19th Century Alphabet Books

Children learning to read are often given ABC picture books to introduce them to the alphabet — perhaps you had a favorite when you were young.  The standard form for today’s alphabet book originates in the 19th century.  Early in the century, children often learned their letters using short primers, which listed the alphabet, common syllables and short words, and were usually accompanied by a familiar Bible story.  As the century progressed, alphabet books lost some of their religious themes – common animals and household objects were used to illustrate the letters, rather than Biblical texts.  As color printing technologies advanced in the later 19th century, ABC books became more common and more elaborately illustrated.  Some alphabet books contained moral themes, but the illustrations in later ABC books were generally of common objects that a child would be familiar with.

Special Collections holds a number of late 19th-century alphabet books, published both in America and England.  Most are in color, and many are printed on linen cloth so as to resist wear and tear from small hands.  They are also compelling sources of history, since they reflect the period’s attitudes about children and education.

To find alphabet books in Special Collections, search the library catalog for the genre term “alphabet books.” You can further refine your search by adding “United States” or “England” to your search string if you would like to look for examples from specific countries.

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