The New England Primer

Define: primer – (prim`er; Brit. now generally pri`mer), n. 1. A book, orig. a prayer book, used in teaching children to read or spell; hence, an elementary textbook. (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition, G.&C. Merriam Co., Publishers Springfield, Mass., USA. 1939)

Did you ever wonder where did the verse

“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.”

came from?

The answer is The New England Primer, was an early method to teach young children the English language. This was of utmost importance in the mind of the puritans who immigrated from England to the New England. It was America’s first school book and the #2 best seller preceeded only by The Holy Bible.

“New England Primer famous American school book, first published before 1690. Its compiler was Benjamin Harris, an English printer who emigrated to Boston. This was the book from which most of the children of colonial America learned to read. The letters of the alphabet were illustrated by rhymed couplets (e.g., “The idle Fool/Is whipt at School” ) and woodcuts; the lessons frequently contained moral texts based on the Old Testament. The book was reprinted many times, with various changes in text and even in title. Although it has been estimated that as many as 2 million were sold in the 18th cent., copies of the book are now rare.”

From The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition

“Advertised as an easy and pleasant guide to the art of reading, this New England primer is a facsimile reprint circa 1905. Illustrated with black and white woodcuts, the rhyming lessons were intended to teach moral values as well as reading. Schoolbooks were not provided by the schools at this time and parents were obligated to purchase books for their children from a list approved by their local District School Committee.”

“The first settlers of New England brought primers with them from England where they had been in use for over a hundred years. Primers, also known as catechisms, began as devotional books containing simple instructions in Christian knowledge. Such books typically contained an illustrated alphabet along with informative pictures and stories with a heavy dose of moralism. This example includes both Biblical (e.g., Zacheus) and modern references (Washington). Even in this late edition, the Puritan preoccupation with death was impressed on young readers.”

From American Centuries . . . a view from New England website – digital collections

The New England Primer – wikipedia

1777 version

1805 version (scanned)

The New England Primer

The New England Primer: A History of its Orgin and Development

The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer

The Common School – Literacy Then and Now by Andrew Newman

The Colonial Period


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