Children’s Research Librarian Juliet O’Conor has sent in another fascinating post, this time focusing on alphabet books and learning tools stretching back to the 15th century. You will be able to get up close to some of these at our Carnival of Curiosity on July 7th.

How did children learn their alphabet in past ages? In England from the middle of the 15th century children learnt their ABC from horn books. These were paddle shaped wooden boards initially inscribed with the letters of the alphabet directly onto the wood.

Horn Book

When paper became cheaper in the 16th century, the letters and a line or two of the Lord’s Prayer were printed on the lesson sheet. A layer of flattened animal horn covered the lesson sheet, held in place by hand beaten metal strips.


In the middle of the 18th century the paper equivalent of the horn book, the battledore, was developed. The battledore could be folded into three and when folded resembled a book. Unfolded the battledore bears the standard shape and content of the horn book.

The History of the Horn-Book by Andrew Tuer (1896) remains the authority on these early alphabet books.

Leadenhall Press, 1896

Leadenhall Press, 1896

By the beginning of the 19th century alphabet books no longer exclusively served to teach the alphabet. Publishers employed the alphabet to teach and entertain. In 1836 George Cruikshank’s A Comic Alphabet manoeuvred a clown into  the letters A, O and Z in the tradition of the decorated initial. Each etching is a scene containing caricatures of people and animals.

Reprint of the 1836 edition

Reprint of the 1836 edition

Edward Lear’s Nonsense Alphabet is composed of drawings that he made in 1849 while writing his travel diaries. Many of Lear’s rhymes and alphabetic drawings were written for children of acquaintances whom he met during his travels.


Warne, 1926

Edward Lear

Kate Greenaway illustrated the alphabetic rhyme A Apple Pie with elaborately costumed children shown here quartering the pie. First published in the middle of the 19th century Greenaway’s works were widely popular.

Kate Greenaway


At the end of the 19th century, the Beggarstaff Brothers, William Nicholson and James Pryde, produced An Alphabet in striking contrast to the popular art nouveau of the period.

A is for Artist

A is for Artist

Their bold design, in particular suited to poster art, is thought to have provided the revival of wood engraving as an artform in the 1930s. The first plate ‘A is for Artist’ is a self portrait of Nicholson and ‘B is for Beggar’ is a portrait of James Pryde.

B is for Beggar

B is for Beggar


Today the alphabet book continues to flourish portraying real and fantasy worlds, presenting visual gymnastics and the wonders of natural history, the humorous and the serious.

Juliet O’Conor

On Sunday July 7th the Library is holding a Carnival of Curiosity from 12:00am to 6:00pm. If you come to the Cowen Gallery you will be able to see and hear more about horn books and battledores from the Children’s Literature Collection, and experience other unique items from our Picture Collection and the ever-amazing Alma Conjuring Collection.



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