Some Charming Abcedariums of the Regency

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, abcedarium is taken from Latin, and by the last decades of the eighteenth century in England, was certainly the most highbrow of the words which denoted a book or list of the letters of the alphabet. These alphabetical word books or lists were also known as abcee, abcie or absey books, and were, in most cases, an elementary primer for the teaching of the basics of spelling, reading, and in some cases, even writing. There are versions of these letter books and lists which date back to the medieval era, but some of the most charming and engaging of these books were published just prior to or during the Regency.

Some options for teaching a young child their letters in Regency England . . .

From the Middle Ages, the teaching of the alphabet and reading was done in lock-step with the teaching of religion, for the simple reason that the only point of learning to read was to read prayers and religious tracts. At the time, there was not much else to read, since all books were hand lettered by monks who devoted their lives to recording works of religion and faith. That began to change after Johannes Gutenberg introduced his movable type printing press. Books were no longer the sole province of religious orders whose members would only put pen to parchment in the name of God. A page of lead type in a printing press could be set much more quickly than a page could be hand lettered, and multiple impressions could made of each page in a single day. By the sixteenth century, books were published on a vast array of topics beyond religion.

But the traditions of teaching are very slow to change and the abcedariums of the sixteenth century were thoroughly religious in nature. Most consisted of block prints of each letter, followed by a table of vowels, and in many cases, a table of syllables. The child was expected first to learn each letter, especially the vowels. Once they had mastered the letters, they moved on to the syllable table, known as a syllabary or syllabarium. Children were then set to memorize the entire table and must be able to recite the entire syllabarium backward or forwards. This section of the abcedarium was typically followed by a selection of prayers and graces to be said at meals by which the students could practice their reading. Only a select number of printers were approved and licensed by the religious authorities to publish abcedariums. However, as the century progressed, a number of printers published abcedariums without bothering to seek approval from Church authorities. These "unauthorized" abcedariums were still completely religious in content, but a number were published for use of members of dissenting sects, with content which they considered more fitting for their children.

By the seventeenth century, most abcedariums had the usual prints of letters, followed by tables of vowels and consonants, plus a syllabarium. The second section of the book was a fairly standard catechism with which students could practice their reading while they learned the basic tenets of their faith. However, as the century came to a close, some educators believed that children would learn their alphabet more readily if their lessons were a bit more fun. In 1693, in his treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke explained that alphabet books which were entertaining would be more effective in teaching children their letters. The following year, "J. G." took Locke’s advice and published A Playbook for Children: To Allure Them to Read as Soon as They Can Speak Plain. In this book, each letter was presented with a sentence intended to amuse young readers, such as "Apples are for Children that know the Letters" and "a Bear is a wild beast that has long hairs." There were similar sentences in the book for every letter of the alphabet. This book was so successful with children that there were soon several imitators and abcedariums began to be a little less dull.

By the mid-eighteenth century, religion per se, no longer figured prominently in abcedariums, though most of these small volumes included numerous moral lessons. Nevertheless, they had become more light-hearted and the lengthy syllabariums which children previously had to memorize were banished from their pages. In 1742, Mary Cooper, a London printer, published The Child’s New Plaything. In this abcedarium, each letter was provided along with a word with which it began, for example, "A is for Archer" which could be cut out, and on the back of the cut-out appeared a second word or phrase for that same letter, in the case of A, "A was an apple pie." In the years that followed, another new feature was added to some abcedariums; simple rhymes which included all the letters of the alphabet, making it fun and easy for children to learn their letters as they learned the rhyme.

As the nineteenth century opened, the idea that all books intended for the use of children must be morally instructive was loosing ground. One of the first children’s authors to write a story solely for the amusement of children, with no subliminal moral lessons, was William Roscoe. His delightful story, The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, about a host of different insects invited to a lavish entertainment, was published in London, in 1806. It was an immediate hit with both children and adults alike and remained in print for most of the nineteenth century. The unknown author, R. R., appears to have taken note of the success of Roscoe’s tale with the younger set. In 1809, s/he published the abcedarium The Invited Alphabet; or, Address of A to B; containing his friendly proposal for the amusement and instruction of good children, in London. As is suggested by its title, in The Invited Alphabet, the letters A and B invite all of the other letters to join them in an alphabet, " . . . for the amusement and instruction of good children."

