F▪am▪i▪ly Phonics

Home
Getting Started
Word Families
Handwriting
Resources
About Us
Help
 
Adam's Fall: History

The New England Primer

Religious Roots

In the early colonial period, reading the Bible was the primary reason and motivation for learning to read. For example, in 1647, the "Old Deluder Act" was passed by the Massachusetts General Court required every township with 50 or more families to hire a teacher.  Similar legislation quickly spread to the other New England colonies, being the first step towards compulsory education. The preamble was explicit that knowledge of the Scriptures was the chief goal, and that "one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, [is] to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures" (see text with original spelling and typesetting represented in Ford, and an modernized spelling rendering of the text is found here). Illiterate people were at the mercy of other people for their knowledge of God and His Word, and  inaccessibility to the Bible had fomented centuries of darkness prior to the Reformation. Indeed the appearance of early primers in England has been connected directly to the beginning of the Reformation. Only literate people could have the privilege of direct, independent access to God's revelation.

This connection and between learning the alphabet and learning Scripture and doctrine is pervasive in The New England Primer.  And the concern that children come to know Christ as Savior and Lord is obvious. By the modern taste, specific language in the Primer is frequently termed stern and morbid. Our modern culture tries to avoid the recognition of death. But to the colonial culture, where death was ever present, the reality of coming to know Christ before one's demise was of urgent concern. The truth spoken in verses such as "As runs the Glass our life does pass" (for letter 'G') is irrefutable--albeit unpopular.

Four other letters also focus on the nearness and inescapable-ness of death (R, T, X, Y).  And other verses focus on judgment, punishment, and accountability.  But statements of deliverance, hope, and moral instruction are also given. The alphabet runs from 'A' with the Fall of humanity to 'Z' with the hope of redemption found in the story of Zacchaeus.

The Primer also contained the Shorter Catechism of 107 questions and answers on the faith, along with prayers, the creed, and other instruction on moral and religious obligations. Historically, it was the religious materials, which were if primary importance, that gave the primers their name. For many homes, the extent of their library included only the Bible, the Primer, and an Almanac. In fact, the Primer itself was often called "The Little Bible of New England" (see Ford for further background).

Publication and Variations

The New England Primer was the first textbook published in the 13 colonies, and it was the most prevalent primer in the 18th century, and was still influential into the 19th century. The Primer was for both beginning and intermediate readers, starting with alphabets and moving on to religious and moral lessons. (See brief Wikipedia article.) It was published by Benjamin Harris, who lived in Boston from 1686 to 1695 and ran a bookstore, a coffeehouse, a printing business, and was the editor of the first multi-page newspaper published in the United States. Harris compiled the Primer modeled after earlier primers he had dealt with in London. One of his earlier publications in London (in 1679) was a longer work, The Protestant Tutor, which included a good number of the sections that went into the Primer. Publication of the Primer dates at least back to 1690, the year that a second, enlarged edition was advertised.

The New England Primer was not in fact a single unified text. It was treated as public domain from the beginning, and new printings were proliferated by local printers as the need arose.  Local printings might bear a different title, such as The New York Primer, or The American Primer. Yet in advertisements, inventories, and informal parlance, the generic "primer" came to mean a reprint of this specific Primer.

Harris himself continued publishing the Primer even after he returned to London, and other printers continued to reprint it in England and Scotland. By 1830, as many as 360 editions had been published. (See background discussion in Neitz.) Estimates of the total number of copies printed and sold for all editions range upward from 2 or 3 million.

With new printings came variations in each edition, including in the content and quality of the woodcuts. Materials were added and changed for different editions (although the editions in England were more stable). Later editions sought to update the language and spellings used at certain points. For example, in the rhyming alphabet, the original verse for 'Y' is rather obscure:

Youth forward slips,
Death soonest nips.

Later editions maintained the same theme--that even the young can die at any moment, but sought to make the language less obscure.  Two easier-to-understand variants are found in the editions surveyed:

While youth do chear
Death may be near. (1777 ed.)

No Youth, you see,
From death is free. (1800 ed.)

What is especially interesting in this example is the continuity in the illustrations: all contain death featured as a skeleton, usually holding an hourglass, with a spear aimed at a young boy or girl.

