Indiana University Bloomington

A typical hornbook text measuring about
3 1/2" x 2 1/2". Lilly Library. Indiana University.


The New England Primer is a graded reader, that is, it has sections for a variety of reading levels, including beginners. The syllabarium, lists of letters in different fonts, and lists of words grow out of the hornbook tradition. Hornbooks had been used in England since at least the fifteenth century and usually consisted of a sheet of paper tacked to a wood, bone, or leather frame and protected by a leaf of horn. The frame often had a handle that could be held or tied to a child’s waist.

As with the example at the right, hornbooks usually started with a cross in the top left-hand corner and included the alphabet in upper and lower case, a list of the vowels, a syllabarium, an invocation to the Trinity, and the Lord’s Prayer. All of the elements of the hornbook appear in the New England Primer except the cross. Because Puritans believed that the cross was a symbol of idolatry, publishers were probably reluctant to include it: there is no edition of the Primer known to have an image of the cross in it.

"Read, and Be Wise" at the Library of Congress, an online exhibition of hornbooks

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Last Updated: 17 August 2009
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