaper advertisements and diaries. Given the widespread use of horn-books in Britain throughout the nineteenth century, though, it seems likely that new colonists brought this means for home schooling with them from the mother country.

Horn-Books and Battledores

Not recognisably a book in today's sense, the horn-book has been referred to in literature from the fifteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. The nineteenth-century printer and publisher, Andrew Tuer, states that ‘the earliest record I can find of a real horn-book faced with horn and not a mere alphabetical tablet… is about 1450’2. Literary references are more common in the seventeenth century. Shakespeare mentions its use in Love's Labours Lost where Moth, speaking about Holofernes, says ‘Yes, yes he teaches boys the Horne-Booke’3. Perhaps the most often quoted source is John Bunyan's A Book for Boys and Girls, or Country
Rhimes for Children
,4 first published in 1686, where the introductory verse reads
To those who are in years but Babes I bow
My Pen to teach them what the Letters be,
And how they may improve their A. B. C.
Nor let my pretty Children them despise.
All needs must there begin, that would be wise,
Nor let them fall under Discouragement,
Who at their hornbook stick, and time hath spent,
Upon that A. B. C., while others do
Into their Primer or their Psalter go.
There are anecdotal references to the use of horn-books made of gingerbread, which meant that a reward for children mastering their letters was readily at hand.
The horn-books looked nothing like today's imaginative, 32-page, full-colour picture books. Smaller than a table tennis bat, horn-books were most often made of wood, rectangular in shape, and had a small handle protruding from one of the shorter sides. They were designed to be held in the hand of a young child, sometimes with a hole in the handle enabling attachment to a belt, and it has been assumed that children learnt their alphabet, and the Lord's Prayer, while at play. In its simplest form, the letters of the alphabet in upper and lower case were incised directly into the wood. It became known as a horn-book because a thin veneer of animal horn covered the letters of the alphabet. Its use had broad application because of the association with the Scriptures. The Revd John Henry Blunt5 notes in 1872 that, in its basic form, the horn-book enabled even the poorest child to be acquainted with their prayers. At the other end of the social scale were horn-books made from ivory or silver, and these would have become family heirlooms handed down through generations.
The authoritative history of the horn-book (on which this article draws) remains Andrew W. Tuer's two-volume work, History of the Horn-Book, published in 1896, containing facsimiles of horn-books and battledores. These volumes in themselves are a work of art; bound in vellum, both open up to a sunken, almost secret compartment, disguised as the pages of a book. Dedicated to the Queen-Empress, this special edition carries the outline of a horn-book embossed and inset with gold on the cover. Volumes 1 and 2 contain five horn-books and two battledores in facsimile. Such was the profile of Tuer's research in the latter part of the nineteenth century, that horn-book owners contacted him; and in the case of the seven facsimiles, gave permission for Tuer to reproduce them for publication. Two of these horn-books and one battledore are described here.
The horn-book described in Tuer as belonging to the late period, made some time between the first quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth century, is oaken and 10.2× 5.3 cm in size. Printed in Black Letter type, the cross appears in the top left hand corner, followed by the capital A, then the entire alphabet in lower case
letters, repeated in upper case. A vertical line divides the vowels; on the left the vowels are combined with the consonants b, c and d following the vowels, and on the right hand side the same consonants are placed before the vowels. The syllabarium, as it was known, was designed to instruct the child in pronunciation, as follows:
ab eb ib ob ub ba be bi bo bu
Directly beneath this divided section appears the blessing
‘In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen
followed by three sentences of the Lord's Prayer. Five of the eight tacks, bevelled on the crown into four faces, survive on this item. The four brass lattens, used to hold the lesson sheet and horn in place, are intact as is the horn covering. The paper bears a large brown mark on the top right hand corner. Tuer describes the original as ‘a carelessly-made, crooked-backed, uncovered horn-book, picked up by the writer at Oxford for five shillings’6. Horn-books of Tuer's late period typically had a typographically ornamental border which was always covered by the brass latten. He suggests that it is open to conjecture whether this served any purpose other than as a guide to the maker for affixing the brass latten.
Tuer notes that many writers suggest the syllabarium may have been first added to the horn-book in 1596. Accurate dating of horn-books is fraught. The earliest horn-book in England was probably hand inscribed, and it is likely this form persisted even after printing became common. It is also likely that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printers continued to use the earlier Black Letter type faces long after Roman came into common usage. Thus all three formats would have coexisted. Publication dates were never supplied and dating by ornamentation, such as the example of the leather backed horn-book embossed with the image of Charles II, could imply production any time during or after Charles' reign. In combination these factors make precise dating difficult.
The item called The British Battledore (dimensions 14.3× 8.2 cm) is, in fact, a horn-book printed on thick cardboard and contains exactly the same text described above, though enlarged and bordered on all four sides by illustrations for each of the capital letters of the alphabet. It is interesting to note that though many of the letters are illustrated with common animals and plants, reflecting a simple word-to-world correspondence, others acknowledge authority in a way that would be curious to readers today. The following letters reveal the social and religious priorities of the eighteenth century.
A is represented by an image of an Angel
J Judge
K King
M Mitre (religious headwear)
Q Queen
T Turk
X Xerxes
Z Zeal (depicted as a kneeling figure with an open prayer book)

