A good friend of mine recently “published” a digital alphabet book app called The Curious Alphabet and as I was checking it out, I thought, wow, this is a creation that is very, very new and a genre that is quite old: nothing is more traditional than an ABC book, but now it has broken free of its paper chains. Alphabet books are absolutely fundamental, but at the same time they have certainly inspired successions of artists, everyone from Albrecht Dürer in the sixteenth century to Man Ray in the twentieth and Steve Martin in the twenty-first.
Screen Shots of A Curious Alphabet by Julie Shaw Lutts: available here.
The publishers of alphabet books were always among the first to take advantage of new technologies: in addition to bibles and prayer books, ABCs constitute the most popular titles of the first century of print. Primers were not exclusively children’s books until several centuries later–and Dürer’s letter books are really more about the construction of letters than the instruction of the alphabet–but from at least 1800 a succession of artists seem to have felt free to indulge their whimsical appreciation of the alphabet, ostensibly for the sake of the children.
A Portfolio of Primers: Street Hawker selling ABC books in early sixteenth-century France, from the Anciens cris de Paris, Bibliotheque national de France; Albrecht Dürer, The Construction of Roman Letters, Dunster House 1924 edition, designed by Bruce Rogers; A page from the “Devilish Alphabet” engraved by Delannois, 1825, Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratif; Royal Alphabet, or History of an Apple Pie, 1822; Alphabet Universel: Anglais et Francais, c. 1830; Andre Hellé, Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, 1914-1916; Jean Saudé (Miarko), Capital letters W and O from L’Art Croquis d’Animaux, c. 1920; ABC Book with woodcut illustrations by C.B. Falls, Doubleday & Co., 1923; “A is for Alarm” from Every Girl‘s Alphabet (2006) by Luke Martineau and Kate Bingham; Marion Bataille, ABC 3D (2009).