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Rare Books Welcomes U Back to School!

The Rare Books Department welcomes U back to school! Do you have your textbooks ready? How about your reading primers?

Primers were a type of textbook that taught students how to read. Initially, they contained “primary” or fundamental religious materials. Reference to primers appears in English documents as early as the late thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until King Henry VIII’s injunctions in the mid-sixteenth that vernacular reading primers began to appear more commonly. These primers featured catechisms, prayers, and religious stories, and focused more on imbuing fear of a wrathful God than imparting reading education to the young. As might be expected, primers traveled with their owners or were imported into the American Colonies from England. Before long, printing presses in the colonies began to develop their own reading primers, with a point of view that was distinct from the British Crown. 

New-England Primer
Simeon Butler
Northampton, MA: Printed for Simeon Butler(?), between 1805 and 1807
PE1119 A1 N5 1807

The New England Primer was the first reading primer designed specifically for the American Colonies, first published between 1687 and 1690 by printer Benjamin Harris. Harris had arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1686, escaping the religious intolerance under the reign of King James II — the last Catholic monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Harris based The New England Primer after The Protestant Tutor, which he had printed in England. 

The New England Primer embodied a religious tone and an explicitly Puritan attitude. Along with the alphabet and syllabaries, the Primer contained catechisms, prayers, and moral lessons, as well as general topics related to sin and salvation.  From the Primer, students in the colonies would graduate to reading the Psalter or the Bible. 

New England Primer, Twentieth Century Reprint
Cambridge, MA: Ginn & Company (the Athenæum Press), between 1900 and 1999
PE1119 A1 N5 1900

By the year 1830, total printing of The New England Primer is estimated to have been between six to eight million copies. But despite being the most successful educational textbook published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no copies or editions before 1727 are known to have survived. Knowledge of earlier editions come solely from publishers’ and booksellers’ advertisements. Sometime in the twentieth century, the publishing house Ginn & Company and the Athenæum Press started reprinting facsimile copies of an early edition of The New England Primer. Ginn & Company and the Athenæum Press were founded by Edward Ginn in 1868. Later it became a publishing imprint of the British-owned Pearson Education. The foreword of this facsimile explains: 

We present herewith a facsimile reproduction of The New England Primer, from an original published, as nearly as can be determined, between the years 1785-1790, and now owned by Mr. G.A. Plimpton of New York. The last leaf of this original is missing; that leaf in this edition is printed from modern type. The binding of this original is literally of boards, not in the modern sense of pasteboard, but strips of wood one-eighth of an inch thick covered with thin paper. To reproduce this binding exactly was too difficult a matter for our bookbinder, so we have contended ourselves with the paper binding in which many of the early editions of The Primer appeared.

The New England Primer was one of the greatest books ever published. It went through innumerable editions; it reflected in a marvelous way the spirit of the age that produced it, and contributed perhaps more than any other book except the Bible, to the moulding of those sturdy generations that gave to America its institutions. Even late reprintings of The Primer are scarce and expensive, only to be found in the book collectors’ treasure house. We have therefore made this reproduction from a rare and typical original, in the belief that it will be valued by the teachers and pupils of to-day.

Unlike today, children spent little time in formal schooling. In fact, during the seventeenth century, it is estimated that the average person received fewer than ninety days of schooling in their lifetime.  Therefore, reading instruction had to prepare learners for later self-study as much as possible. By the 1800s, there were some fifty-nine different primers circulating in the United States. However none would impact and influence the country as much as Noah Webster’s popular blue-backed Speller — named for its distinct blue covers, seen below quite worn.

The American Spelling Book
Noah Webster
Middletown, CT: William H. Niles, 1829
PE1144 W4 1829

Noah Webster, whose name has become synonymous with the dictionary, was an American lexicographer, English-language spelling reformer, political writer, editor, author, and textbook pioneer. Sometimes called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education,” Webster and his blue-backed Speller not only taught five generations of young learners how to spell and read, but did so in a profoundly American way. Reflecting on his own education in a dilapidated one-room primary school, Webster critiqued the religious instruction and was motivated to improve the educational experience of future generations. 

A Grammatical Institute of the English Language was first published in 1783. The title was changed to The American Spelling Book in 1786, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. The Speller was entirely secular by design, and removed any mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events. Instead, Webster focused on the classics: Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Swift, but also included American authors such as Joel Barlow, Timothy Dwight, and John Trumbull, in addition to excerpts from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis and an essay by Thomas Day which called for the abolition of slavery. 