The British Battledore. Facsimile, from Andrew Tuer, History of the Horn-Book, Vol 1, 1896. *J 099 T81. Children's Literature Collection

The paper equivalent to the horn-book is the battledore and is quite distinctly different in format to the British Battledore described above. Paper was expensive when first manufactured in England in 1494 but became a more financially viable printing option by the eighteenth century. Though the battledore served the same function as the earlier horn-book – that is, to teach children the alphabet and their prayers – it was printed on thick grade paper which was then folded into three parts. Folded, the battledore more closely resembled a book; while unfolded the battledore bears the standard shape and contents of the horn-book. Battledores were thought to have been invented by Benjamin Collins in 1746. The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, 1566–1910 records that Benjamin Collins' account book of 1746 notes ‘the Royal Battledore was my own invention’7. Collins printed and presumably sold 100,000 copies between 1771 and 1780. The folds created an item with roughly two equal leaves plus an extra, smaller piece thought to have served as a handle for use in the game of battledore and shuttlecock when children were not attending to their lessons. The earliest battledore in facsimile from Tuer is covered in gilt-embossed Dutch paper. The inner lesson side was varnished as a modification to prevent damage or

The Royal Battledore. Facsimile, from Andrew Tuer, History of the Horn-Book, Vol 1, 1896. *J 099 T81. Children's Literature Collection.

soiling to the lesson, just as the horn had protected the lesson sheet on the horn-book.
Tuer's Royal Battledore (dimensions 14.1× 12 cm) illustrated the lower case letters of the alphabet with a for Apple; j k q and× are still for Judge, King, Queen and Xerxes respectively; m is for Mouse while z is for Zani (illustrated with a jester). On the top and bottom borders of the battledore is the following rhyme, possibly given in jest, yet clearly invoking ridicule as a motivational learning tool:
He that ne'er learns his ABC,
For ever will a Blockhead be.
But he that learns these Letters fair,
Shall have a Coach to take the Air.
In 1959, Beulah Folmsbee, while working for the Horn Book Magazine, addressed some commonly posed questions about the origin of the magazine's name and the nature of horn-books in her publication A Little History of the Horn-Book8. Such is the perennial interest in these items that Folmsbee must have been called upon to reconstruct her own facsimiles,
just as Tuer had before her. The detail of her research clearly comes from first hand experience and is instructive to attend to here. True horn consists chemically of albumen (keratin) and phosphate of lime, so is readily softened in boiling water or by heat. It was usual to prepare the horns of oxen and sheep by steeping them for several weeks in cold water, which separated the cored bony part from the cover of true horn. The latter was then heated, first in boiling water, and then directly over a fire. In this condition it could be cut or moulded with ease. The earliest hand-written lesson sheets were on parchment or vellum, a fine grained lambskin or kidskin. The latten held the lesson sheet and horn in place and was composed of brass or brass-alloy, hammered into thin sheets and easily cut with scissors. The tacks were hand forged and known as rose-head or Flemish tacks. They were hammered into four facets which converged to make a boss at the top.

