A hornbook arrives in the collectionJune 16th, 2014 By Ruth Lightbourne
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Beulah Folmsbee, A little history of the horn-book, Boston, 1942
Andrew W. Tuer, History of the horn book, New York, 1979