Amazing Abecedariums: Eight Alphabet Books from 1672 to 2010

December 10, 2021 | Myrna

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Learning the alphabet may be "as easy as ABC," but there are many creative ways to teach it. From traditional rhymes to space age adventures, alphabet books are an ever expanding genre of children's literature. 

Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books has a unique collection of alphabet books dating from the 17th century to the present. Sometimes called abecedarium, these books present the letters in order. With each alphabet book taking a different approach, the variations on this simple theme are endless.

Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1672)

Orbis Sensualium Pictus was one of the first children's picture books published in Europe. First published in what is now Germany, this Latin textbook is titled The Visible World in Pictures in English. Orbis Sensualium Pictus teaches learners Latin words for nature, commerce, human biology and more. The book's alphabet section teaches letter sounds through animal noises. Those animal noises might sound strange to modern readers, with phases like "Lamb blaiteth" and "Grasshopper chirpeth." 

Osborne Collection's copy of Orbis Sensualium Pictus is an English edition from 1672. Orbis Sensualium Pictus' English translator admitted that the book's German phrases did not always easily translate to English. This explains the confusing phrase "[t]he Crow cryeth" representing A. 

Page from Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1672) depicting letters A through D with accompanying illustrations and phrases in Latin and English.
The alphabet portion of Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1672).

The History of Apple Pie (1808)

In the 19th century, the popularity of illustrated alphabet books expanded rapidly. Printing technology advanced making illustrated books easier and cheaper to produce. The market for children’s books also grew. Middle-class parents were eager to supply their children with books. The History of the Apple Pie (see digitized book or record for print copy) was an early example of this new demand for alphabet books.

The book teaches the alphabet through a relatable narrative about craving apple pie. (At the time, the word "history" was also used to mean "story".) A hungry set of siblings approach the apple pie and continue to bite, cry and dance their way through the alphabet. The book's text comes from an old alphabet rhyme, which was first written down in 1671. 

Three pages from The History of Apple Pie (1808) reading "A Apple Pie a," "B bit it b" and "E eyed it e" with accompanying illustrations
An entire family is hungry for apple pie in The History of Apple Pie (1808). Letters A, B and E of alphabet rhyme are shown here.

An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (1859)

An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (1859) by Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon (1826–1874) is the earliest known Canadian picture book. Originally from England, Howard-Gibbon lived in Sarnia, Ontario when she created the book. Howard-Gibbon's alphabet illustrations were never published during her lifetime. She gifted the original pen-and-ink illustrations to her friend Martha Poussette in 1865. In the 1960s, Howard-Gibbon's illustrations were donated to the Osborne Collection. In 1966, Osborne Collection published a reproduction edition of her An Illustrated Comic Alphabet art.

Howard-Gibbon's book uses the "A was an Archer" alphabet rhyme. The "A was an Archer" rhyme first appeared in print in the early 18th century. The popular rhyme was used for centuries with many illustrators putting their unique spin on the poem. Howard-Gibbon's characters all have child-like faces and proportions, which contrasts with the adult-themed rhymes such as "D was a Drunkard, with a red face" and "G was a Gamester, and he had ill luck." 

Page from An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (1859) with text "A was an an Archer, and shot at a Frog" and accompanying illustration
An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (1859) uses the traditional "A was an Archer" alphabet rhyme.
Page from An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (1859) with text "D was a Drunkard, with a red Face" and accompanying illustration
“D was a drunkard, and had a red face" was removed in some later versions of the rhyme.

Space Alphabet (1964)

While other alphabet books use traditional rhymes and common words, Space Alphabet (1964) takes readers to another planet. Space Alphabet was published at the height of the space race. Writer Irene Zacks introduces readers to new technology, with sentences like "R is for rockets ready to GO!" and "S is for the satellites that probe outer space." Space Alphabet is optimistic about space travel's future. The letter W stands for "the wonders you may someday see in space," and Y stands for "you in your new space suit." 

Page from Space Alphabet (1964) with text "Y is for you in your new space suit" and accompanying illustration
Y stands for "you in your new space suit" in Irene Zacks' Space Alphabet (1964).

Alphabet Book (1968)

Kids create their own ABCs in Alphabet Book (1968). This book features illustrations by elementary school students from Kettle Point First Nation. Working with their teacher Anne Wyse, 36 students between the ages of five and eight contributed to Alphabet Book. The book reflects the students' diverse interests. Illustrations range from turtles and ice cream to Lesser Yellowlegs (a type of bird) and Zorro.

Two pages of Alphabet Book (1968) with the letter T and an illustration of a turtle surrounded by people
Students surround a turtle for letter T in Alphabet Book (1968).

The Eclectic Abecedarium (1983)

Measuring just 3.5 cm long, The Eclectic Abecedarium (1983) is Osborne Collection's smallest alphabet book. The book was created by the irreverent and eccentric Edward Gorey, a 20th-century illustrator dubbed "the granddaddy of Goth." The Eclectic Abecedarium is a parody of 19th-century moral education poetry. Gorey's alphabet couplets give off-beat advice, which loosely feature letters of the alphabet. 

Copy of The Electric Abecedarium placed next to a metric ruler, showing the book measures 3.5 cm long.
The Eclectic Abecedarium (1983) is Osborne Collection's smallest alphabet book.
Three images of hand holding open book with short rhymes
Rhyming couplets for letters A, B and L from Gorey's ABC book.

ABC3D (2008)

ABC3D (2008) introduces readers to an alphabet in motion. French illustrator and graphic designer Marion Bataille created this alphabet pop-up book. Letters appear and transform as readers turn ABC3D's pages, C becomes D and a mirrored V becomes W. Beyond the ABCs, designer Bataille has also created counting books 10 (2011) and Numero (2013)

Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'alfabet di Michif / Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet (2010)

Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'alfabet di Michif (2010) by Julie Flett is a dual-language alphabet book featuring text in Michif and English. Michif is the language of the Métis people. Cree, French and other Indigenous languages combined to create a unified Michif language. Michif is an endangered language. Flett's alphabet book is part of efforts to celebrate and preserve Michif.

Like English, Michif uses the Latin alphabet, but with some differences. There are no Q or X sounds in Michif, so Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer features a 24 letter alphabet. The alphabet book celebrates Métis culture and Michif language. It features words important to Metis culture, like G for "La Galet" (bannock in English) and V for "Li Vyaloñ" (fiddle in English). 

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