As was typical of most abcedariums, in The Invited Alphabet, each letter had its own page, with the exception of A and B, who share a page, since they are the hosts of this "alphabet" party. Unlike its predecessors, this new abcedarium presents each letter in six different versions, as Roman, Italic, Old English, German and hand-written characters, all set in a frame around an illustration of a young boy making the letter in sign-language. Above each frame of letters is a phrase of the story which includes a word which starts with that letter, with one exception. There is no English word which starts with the letter X, so, rather than introduce a foreign word into this abcedarium, the author uses the word "eXample," capitalizing the X in that word for clarity. In the Preface to the book, R. R. wrote that children are "very capable of relishing a witty point or allusion," to which end s/he composed the phrases to be droll and amusing for the children learning their alphabet. The inclusion of each letter in sign-language, also known as dactylology, had two purposes. Knowledge of sign-language would certainly facilitate communication with those who were deaf, but it was also believed that the effort of learning the sign for each letter would more firmly reinforce each letter in the mind of any child who did so.

The Invited Alphabet was so popular that it was followed up within the year with a sequel, The Assembled Alphabet, also by R. R. To give it its full title, The Assembled Alphabet; or, acceptance of A’s invitation; concluding with a glee for three voices. Being a sequel to the ‘Invited alphabet.’ was also published in 1809, by the same London publisher, Benjamin Tabart & Company. In this abcedarium, all of the letters have accepted the invitation of A and B to join the alphabet and this book continues the story. Since The Invited Alphabet on its own was sufficient to teach a child their alphabet, most scholars of children’s literature believe that The Assembled Alphabet was published primarily to capitalize on the success of its predecessor. However, the second volume presented additional information about each letter, along with the expanded text of the new story, which would have been useful to children in practising their reading. In The Assembled Alphabet, each letter had its own set of facing pages, with that letter’s part of the story in text on one side and an image which featured a large capital of the letter on the opposite page. In the sequel, there is only one image of each letter, but set in the frame above the image of the letter is the phonetic pronunciation for the letter. In addition to the entertaining text of the story of the now assembled letters, this sequel also provided several visual puns for the amusement of its "infant scholars." Most images included objects in the scene which began with that letter, though they were not mentioned in the text. For example, in the scene for the letter B, the boy is holding a book; the letter N was shown in a night-time scene; behind the letter S can be seen a soldier and a ship; the figure behind the letter T is wearing a turban and a tombstone can be seen nearby; while the character behind the U is carrying an umbrella.

Another new feature in the sequel, almost certainly intended as an added inducement to justify its purchase, was the "Glee for three voices" which was included after the Notes on special letters at the end of the book. This glee provided the music for each part, to be sung by the child, the mother and the father, or by the pupil, the mistress and the master. The simple lyrics to this glee were the letters themselves, to be sung in order. This glee of the assembled letters was considered to be even more effective that the rhymes in some of the abcedariums which preceded it. Not only did it make it fun and easy for children to learn their letters and the order in which they appeared in the alphabet, but it was intended also to show how the assembled letters, set to music, could bring unity and harmony to the family circle, or the classroom. The Invited Alphabet and its sequel, The Assembled Alphabet, were a cheerful departure from the more utilitarian and didactic abcedariums which came before them. With their winsome stories of unlikely guests invited to an amusing social event, illustrated by detailed and witty engravings, they had a strong appeal to young children. They may have commercialized the genre, but they were also engaging and entertaining stories which children actually enjoyed. Is it any wonder that many parents purchased both volumes, despite the fact only one was really necessary to teach children their letters?

In 1812, another charming abcedarium was published anonymously by R. Taylor & Company. The Amusing Alphabet for young Children beginning to Read offered a short, if somewhat educational or moral tale for each letter of the alphabet. But it was also illustrated with a set of detailed engravings for every letter of the alphabet which accompanied the text. Even though each short story included some lesson, they were still amusing or exciting enough to hold a child’s interest so that they would learn their letters as they read. The Amusing Alphabet provided longer text with each letter which gave children more practice actually reading than did the more simple, less costly alphabet primers. Cost-conscious parents may have preferred The Amusing Alphabet over The Invited Alphabet and its sequel, The Assembled Alphabet, feeling they got more value from the single volume. It is also possible that some doting parents purchased all three books for their children.