Historical Setting

A general observation can be made that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century children's books were more likely than those in later centuries to be dedicated to the education and betterment of the child reader. Though education in Britain during Elizabethan times was based on the theory that schools should be available to all for the good of the state, it wasn't until 1699 that charity schools were established explicitly for the poor. John Locke influenced attitudes to childhood with his publication Some Thoughts Concerning Education9, first published in 1693. He encouraged a sympathetic attitude to children, suggesting tutors help their pupils to enjoy their studies, especially younger children incapable of the same application to serious study as older children. Later Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatise Emile, or, On Education10, first published in 1762, stressed the glory of finding God, as well as reason, in nature. He identified a series of stages during childhood; an ‘Age of Instinct’ during the first three years of life; an ‘Age of Sensations’ between four and twelve; and an ‘Age of Ideas’ around puberty. It is probable that evangelical and moderate approaches to education overlapped just as various conceptions of childhood would have been held across the population during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
It is interesting to conjecture at what age a child of the seventeenth century would have learnt the alphabet. An indicator can be gleaned from the dialogue between two schoolmasters in John Brinsley's Ludus Literarius: or, The Grammar Schoole (1627)11. The schoolmasters, Spondeus and Philoponus, greet each other respectfully, discuss the challenges of teaching and then debate the best starting age for a student to begin grammar lessons at school. Spondeus suggests seven or eight because ‘sixe is very soone’12. Philoponus suggests five or sooner, reasoning the child will learn more easily, is more pliant, has not learnt ‘shrewdnesse’ which must be unlearnt, would be removed from the company of rude children, and could go to university earlier which would be their parents' desire. Reading further, it is clear that both schoolmasters assume that before children were admitted to Grammar School, they would be ‘able to reade English: as namely, that they could reade the
New Testament perfectly…’13. This sets a context for the horn-book and other alphabet books; that during the seventeenth century, children younger than five were expected to have learnt their alphabet, the syllabarium, the Lord's Prayer, and could read the New Testament proficiently, prior to commencement of structured lessons.
Perhaps the best-known and most influential seventeenth-century book containing the alphabet was the New England Primer14, first published in 1690, though the copy described here is a reprint of the 1777 edition. Designed to enable children to learn the alphabet, read the Bible and expound Puritan beliefs, the New England Primer employed a strong didactic tone. The rhyming alphabet changed depending on the edition. The standard beginning had been ‘In Adam's fall, we sinned all’, but the original rhymes ‘The dog will bite, a thief at night’ gave way in a few years to scriptural comments. This 1777 edition shows ‘The deluge drowned the earth around’ replaced the watchful dog. The original U for ‘Uriah's beauteous wife made David seek his life’ may have given rise to troubling questions for parents. This was resolved in the later edition, by omitting the textual explanation for U altogether and going straight to V, highlighting the censoring of biblical stories associated with mortal sin.
Education of children was a priority for the Puritans who, discontented with the Church of England, immigrated to the New England area of the American colonies to escape persecution from church leadership and the king. The New England Primer was a textbook used by students in New England and in other English settlements in North America in the late seventeenth century. It was used by students into the nineteenth century and in electronic format can today be found recommended for home schooling. The Puritans believed that an inability to read was Satan's attempt to keep people from the Scriptures. The New England Primer introduced each letter in a religious phrase and then illustrated the phrase with a woodcut. The primer also contained a catechism of religious questions and answers. Emphasis was placed on fear of sin, God's punishment and the fact that all people would have to face death.
Use of the New England Primer in the American colonies was widespread and crossed class boundaries. Children destined for the apprenticeship system were expected to have completed their education enabling them to read, by the age of six. In the new American colonies, there was a wealth of raw materials dependent on trade skills. Puritan religious beliefs, in combination with the need for trained apprentices, placed a priority on educating children. The first step towards compulsory education in America was made by the Massachusetts Act of 1642, which required that parents ensure their children knew the principles of religion and the laws of the commonwealth. Thus parents and masters of apprentices were responsible for a child's basic education. Where schools didn't exist, parents assumed this responsibility. By 1647 the Old Deluder Satan Act required that towns of fifty families hire a schoolmaster who taught children to read and write; while towns of a hundred families must have a grammar-school master who could prepare children to attend

Scriptural comments were introduced to the rhyming alphabet in later editions. The New England Primer: Improved for the More Easy Attaining the True Reading of English…, 1777, unnumbered pages. *J 428.6 N42. Children's Literature Collection.

