The Cambridge Press, 1638-1692: A Reexamination of the Evidence concerning the Bay Psalm Book and the Eliot Indian Bible as Well as Other Contemporary Books and People

By George Parker Winship | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
BUSINESS OPENINGS

SCHOOLBOOKS

THE SPELLING BOOK was the only output of the Press for the years from 1642 to 1645 that Steven Day recollected when he listed its work a decade later. Among the titles that have disappeared which were produced at this shop, there is nothing that tempts the imagination more than this schoolbook. Nothing seen in any of the bibliographies, English or American, helps to visualize what it may have looked like or what was on its pages. It was probably a tiny thing, a quarter sheet of paper folded three times, with a cut on the outer pages to serve as a cover. Some copies for the children of the well-to-do may have had a wrapper of gaily decorated wallpaper. It was almost certainly intended for the little ones who attended a dames school after they had conned their letters from a hornbook. When one considers the care with which the Massachusetts settlers provided elementary schooling at public expense for their children, it is not surprising that this is the first thing after an almanac which unmistakably partakes of the character of a commercial venture.

The contents of this first New England printed schoolbook may have been preserved in the New England Primer. In every edition of that primer a list of words to be spelled, grouped by the number of syllables, occupies the second place following the letters of the large and small alphabets. If those lists were taken over from a separate spelling book, that was one of the germs which developed into the best seller of all time in this corner of the world. The other basic element in the New England Primer was the catechism wherewith the children were taught to read. The consolidation of these two with the hornbook took place within the next two decades, perhaps at the composing case of a far- sighted London printer who realized that there were in the American colony more people than anywhere else in the world within an equal area who would spend money for books for their children's schooling.

There had been separately printed catechisms long before a new England was thought of. The parents of the men and women who migrated

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