A hornbook arrives in the collection

Now I know my A B Cs

The Alexander Turnbull Library recently acquired a small late 18th century hornbook, filling a hole in the Library’s ability to trace the history of children’s books.

Hornbook showing uppercase alphabet, next to a cellphone. The cellphone is showing the reverse side with lowercase lettersComparing the newly-acquired Turnbull hornbook with a modern cellphone. The cellphone is showing the reverse side with lowercase letters.

The name ‘hornbook’ is deceptive, as it is neither in book form nor is it anything to do with the musical instrument. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 describes the hornbook as the ‘first book of children, covered with horn to keep it unsoiled’. It was used to teach basic information to children and usually included the alphabet, numbers 1 to 9, and prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer and the phrase ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen’.

Hornbooks were widely used by children from the 15th to the end of the 18th century. To begin with hornbooks were printed in Black Letter but this was gradually supplanted by the Roman font because it was easier to read. Numerals were also presented in two formats: Roman (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX) and Arabic (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9), and sometimes both at the same time.

Woodcut of children reading from hornbooks in a Dame School.Children reading from hornbooks in a Dame School. From Andrew Tuer, History of the horn book, p.115.

In its simplest and most common form, the hornbook was composed of a piece of wood cut in the shape of a paddle with the lesson sheet of vellum or paper pasted on one side. In English-speaking countries a piece of transparent horn was laid over the sheet and held in place by narrow brass strips tacked through the horn to the wood.

A common size was 2 ¾ x 5 inches (7 x 12.5cm), small enough so that a child could hold it easily in one hand. Sometimes a hole was bored into the handle so that a cord could be strung through and the item hung from a girdle, wrist, or around the neck. The more elaborate examples might be covered in tooled leather, or encased in silver filigree. The lesson itself could be engraved directly onto the backing, written out by hand onto the lesson sheet, or printed on a printing press.

To make it pliable, the horn was first soaked in cold water for several weeks to separate the horn from the central core, then boiled, after which it could be cut and flattened easily into sheets.

Curator of the Rare Book Collection, Ruth Lightbourne, with the newly-acquired hornbook in her hand.Curator of the Rare Book Collection, Ruth Lightbourne, with the newly-acquired hornbook.

Hornbooks were also made of ivory, and apparently even of gingerbread (the hard ‘dunk in tea’ type), although only the moulds for the gingerbread variety remain today; doubtless gingerbread hornbooks were eaten after lessons were finished (perhaps sometimes even before!).

In the early years of the 19th century when the hornbook was dying out, the wooden base was replaced by cardboard, sometimes covered in embossed and highly-coloured decorated papers, with the lesson sheet on the other side protected by a varnish. These cheaply-produced 19th-century items were sold for a halfpenny.

Lineart of children with a hornbookChildren with hornbook. From Andrew Tuer, History of the horn book, p.239.

A refined example

Ivory or bone hornbooks, such as the recent Turnbull acquisition, were more common towards the end of the 18th century. Because they were expensive to produce, they would have been used by children from more affluent homes. The Turnbull artefact measures only 100 x 50mm (including the handle), and is a mere 1mm thick. The letters were engraved into this and then filled with a black pigment. There are also traces of coloured pigment on the floral decoration of the handle.

Note the lowercase alphabet has two forms of the letter ‘s’. The ‘long s’, which is very similar to the letter ‘f’ but with a cross bar extending out to the left only, was used in the middle of words or as the first letter in the double ‘ss’ up until the end of the 18th century.

Turnbull hornbook showing the lowercase letters with two forms of the letter ‘s’ and finishing with the ampersand.Turnbull hornbook showing the lowercase letters with two forms of the letter ‘s’ and finishing as they often did with the ampersand.

While hornbooks were intended to prepare children for reading, there was a large gap between learning your alphabet on a horn book and actually reading a book. Books for children did exist, but they were certainly not graded in reading ability such as they are now, and much of it was didactic in nature. Imaginative literature did not really come into its own until the 1840s. Until then, children read and took what they could from adult books such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Further reading

Beulah Folmsbee, A little history of the horn-book, Boston, 1942

Andrew W. Tuer, History of the horn book, New York, 1979

By Ruth Lightbourne

Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing

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Laura Jones June 18th at 9:37AM

How gorgeous! Thanks for the fascinating background...

Ruth Maceachern June 20th at 10:02PM

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this

James Wm Seaton June 23rd at 4:02AM

Very interesting unknown history published by Ruth MacEachern on Facebook. If it wasn't for shcolars like Ruth a lot of interesting history would be lost to most people. Thanks Ruth.