Harvard College. Children between the ages of six and eight attended Dame School where the teacher, usually a widow, taught reading and writing. ‘Ciphering’ or maths was low on the academic agenda. The Library's copy is an Ira Webster reprint of the 1777 edition bearing advertising and certificates attesting to its authenticity. The certificates reflect the influence of this diminutive publication. Small in size (less than 8 cm by 11 cm) to fit the hands of young children just as the horn-book was designed to be, the lasting spiritual guidance persisted for what can only be assumed was a wide audience.
Lady Eleanor Fenn dedicated her two-volume work, Cobwebs to Catch Flies, to mothers in general and her sister in particular, ‘with the thought of your infant son imbibing his first ideas from the same books which afforded so much pleasure to his cousin’15. Published anonymously in 1783, these volumes are of interest for their employment of techniques couched in compassion, and an empowering role for mothers. Rather than advertise the need for her two volumes, Fenn uses the Advertisement to outline her opinion on the responsibilities of motherhood: ‘The mother who herself watches the dawn of reason in her babe, who teaches him the first rudiments of knowledge, who infuses the first ideas in his mind, will approve my Cobwebs16. Thus her book is for ‘fond mothers’ who can

Title Page. The Christmas Box; or, The Golden Plaything for Little Children, n.d. *J 398.5 B49. Children's Literature Collection.

recognise its value regardless of advertisement. Her ‘Address to All Good Children’ envisages a family situation in which the eldest child reads aloud to the younger siblings then passes volume one into their hands, ‘Mamma surveys the smiling audience with complacency, rejoicing in their mutual affection’17. Fenn continues that her motivation in creating this volume for her own son was the plethora of educational books for children that she was unable to approve. She concludes ‘that little smiling rogue of three years old, longs to take his turn; he is impatient to read in the new book’18. Volume 1 is specifically designed for three-to-five year old children and includes lessons of increasing word length from three to six letters. The first story, ‘The Cat in Words of Three Letters’, is a dialogue between a boy and his mother. Dialogue becomes longer corresponding to lessons of increasing word length, clearly indicating that home schooling extended beyond the alphabet.
The title page to the miniature text, The Christmas Box; or, the Golden Plaything for Little Children, indicates readership, ‘By which they may learn the Letters soon as they can speak, and know how to behave so as to make every body love them’19. The missing cover from this copy results in uncertainty about its relationship to an earlier edition attributed to Nurse Truelove [1789]. Gender indicators are apparent in the engraving of a boy on a horse riding through the countryside, accompanied by the verse
Come hither pretty little boy,
Come learn of me you're A, B, C;
And you shall have my dapper Nag,
To gallop round the Country
The next page contains the roman alphabet of ‘Great and Small Letters’ followed by the vowels and the Italic alphabet. Each subsequent page contains two letters within the borders of the engraving and a short sentence using the relevant letter. Thus the first illustrated page of text in rhyming couplets, contains
A with an Apple for Philly,
And B with Bear for Billy.
C with a Moo-Cow for You,
And D with a Dog for Miss Prue.
A bird or animal for each letter of the alphabet follows until Q for Queen and
T with a Trumpet for Tommy,
And V with a Vulture for Sammy.
W with a Wolf for Hally,
And X with King Xerxes for Sally.
Y with a Young Man for Sue,
And Z with a zany for You.
The last illustrated with an engraving of a jester.
Three pages of Maxims for Youth in rhyming verse describe the daily ritual expected of the young student: ‘To rise from bed, pray, receive the parents blessing, wash and clothe yourself, be respectful to your master and apply yourself at school; Every Sunday go to Church and humbly pray to the Almighty’. A series of stories about Master Friendly follow, illustrated with engravings, how as a child he learnt his lessons and the Bible joyfully, all respected and loved him and he grew up to be a ‘Parliament-Man’. He is ‘good-natured, so virtuous, and so charitable’20. The story concludes that Master Friendly's own son determined to emulate his father's behaviour.