Webster was inspired by French theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) not for its politics, but for its views on pedagogy. He was concerned with the stages of child development and adjusted his Speller to progress by age — organizing it to begin with the alphabet and move systematically through different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, more complex words and, finally, sentences. Perhaps more importantly, Webster emphasized nationalism along with moralism as an attempt to create a uniquely American language and grammar. A Federalist and avid supporter of the American Revolution, Webster believed that Americans should learn from American books: 

“In the choice of pieces, I have not been inattentive to the political interests of America. Several of those masterly addresses of Congress, written at the commencement of the late Revolution, contain such noble, just, and independent sentiments of liberty and patriotism, that I cannot help wishing to transfuse them into the breasts of the rising generation.”

In his lifetime, the blue-backed Speller went through 385 editions and by 1890 had sold some sixty million copies. The royalties Webster received — a half-cent per copy — were enough to help him fund other endeavors, such as his famous dictionary. The Spellers also helped create the popular contest known as Spelling Bee. 

McGuffey’s New Third Eclectic Reader
William H. McGuffey
Cincinnati, OH: Winthrop B Smith & Co.;
New York, NY: Clark, Austin, & Smith, 1857
PE1117 M334

As public school expanded in the nineteenth century, and more children began to spend time in school, so too did the variety of reading primers available in the United States. In the same way Webster’s American Spelling Book replaced The New England Primer in popularity, William McGuffey Eclectic Readers began to top the textbook charts. Between 1836 to 1960, about 120 million copies were sold. There was nothing particularly different or special about the McGuffey readers, meaning their success was likely established through business strategies and marketing practices. 

William Holmes McGuffey was first approached by Truman and Smith, a small Cincinnati publishing firm, in 1835. He had been recommended by his longtime friend, Harriet Beecher Stowe, to create a series of graded readers for primary school students. The first two readers were published in 1836, and a third and fourth in 1837. McGuffey’s younger brother, Alexander compiled the fifth reader in 1844, and most of the sixth in 1857. A more advanced, high school reader was introduced in 1863. 

The word, “eclectic” in McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers denoted that it derived reading material from a broad and diverse range of sources. From religion to literature, the aim was to set high social and moral standards on younger generations, particularly those pioneering the west, but also including immigrants from all different countries. Biographer Harvey Minnich described it as such: 

“It was to be enough Puritan to fit into the religious mental mode of the descendants of the Ohio Land Company; enough Cavalier to fit into the moral and mental mode of the blue blood of Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina; enough economic to fit into the thrifty mental mode of the German and Scots.”

McGuffey’s phonics-based primers dominated American education well into the early twentieth century. However, during the Progressive Era, educators and social scientists began to critique McGuffey’s approach, believing that the selections were too complex for young children. An attempt to develop a new method that catered more directly to the lives of contemporary children began. Limited vocabulary, simple story lines, and illustrations that take up the bulk of the page resulted in reading primers like the iconic Dick and Jane series.

Dick and Jane: Basic Pre-Primer
William H. Elson and William Gray
Chicago, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1936
PE1119 E47 1936

“Dick” and “Jane” made their debut in 1930 as part of the Elson-Gray Basic Readers series. These primers introduced characters that were relatable, contained stories featuring day-to-day activities, and de-emphasized any regional characteristics in order to develop a new national audience. The popularity of the Dick and Jane series peaked in the 1950s, when some 80% of first-grade students in the United States were reading them in the classroom. Ongoing criticism, however, saw the end to the series by 1965.

Dick and Jane created the market for “basal readers,” wherein phonics-based drills were replaced by the whole word, or “look-say” method, as advocated by William Elson and William Gray. As the Director of the Curriculum Foundation Series, and the Dean of the University of Chicago’s College of Education, Gray’s research focused on improving reading instruction through word recognition — emphasizing the meaning of words, rather than a string of sounds. In these basal readers, text and image work together to help young readers understand the story. The text introduces a repetitive pattern of words, while the illustrations provide the necessary reinforcements to convey meaning.

Zerna Sharp, a former school teacher, named and developed the characters of “Dick” and “Jane.” Sharp was also heavily involved in the production of the books, selecting and editing storylines. The storylines featured the lives and experiences of a stereotypical American middle-class family living in the suburbs. By the late 1950s, critics of the series began to point out the stereotypes that included class, gender, and racial bias. Dick, the oldest of the three children, was an active boy, and well-behaved. Jane, the second-oldest, was pretty and carefree, and also took on a maternal role with her baby sister, Sally. Mother stayed home, did housework, and raised the children; while Father wore a suit and went to work, or he mowed the lawn and washed the car. The family also had a cat and a dog.

