New England Primer (1802)
Learning the alphabet went hand in hand with learning Calvinist principles in early America. The phrase “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” taught children the first letter of the alphabet and the concept of original sin at the same time. More than 6 million copies in 450 editions of the New England Primer were printed between 1681 and 1830 and were a part of nearly every child’s life. The illustration for the letter C in this 1803 edition, in which a cat plays a fiddle as mice dance, gives us a hint of the sense of humor of the times.
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Meriwether Lewis, History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark (1814)
After Meriwether Lewis’s death in September 1809, William Clark engaged Nicholas Biddle to edit the expedition papers. Using the captains’ original journals and those of Sergeants Gass and Ordway, Biddle completed a narrative by July 1811. After delays with the publisher, a two-volume edition of the Corps of Discovery’s travels across the continent was finally available to the public in 1814. More than twenty editions appeared during the nineteenth century, including German, Dutch, and several British editions.
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Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)
One of the first works of fiction by an American author to become popular outside the United States, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was first published as part of The Sketchbook in 1820. Irving’s vivid imagery involving the wild supernatural pursuit by the Headless Horseman has sustained interest in this popular folktale through many printed editions, as well as film, stage, and musical adaptations. The bold cover art of the 1899 edition is the work of Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944), the preeminent designer of decorated cloth publishers’ bindings between 1890 and 1913.
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William Holmes McGuffey, McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer (1836)
William Holmes McGuffey was hired in the 1830s by Truman and Smith, a Cincinnati publishing firm, to write school books appropriate for children in the expanding nation. His eclectic readers were graded, meaning a student started with the primer and, as his reading abilities improved, moved from the first through the sixth reader. Religious instruction is not included, but a strong moral code is encouraged with stories in which hard work and virtue are rewarded and misdeeds and sloth are punished.
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Samuel Goodrich, Peter Parley’s Universal History (1837)
Samuel Goodrich, using the pseudonym Peter Parley, wrote children’s books with an informal and friendly style as he introduced his young readers to faraway people and places. Goodrich believed that fairy tales and fantasy were not useful and possibly dangerous to children. He entertained them instead with engaging tales from history and geography. His low regard for fiction is ironic in that his accounts of other places and cultures were often misleading and stereotypical, if not completely incorrect. This copy is bound in rare, ribbon-embossed cloth that is stamped and signed in gilt by pioneering Boston book binder Benjamin Bradley.
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Samuel Goodrich (1793–1860). Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography: for the Use of Families, Illustrated by Maps and Engravings. Boston: American Stationers’ Company, John B. Russell, 1837. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)
Samuel Goodrich (1793–1860). Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography: for the Use of Families, Illustrated by Maps and Engravings. Boston: American Stationers’ Company, John B. Russell, 1837. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)
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Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography is one of the best-written and most widely read slave narratives. It was boldly published less than seven years after Douglass had escaped and before his freedom was purchased. Prefaced by statements of support from his abolitionist friends, William Garrison and Wendell Phillips, Douglass’s book relates his experiences growing up a slave in Maryland and describes the strategies he used to learn to read and write. More than just a personal story of courage, Douglass’s account became a strong testament for the need to abolish slavery.
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