Similarly, while Queen Esther's daring bravery remained the subject of 'Q', the language was changed from the obscure:

Queen Ester sues
And saves the Jews.

to the more readable:

Queen Esther comes,
In Royal State,
To save the Jews
From dismal Fate. (1805 and later eds.)

Entirely Biblical Alphabet

Even with preponderance of emphasis on a Biblical message in the Primer, about a third of the rhymes in the original alphabet (labeled "Mixed" on these pages) are rather mundane, referring to animals, nature, or life situations. So, some printer between 1740 and 1760 undertook to "evangelize" these mundane verses and edify their message by composing rhymes about Biblical characters. The 1777 ed. stands in this tradition, maintaining Biblical characters and references throughout the rhyming alphabet. The Biblical rhymes are given in these pages labeled as the "Bible" alphabet.

Older Alphabet

It is interesting that the Primer preserves much older material at certain points.  The archaic use of a 24 letter alphabet is a primary example. This use derives from the fact that the Latin alphabet only had 24 letters at the beginning of the Middle Ages. That is, there was no orthographic distinction between I/J nor between U/V (see discussion of history of the Latin alphabet). Although these distinctions were made in the Middle Ages and are obviously used in the text of the Primer and other printed materials of the day, listings of the alphabet frequently omitted this distinction. (See also discussion in Google Answers.) And there are plenty of publications of the day that still used 'v' for 'u'. This practice saved on the amount of type a printer needed.

The practice of learning a rhyming alphabet, and thereby learning the alphabetic principle, dates back at least to 1552

In the editions surveyed, the letter 'I' is sometimes used as the identifying letter, even though the related verse actually uses 'J' (for "Job") (1777 and 1807 eds.)  Similarly, although the 1777 ed. illustrates 'V' using "Vashti," it is labeled with the letter 'U' in the margin.

Editions Surveyed

The New England Primer
1690, ff. Benjamin Harris, Boston. He lived in Boston from 1686 to 1695 and ran a bookstore, a coffeehouse, a printing business, and was the editor of the first multi-page newspaper published in the United States. The New England Primer was the first textbook printed in the 13 colonies. Harris compiled the Primer modeled after earlier primers he had dealt with in London. One of his earlier publications in London in 1679 was a longer work, The Protestant Tutor, which included a good number of the sections that went into the Primer. Publication of the Primer dates at least back to 1690, the year that a second, enlarged edition was advertised. Harris continued publishing the Primer even after he returned to London. No copies of the early editions survive.
The New England Primer
1727. Publisher: ? Earliest surviving edition. Brief scanned excerpts are available online, and entire text also available online.
The New England Primer
1777. Edward Draper, sold by John Boyle, Boston. Full text is available online. Reprints of this edition are offered by several publishers (source 1, source 2, source 3). The scanned images of an 1844 ed. reprint by Ira Webster available online appear to be of reprints of this edition, and are labeled 1777(1844) ed.
The New England Primer
ca. 1780. Edward Draper for Benjamin Larkin (1754-1803), Boston. Date not indicated, but estimates range from 1780 to 1790. Copies of a reprint from 1905 available in some libraries. Scanned excerpts available online.
The New England Primer
1800. Publisher: ?, New England. Uses Washington for 'W'; scanned image of last alphabet page showing 'T' through 'Z' is available online.
The New England Primer
1805. Whiting, Backus & Whiting, Albany. Scanned copy available online.
The New England Primer
1807. Printed for Daniel D. Smith, New York. Scanned copy available online.
The New England Primer
1843. Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, Boston. Full text with some scanned images is available online). Reprint of this edition is available (source).
The New England Primer
1844. Ira Webster, Boston. Appears to be a reprint of the 1777 ed. listed above. Referenced as 1777(1844). Scanned excerpts available online.

Other Background Sources

The New England primer : a reprint of the earliest known edition, with many facsimiles and reproductions, and an historical introduction
1899 edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. Extensive introduction plus reprint of 1727 ed. of Primer. Complete scanned copy available online.
Old textbooks: spelling, grammar, reading, arithmetic, geography, American history, civil government, physiology, penmanship, art, music, as taught in the common schools from colonial days to 1900
1961 by John Alfred Nietz. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh. Available online. Backgound and overview of New England Primer given on pp. 47, 50-51.
© Copyright 1998-2007 Joe A. Friberg. All Rights Reserved.