Many argued that not all students could relate to such a family and even Congress stepped in. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, was one of many initiatives that promised a commitment toward equal opportunity for all students. In response, the publisher of the Dick and Jane series, Scott-Foresman, introduced the first Black-American family in its 1965 issue — which was also its last. Criticism of books’ stereotypes continued, along with education professionals advocating for a return to a phonics-based system. By the late 1960s, Dick and Jane were off the shelves and out of the classrooms.

Deseret Primer: containing lessons for juveniles
Great Salt Lake City, Utah Territory: Elias Smith, printer, 1863
PE1117 A1 D47

Unlike other subjects taught in schools, learning to read was never solely about literacy skills. Learning how to read also meant learning what to read. Whether for religious, moral, or cultural ends, reading primers always imparted ideology and were always influenced by changing attitudes in society toward childhood and toward the role of the school in shaping the minds and lives of children. Perhaps this is why the University of Deseret decided to establish its own reading primer for the young generations living in the Utah Territory. 

Despite being published in 1863, this Deseret Primer focuses less on phonics-based reading lessons popularized in the nineteenth century, and has more in common with the “look-say”  basal readers such as Dick and Jane. The introduction to the primer explains the method of instruction in this way:

“Inasmuch as it is now generally considered that the preferable method of instructing Juveniles is to commence teaching them to read simple words, the Teacher, by commencing with Lesson I, may find out by experience that his pupils can be taught to call words at sight as well as letters, and that they may be taught to read several lessons while they are mastering the alphabet… The general method of prefixing exercises to reading lessons is avoided, as it is believed that children can be taught to read more fluently by having their words pronounced for them, than to be lured into a drawing habit of reading by spelling their words.”

Printer Elias Smith was the cousin of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1851, Elias Smith emigrated to the Utah Territory, where the Church had settled, and was elected by the territorial legislature to be the probate judge of Salt Lake County. In addition to his judicial duties, Smith kept busy with the business of printing and publishing. After working as the business manager of the Deseret News, Smith became the editor in 1856 and held this position for six years. Afterwards, Smith became a member of the Utah Constitutional Convention, and was one of the committee members who helped draft the state constitution. 

Deseret First and Second Book
Great Salt Lake City, Utah Territory: 1868
PE1152 S35; PE1152 S352

Before the last primer ever hit the press, another Deseret primer was already in development. In October of 1853, the Board of Regents at the University of Deseret appointed a committee of three to establish a unique system of orthography and prepare a schoolbook in the new characters. The Deseret alphabet, as it was called, was an attempt at phonetic reform. Consisting of thirty-eight characters, these new symbols reflected individual sounds, rather than several. It was believed this new system would make learning to read and write a less confusing experience. 

In spite of early efforts to adopt the Deseret alphabet in the Utah territory, it did not take on. By 1868, however, Brigham Young decided to revive interest in the alphabet and allocated funds to cast type and print books. It was decided that if the alphabet should ever succeed, it would have to be taught to the youngest generations first — those who were just learning how to read. Orson Pratt was charged with traveling East to make arrangements. Brigham Young blamed the ugliness of the early typeface, developed by Ladew & Peer for the first failed attempt. For the second try, Young commissioned Russell’s American Steam Printing House, a New York City based font foundry. The result was the Bodoni-esque font we see in these two books. 

During the October 1868 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young announced that thousands of small books, called first and second readers, were on their way to Utah to be used in the public schools. The Deseret First Book contained thirty-six pages while the Deseret Second Book had seventy-two. Ten thousand copies of each had been printed, selling at fifteen and twenty cents each, respectively. The following year, the Book of Mormon was printed in the new Deseret alphabet in two separate editions: one for family use and reading, the other as a series of three volumes which would serve to follow the first and second readers. Only the first volume of the series was ever published. 

The cost to supply the Deseret readers to school children in the territory was estimated to be over five million dollars — a value of up to $165,000,000 today. Likely due to the prohibitive costs, the Deseret alphabet was never widely adopted.

These books, along with more than 80,000 items in the collection can be viewed in the Special Collections Reading Room by appointment. To make appointment, schedule a class visit, or learn more about rare books, visit our website at



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