Early alphabet books seem straightforward in their direct letter-word-world correlation connecting alphabetic literacy and Christianity. British and American Puritans of the seventeenth century pursued the education and moral development of children with religious zeal. Children learnt their alphabet so they could read the Bible and aspire to a classical education. Inherent in alphabet books, which have a word-to-world correspondence, is an authoritative view of language. Letters and language are descriptive and referential. Hierarchies of religion and state are combined with the everyday. The letter
A can be for both an Angel or an Apple. Q can be a tricky letter to deal with as can Z, but Q is invariably for Queen while Z has variously corresponded to religious and moral Zeal or the less intense Zany jester. The letters of the alphabet therefore represent an existing reality and teach a moral code that society aspired to.
It would be inappropriate to make generalisations about past childhoods through an examination of such a small selection of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century tools for teaching the young child. Whether the horn-book was available to children of all classes of society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Blunt has suggested, that the nineteenth century poor could access the horn-book is doubtful. However, it is reasonable to suggest that during the earlier period children who were home schooled used the letter, word and pictures in horn-books and other alphabets as a pointer to the world outside the home. That world reflected societal aspirations of the time: a moral code of behaviour strongly influenced by religious belief. These texts indicate that the teaching of the alphabet was considered the parent's responsibility at quite an early age, in some cases as soon as they could talk, but more commonly by the age of three. The fact that publications of the time discussed variations in approach to education indicates the changing perceptions and influences of the role of teacher, mother and home. Today there are alphabet books that tell stories, present three-dimensional illusions, represent a quest, and involve humour in learning. By comparison today's children are undoubtedly fortunate, yet there remains something delightfully alluring in those diminutive wooden bats. There also remains the tantalising question of the use of the horn-book in Australia.


Andrew W. Tuer, A History of the Horn-Book, vols. 1 & 2, London, Leadenhall Press, 1896.


Tuer, p. 5.


William Shakespeare, Love's Labours Lost: a Comedy, London, Printed for J. Tonson, 1735, Act IV, Scene I.


John Bunyan, A Book for Boys and Girls: or, Country Rhimes for Children, London, Printed for N. P. [Nathaniel Ponder], 1686.


Revd John Henry Blunt, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer: Being an Historical, Ritual and Theological Commentary on the Devotional System of the Church of England, London, Rivingtons, 1872.


Tuer, vol. 2, p. 169.


Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, 1566–1910: a Catalogue, Toronto, Toronto Public Library, 1975, p. 109.


Beulah Folmsbee, A Little History of the Horn-Book, Boston, The Horn Book Inc., 1959.


John, Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, London, Printed for A. and J. Churchill, at the Black Swan in Paternoster-row, 1695.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emilius, or, A Treatise of Education, Edinburgh, Printed for Alex Donaldson, 1773.


John Brinsley, Ludus Literarius: or, The Grammar Schoole; Shewing how to Proceede from the First Entrance into Learning, to the Highest Perfection Required in the Grammar Schooles…, London, imprinted by Felix Kyngston for Richard Meighten, 1627.


Brinsley, p. 9.


Brinsley, p. 13.


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 E. Draper, 1777 [Hartford, Connecticut, I. Webster, 1843].


Mrs Lovechild, Cobwebs to Catch Flies, or, Dialogues in Short Sentences, Adapted to Children from the Age of Three to Eight Years…, 2 vols, London, John Marshall, [1809], [Published anonymously by Lady Eleanor Fenn, first ed. 1783], vol. 1, p. v.


Mrs Lovechild, vol. 1, p. vii.


Mrs Lovechild, vol. 1, p. viii.


Mrs Lovechild, vol. 1, p. ix.


The Christmas box; or, the Golden Plaything for Little Children, Brentford, P. Norbury, n.d. [early US ed. dated 1789].


The Christmas Box, p. 16.