A blog post by the British Library on their 15th century “Macclesfield Alphabet Book” set me off on a quest for more of these essential (and decorative) educational texts: I figured that I could assemble a sample chronological collection that would span the centuries, and I was right: this is one literary genre that never went out of style, until now, I think. My portfolio of pages was gleaned from books produced both for learning the alphabet (primers) and learning to write, not necessarily the same thing but I make the rules! The Macclesfield text, for example, was written for professional scribes (or their prospective patrons) rather than children; centuries later the two types of texts merged a bit but still had somewhat different aims. For a better basis for comparison and evolution, I chose the letter D, my first initial.
Alphabet samplers from British Library Add MS 88887, the “Macclesfield Psalter” (c. 1475-1525) and Sloane MS 1448a (later 15th century), and the embellished capital D in BL Harley MS 3885, sixteenth century. I love that the D in the Sloane MS takes the shape of a Tudor Rose.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alphabet books, or ABCs, are pretty distinct from penmanship or “copy” books; the former were often a religious texts, as in ABC with Catechism, and the latter were strictly secular and far more aesthetically pleasing. Only towards the last part of the eighteenth century do we see more decorative alphabet books, and they get ever more whimsical over the next century, as children’s literature becomes a distinct and profitable publishing category.
Thomas Watson, A Copy Book Enriched with Great Variety of the Most Useful and Modish Hands (1700);William Chinnery, et. al., Writing and drawing made easy, amusing and instructive: containing the whole alphabet in all the characters now us’d, both in printing and penmanship: each illustrated by emblematic devices and moral copies: calculated for the user of schools and curiously engraved by the best hands … (1750); William Tringham, publisher, The alphabet rendered instructive and entertaining (c. 1775), University of South Carolina Libraries’ Digital Collections.
In the nineteenth century, alphabet books were in the capable and creative hands of such prolific illustrators as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, publishers like the McLoughlin Brothers of New York issued very specialized versions, and ultimately Man Ray produced an adult variation. Suddenly the alphabet book is a work of art–or was it always?
Pages from from Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet Book (1885), Walter Crane’ Song of Sixpence Picture Book (1909), McLoughlin Brothers & Company’s Baseball ABC Book (1885), and Alphabet Country Scenes Book (1900), as well as the French version of Man Ray’s limited edition Alphabet for Adults (1970).