For centuries learning to read was closely associated with religious education; the main objective being to teach children to read the Bible. The word ‘primer’ originally referred to a prayer book used by lay people, but because these were commonly used to help children to learn to read, the word came to be used more generally for any reading book. Nevertheless, typically the contents were noticeably religious until the end of the 18th century when education became less bound up with religion. Primers were popular and sold well, meaning that a multitude of different versions were published.
The example seen here follows a typical pattern. First comes the alphabet, given in lower and upper-case. This is reinforced by an illustrated alphabet. Tables showing combinations of vowels and consonants and some two-letter words finish the formal part of the book and two fairy tales, on which the child might practice his or her newly acquired skills (or be shown the benefits of learning to read) form the bulk of the pages. Early primers, in the 16th and 17th century, usually printed hymns, prayers and conversations on religious doctrine at this point. However, by the late 18th century more secular material was the norm. The two fairy tales here, Cinderilla [sic] and Little Red Riding Hood, are translations of the much-loved stories from Perrault’s Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (1697).
- Full title:
- The Child's New Spelling Primer; or, First book for children. To which is added the stories of Cinderilla, and the Little Red Riding Hood.
- 1799, Dublin, Ireland
- Chapbook / Children's book / Illustration / Image
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Ruth Richardson
- Reading and print culture, Popular culture
Chapbooks were small, affordable forms of literature for children and adults that were sold on the streets, and covered a range of subjects from fairy tales and ghost stories to news of politics, crime or disaster. Dr Ruth Richardson explains what this literature looked like, its subject matter and the ways in which it was produced.
- Article by:
- M O Grenby
- Childhood and children's literature, Reading and print culture
Professor M O Grenby charts the rise of children’s literature throughout the 18th century, explaining how books for children increasingly blended entertainment with instruction.