Learning to Read: Early ABC Books

Submitted by Hunter McDaniel, Baldwin Library Assistant

The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature is the home to a plethora of both antique and contemporary alphabet books. The letters in the alphabet are the building blocks to every word in our language. Knowing these letters, their sounds, and functions is the key to entering the world of reading, writing and spelling. ABC books are usually intended for very young children, who are just beginning their journey to literacy. These type of books typically show the letters of the alphabet with corresponding words and pictures of things that begin with the given letter.

The oldest known alphabet books, or hornbooks, in the Western World are from 15th century in Europe Hornbooks. However, they are not like the books of today. These “books” were printed on a wooden paddle with a handle. These paddles get the name “hornbook” because they were covered with a thin piece of cow’s horn to preserve them.

An eighteenth-century hornbook, possibly American, with alphabet in lower and uppercases, followed by vowels, ligatures, and the Lord's prayer.
Wood hornbook with abacus from the 18th century. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

After the popularity of hornbooks had run its course, primers, early readers, and spellers began to make their way into early childhood education in the 19th century. These are more like the modern ABC books used by children today; featuring front and back covers with printed pages in between. They included pages with large letters and accompanying words and pictures-which remain the same. A key contemporary difference between these older books and newer ABC books is that now they generally only show 1-2 letters per page to be more digestible to young readers.

ABC book cover featuring an ape, bear, and cat holding the letters A, B, and C
Cover from an 1873 publication of Funny Zoological A B C, illustrated by M. Morris. The book features rhymes to help children associate letters and words with animals.

Today’s alphabet books are much more diverse than the books of the past. Because alphabet books are wildly popular and easily adaptable, many different writers and illustrators have added their own unique style to the genre. Alphabet books can be about anything from religion, to sports, to animals, to health, and more. Images in these books can feature colorful, bubbly cartoons or real life photos. ABC books can be created by little-known authors, or iconic household names like Disney and Dr. Seuss. The books can use rhyme, alliteration, poetry, humor, or basic facts to teach children how to associate letters with words and pictures.

Letters W, X, Y, and Z with an illustration containing words that start with some of those letters.
The W, X, Y, and Z page from an 1880 publication of Little Object Finders ABC. This book differs from most others in the collection because it is a search-and-find alphabet book.

The common theme among these books is that they help young children become more familiar with the letters that make up everyday words and phrases. Alphabet books present information in a way that captivates and entertains children as they’re learning early literacy skills. In total, the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature has over 1,500 strictly alphabet books. Many published before 1924 have been digitized and can be found in UFDC.

Illustration of girl slouching at desk with "Q is a question" text
This ABC book was published c. 1935 by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The book uses the alphabet and rhymes to educate children about health. This particular page discusses proper posture.

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