On Death and Mayhem in Children’s Alphabets–the New England Primer

JF Ptak Science Books   Post 2355

Now I lay me down to sleep, I  pray thee Lord, my soul to keep;If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.–New England Primer, 1784 edition

There’s nothing scary in that is there?  The nightmare-maker may have its first introduction in the New England Primer, a book which was the backbone of North American education for many decades. as popular as it was and as much as it was used, print runs were not enormous, and most children would never actually own a copy of the book. It would be read to them for lessons, and that being the case much info was presented by vivid short rhymes , some of which are hard to forget because of the mental imagery they present.


[Image source: Wikipedia, here.]

For example the mnemonic devices used to help learn the alphabet is riddled with murder, mayhem, vice, death, and not all that much hope….except if you include stuff like “Job feels the rod, and praises God” as a Puritanical form of hope/salvation. Perhaps the writers were after the indelible impression as well as searing the cerebellum with the moral code. In fact, in the 24-letter alphabet presented in the   edition (“i” and “v” are not included), 12 of the letters are death- or violence-related, including the statements that we are all sinners, that cats kill things, dogs bite, fools are whipped at school, life runs out like sand in an hourglass, punishment deserves prayer, offensive things as big as armies can be swallowed up whole, a teary Rachel cries over her tiny dead child, time will kill you (again), kings will do and so will so, and youthful bits can of course kill you.  It is part-and-parcel I guess of the rearing of kids in the not-necessarily-glorious history of childhood.  Death and the possibilities of it or some close relative of it was a lot closer to reality than it is today, especially when the average life span at the time was well under 50 and infant mortality easily an order of magnitude more prevalent than it is today1.  And of course outside of the plague-of-death culture and the subjugation of kids for a better behavior there was also the screaming Calvinist theology that beat up/taught readers the abandonment of the self to the creator available to young and old.  

This sort of indoctrination was hardly limited to the New England Primer, printed in this country as the first of its type beginning in the late 17th century (and with some familiarity several printings can be remember for famously having the “printed by B. Franklin” imprint in the 1760’s). It would be easier to name the child’s instructional that did not have this leaning (at least before 1880) though I am presently hard-pressed to think of an example off-hand).

And lest we forget, the Grimm brothers wrote stuff for kid the vast majority of which we wouldn’t think of reading to our kids today–I didn’t.  


1. Good national statistics for the U.S. before 1870 begin to get sketchy in this area, though from 1900 onward the numbers look pretty good.  Suffice to say that historians of medicine and Medieivalists and so on make pretty good educated estimates for these rates, and they’re not so good.  For example, in 1900 in America the average life span was 47 and the infant mortality at 16% (compared to about 80 or so and .7% today), though I cannot offhand find the stats for childhood survivability by age 10.  Looking back in time the numbers get really big, with some people  saying that childbirth mortality in the Medieval and Renaissance times were in the 30-50% range, and the survivability rate passed 10 was about the same.  I don’t have these rates for American colonial times, but I assume that they are closer to the Renaissance than they are to 1900 numbers.  And of course this does not apply to slaves, whose rates of survivability were smaller still.  

By: Ptak Science Books
Via: Feedbin Starred Entries
Source: http://j.mp/1pHNrtf

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