Lighting the Past: Historical ABCs

While cataloguing the Reserve Collection, I came across a little gem of a spelling book.  It contains four separate publications which have been bound together, each dating from the early 18th century, and they can tell us a great deal about the way that children were taught grammar and spelling during this time.

Two men collect apples from a tree.  The apples which have fallen to the ground have the letters of the alphabet on them (The London Spelling-Book, St Andrews copy at r LB1526.3U8)]

Two men collect apples from a tree. The apples which have fallen to the ground have the letters of the alphabet on them (The London Spelling-Book, St Andrews copy at r LB1526.3U8)

The first, ‘The London Spelling-Book’, was written by John Urmston and the fourth edition was published in 1710.   At the start there is a lovely chart with 2 sets of pictures to help teach children the alphabet.  However, it is very different from the ‘A is for Apple’ or ‘B is for Ball’ that we learned at school.  Instead of ‘D is for Dog’, we have ‘D is for Death’!  Other alternatives include ‘G is for Gallows’ and ‘M is for Murder’.  There apparently weren’t many memorable words beginning with ‘X’ back in the 18th century, so instead there is a nice picture of a windmill.  I don’t think that many modern parents would be happy with their children being taught this version of the alphabet at school, although I do like the addition of ‘D is for Dragon’!

These fun illustrations from ‘The London Spelling-Book’ shows a series of pictures, each representing a letter of the alphabet (St Andrews copy at r LB1526.3U8)]

These fun illustrations from ‘The London Spelling-Book’ shows a series of pictures, each representing a letter of the alphabet (St Andrews copy at r LB1526.3U8)

A closer look at part of the pictorial alphabet, showing a skeleton that represents ‘D is for death’ (St Andrews copy at r LB1526.3U8)]

A closer look at part of the pictorial alphabet, showing a skeleton that represents ‘D is for death’ (St Andrews copy at r LB1526.3U8)

The second publication, ‘The Child’s Guide To the English Tongue’ by William Thompson, gives us an interesting insight into what sort of things were taught in school in the 18th century.  There is a big emphasis in this book on learning how to read and write biblical passages, and the majority of the work is dedicated to this.  Beginning on page 23, there is a useful list of words which sound similar but differ in meaning and spelling, such as ‘alter’ and ‘altar’, ‘angle’ and ‘angel’.  Some of these still puzzle children (and adults!) today.

Included in a 1920s children’s book, this illustration represents ‘F is for Farm’ (The Country Child's Alphabet by Eleanor Farjeon (St Andrews copy at Chi PR6011.A7C6F24)]

Included in a 1920s children’s book, this illustration represents ‘F is for Farm’ (The Country Child’s Alphabet by Eleanor Farjeon (St Andrews copy at Chi PR6011.A7C6F24)

The Anatomy of Orthography’ by Thomas Crumpe makes up the third portion of this bound-with.  His suggested way of teaching spelling is through breaking down words into different types of syllables, and he has found common patterns concerning the order of vowels and consonants.  The book starts off with easy single syllable sounds, such as ‘ba’ and ‘pu’.  This way of teaching has stood the test of time, as some school children in Scotland are still taught using phonics today.

This royal figure is an illustration from another of Eleanor Farjeon’s 1920s children’s book, The Town Child's Alphabet. Here the illustrations are not of familiar sights to the country child (such as eggs, meadows, or ploughboy), but are mostly of people a town child might meet, such as flower-seller, ice-cream man, or jazz-man (St Andrews copy at Chi PR6011.A7T6F24)]

This royal figure is an illustration from another of Eleanor Farjeon’s 1920s children’s book, The Town Child’s Alphabet. Here the illustrations are not of familiar sights to the country child (such as eggs, meadows, or ploughboy), but are mostly of people a town child might meet, such as flower-seller, ice-cream man, or jazz-man (St Andrews copy at Chi PR6011.A7T6F24)

Le Guide des Enfans’ teaches vocabulary in French and English. Some of the words and phrases wouldn’t be out of place in a dictionary today, such as ‘un Homme’ (a man) or ‘un Chat’ (a cat).  But as with the previous books, there have been some interesting additions that could only ever be relevant in 1732.  Under the category of ‘Certain Accidents, Properties, and Diseases of the Body’, there are words such as ‘un Rot’, which means a belch, and the even less pleasant, ‘la Peste’ or the plague.  There is also an equally unpleasant section entitled ‘Excrements, and Blemishes of the Body’.  Apparently the word ‘snot’ was used frequently enough in everyday conversation to warrant being included (it’s ‘la Morve’ in French, just incase you ever need to know!).  The final section seems to contain phrases which would likely come up in the conversation between two children.  My favourite phrase is ‘Ma poupée est plus jolie que la vôtre’, which translates to ‘My Baby [doll] is prettier than yours.’ The author has even gone to the trouble of coming up with a reply for parents to resolve such an argument: ‘Mes Cheres, elles sont toutes deux fort jolies’.  My Dears, they are both very pretty.

If you would like to learn more about these fantastic items, you can make an appointment to have a closer look at them in our Reading Room in Martyrs Kirk Research Library.

Emma Collins

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