ABC Books - Not Just For Children Anymore!

How did you start to learn to read?  For many of us, it was through sounding out words on playful, well illustrated alphabet books designed for children.  Advances in printing and binding technologies starting in the late 1800’s, helped to make that possible.  But learning the ABC’s wasn’t always so fun - or so easy!   

It is interesting to note that the earliest “ABC” books designed to teach children to read were not really books at all, despite their name.  Called “hornbooks,” these were square, wooden “frames” with a handle that would hold a sheet of parchment. The parchment, which would have the letters of the alphabet, common letter blends, and the Lord’s prayer or other common religious reference printed on it, was covered in a thin sheet of cow’s horn to protect it.  Hornbooks first appeared around 1450 in England, and were the “industry standard” through the mid- to late 1700’s. 

Around 1750, the “battledore” started to replace the the hornbook as the preferred way of teaching children to read. A typical battledore was printed on heavy, folded paper and for the most part, had a more interesting, educational, and sometimes even entertaining layout than did the hornbook.  Different fonts, pictures, and references brought each page to life.  Over time, battledores became less religious and more secular in content, tone, and appearance.  Battledores appeared through about 1850. 

Here in America, the first “book” designed to teach children to read was called the The New England Primer.  It was first published in the late 1680’s by journalist and publisher Benjamin Harris.  The Primer, first produced in a hornbook layout, was illustrated with woodcut prints and taught the alphabet, vowels, common letter combinations, and other reading basics through a religious and harsh puritanical lens.  However, its content and tone softened and changed gradually over subsequent editions.  The New England Primer appeared in print into the mid-1800’s and was used as a teaching tool in some places through the early 1900’s.   

Today, vintage alphabet books are a popular and well collected category.  But ABC books are not just for kids or for learning how to read anymore.  Not by a long shot.  A quick survey of some of the “alphabet inspired” tomes that will be featured at the upcoming Granite State Book and Ephemera Fair on June 5th in Concord, NH uncovered some most unexpected themes.  Here are just a few of the ones that caught this bibliophile’s eye.   

ABC of Divorce
ABC of Canopes

Let’s launch this discussion with an orderly review of divorce and canapés.  Perhaps one leads to the other? LizzyYoung Bookseller, will be offering two books that covers both of these topics in alphabetical order. The first is ABC of Divorce, by Jacques Bacal and Louise Sloane.  This first edition book, published by E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. in 1947, offers an early look at divorce from the late 1940's. According to the book’s forward, "ABC of Divorce does not advocate divorce as an easy way out, but it opens the doors to the office of Jacques Bacal, noted divorce lawyer; for through the pages of this book, he extends his legal knowledge as well as his profound understanding of human problems to those in need of help and advice.” And the second is a first edition of The ABC of Canapés, by Edna Beilenson.  This delicious dish, published by the Peter Pauper Press in 1953, is fully illustrated in verse.     

For those who prefer their ABC’s warm and fuzzy, E. M. Maurice Books will be featuring a first edition of Teddy Bear ABC by Laura Rinkle Johnson.  This book, published in 1907 by H.M. Caldwell, features Steiff-like teddy bears on every page and a charming bear related verse for each letter of the alphabet.  What’s so incredibly interesting about this publication is that the Teddy bear, as we know him today and as referenced in this book, was not invented until 1902, and not produced on a commercial scale until around 1904.  The fact that the Teddy bear appears in print as a familiar, beloved friend only after a handful of years in existence shows how quickly his pattern and origins were absorbed into the fabric of American culture.  

Teddy Bear ABC

It’s almost Christmas in July with this next ABC book highlight.  Holly Books (no pun intended) will gift us with The Christmas Alphabet by Robert Sabuda, a well-known illustrator, pop-up book artist, and paper engineer.  This work of art, published in 1996 by Orchard Books, was produced overall in an edition size of 526, of which of which 26 were lettered A-Z, and 500 were numbered; this specific example is #30. Each page contains one or two paper cutouts inside a color cardstock envelope, which opens up to reveal a paper foldout corresponding to the letters of the alphabet with a Christmas theme.  What a wonderful gift, any time of the year.   

Christmas Alphabet

There’s no kidding around when it comes to this last ABC themed highlight.  Colebrook Book Barn will be presenting a first American edition of Letters Everywhere Stories and Rhymes for Children.  This book was illustrated by Theophile Schuler and published by Lee and Shepard in 1871.  Each letter features one illustration and two poems or short stories with moral lessons - most which would suggest that this book would not a popular best seller today!  For example, the letter “D” comes to life with “Dishonesty” and “Dan’s Disgrace.”   

Letters Everywhere Stories and Rhymes for Children

All Book Collectors, come see these and many more highlights in all subjects brought by 60 top book and ephemera dealers from 10 states at the upcoming Granite State Book and Ephemera Fair!  This highly anticipated event, the largest book fair in NH in many years, will be held at the Everett Arena, located at 15 Loudon Rd., Concord NH. on Sunday, June 5th from from 10am to 4pm.  The venue, conveniently located right off of I-93 at exit 14, offers ample free parking.  And, to encourage as many people as possible to experience the fun and thrills of the event, admission to the 2016 Granite Book and Ephemera Fair is FREE! 

The Granite State Book and Ephemera Fair is sponsored by the New Hampshire Antiquarian Booksellers Association and ABEBooks and brought to you by Book and Paper Fairs.  Book and Paper Fairs produces the top book and ephemera fairs in the Northeast US.  Our professionally managed events have a long history of bringing together the finest buyers and sellers in the industry, and are held in major locations including Boston, New York City, Brooklyn, Concord, NH, and Lexington, MA. For more information and a calendar of our shows, please see

Check out FairSearch, an exclusive service of AbeBooks and for hundreds of books for children listed by the dealers who will be at the June 5th Granite State Book and Ephemera Fair.  FairSearch allows you to search a subject, author, or any keyword for a listing of the books offered by dealers who will be at the NH Fair who also list on AbeBooks. Contact the dealer directly if you would like them to bring the desired book to the fair on June 5th.