Though the publication of utilitarian and didactic abcedariums continued during the Regency, the more amusing and engaging volumes were gaining ground. There were abcedariums in which each letter was paired with an animal whose name started with that letter, others in which each letter was paired with a flower or plant whose name began with that letter. Some abcedariums were focused on famous places or the nations of the world, while others matched letters with various toys and other playthings familiar to children. More and more of these abcedariums were illustrated with images which were as entertaining and engaging as the text which they accompanied. The dull, if morally instructional abcedariums could still be found for sale in the shops of some book-sellers, but it seems they were much less in demand during the Regency than they had been in previous centuries. Most parents were glad to provide their young children with books that engaged and entertained them as they learned their letters and the rudiments of reading. And, unlike in centuries past, when children were taught their letters so they could read their prayers, by the Regency, many children, certainly those of the upper and middle classes, were also taught to write. For such lessons, an abcedarium like The Invited Alphabet would be ideal, since it included multiple versions of each letter, including one which was hand-written. These images could be used as models for children just learning to write, further increasing the value of the book in the schoolroom.

Though both The Invited Alphabet and its sequel, The Assembled Alphabet, were published in 1809, there are many editions of each book with a later date on the cover. The book’s initial popularity suggests that the press plates for the books were made into stereotypes. With stereotype plates, the books could be quickly reprinted at any time, when additional copies were required, with no need to re-set the type. However, once a press plate was cast as a stereotype, it was not possible to make any changes to the content on the page. Therefore, even copies of the two books which were printed five or ten years later would still carry the date of 1809. The actual date of purchase might be added when the book was covered, at the direction of the buyer. Though the only known editions of each book carry the date of 1809 on the title page, there is no doubt they were in print and available during the years of the Regency.

Might there be a place for an abcedarium in one of your upcoming novels, Dear Regency Authors? Will it be one of the entertaining volumes, like The Invited Alphabet or will it be one of the dull, didactic primers of the previous century? Mayhap an enlightened young governess has brought copies of both The Invited Alphabet and The Assembled Alphabet with her, for the education of her young charges. If one or both books should be discovered by the children’s grandmother, the priggish old dowager who was educated with one of the dull and religious abcedariums of an earlier generation, what agitation and tumult might ensue? Or, could The Invited Alphabet become a heaven-sent gift for a mother with a young child who is deaf? In its pages, she will find the complete alphabet in sign-language, and can teach her child to communicate beyond his or her silent world. Then again, is one of your characters the anonymous writer of a charming and engaging abcedarium which becomes very popular, making that lady’s, or gentleman’s fortune? How else might an abcedarium figure in a story set in the Regency?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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15 Responses to Some Charming Abcedariums of the Regency

  1. the concept of so early a sign language was certainly ringing bells… most of my orphans in the charity school series are old enough to be fully literate, but as with all your fascinating posts, there’s treasure in them thar words to be stored away and brought out at need…

  2. alinakfield says:

    This is wonderful information, and I so wish I’d put an Abcedarium in my latest release where I have the hero purchasing a children’s book. Another amazing post, Kathryn. Thank you!

  3. Sia says:

    Interesting. As for the sign languages one, the interesting thing is that bilingualism or even just exposing the child to more than one language makes changes in the brain which makes people smarter. Which would make it easier for the child to grasp.

    In other words, it would have worked. The kind of incidental exposure that the abc books involved though….we’re talking about something like 5-15 IQ points and probably nearer 5 as a rough estimate.

    Then again, if the child is borderline intellectually disabled (or borderline within a subcategory of that), that small gain might look MUCH MUCH bigger than it actually is.

    If the child is about, say ‘six’ in mental age and that minimal boost puts them at about ‘seven and eight’….well, that’s kinda a huge boost in theoretical terms because it’s at about seven or eight that children form some grasp on ‘how to reason like an adult.’

    • Sia says:

      Ooops….I meant that it was a minimal increase in theoretical terms and a huge one in practical terms, not the other way around!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I doubt anyone at the time understood the science behind it. However, I do think there were a number of educators and alert parents who would have noticed those things which seemed to offer their child any improvement in learning. Though there was no national education at the time, there were many who did want their children to get a good education.



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  5. I am now introducing discussion on the abcedarium to use and the choice to use sign language… I knew this would be perfect for my orphans!

  6. Taking advantage of your kind offer to advertise, the first book of the Charity School series, Elinor’s endowment, has just gone live on Kindle and should be available in dead tree and squid juice format too I’ve been very grateful to use your posts on children’s books in this and the sequels I am working on.

  7. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   "An Ass of the Eighteenth Century" | The Regency Redingote

  8. Thanks for the invitation to publish a link to ‘Ophelia’s Opportunity’ which is now live on kindle and will shortly be out in paperback and on Amazon UK

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