Hornbooks: Most Popular iPad App of the 15th Century


The hornbook often presented English children, and subsequently Colonial American children, with their first encounter with letters and words. Because parchment was a scarce material, and thus expensive, the origins of reading and literacy (the alphabet) was printed upon a single piece, along with simple combinations of vowels and consonants and finally a copy of the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety and placed upon a wooden paddle. To protect the fragility of the hand printed document, the parchment was sealed under a layer of cow’s horn. The process to prepare the horn for use was lengthy, involving soaking the horn in cold water for several days to separate it from the bone, boiling it in water, placing it directly in fire and pressing it between metal plates to transform it into a smooth, translucent piece which was then fastened upon the wood with brass strips and iron tacks. The small paddles often had a hole on one end which a string of leather or twine would be passed through, allowing the hornbook to be tied to its owner and making it portable.

As with many instruments of learning and technology, different variations were made available. Oak hornbooks were the least expensive and accessible to almost everyone. More intricate versions of the hornbook would go on to be created of silver, ivory or bone and were often etched or engraved upon directly. The type of hornbook a student carried could have been viewed as a symbol of wealth or privilege, as different versions of electronic gadgets can be seen today.

Silver Hornbook

Religious Influences

What could be identified as the earliest reading primers evolved out of the teachings of the church and were comprised fully of religious content that was limited and determined by the authority of the church. (Huey, p. 242) Religion and instruction were inseparable at the time, the simplest of lessons, such as basic literacy skills being learned alongside religious verses and parables. “Alphabet and creed became united in one book which became the forerunner on the one hand of the book of Common Prayer, and on the other of the modern school primer.” (Reeder, p. 10) Oral recitation began to intermix with the textual biblical studies. Though the church, in the same vein as primarily oral cultures, feared what advancements in technology would mean to the basis and standards of their beliefs, literacy remained a sought after quality. Ong goes on to describe those who subsequently resist literacy, even in primarily oral cultures, as those who are “mostly soon lost sight of”. (Ong, p. 171)

The hornbook was a ready, at-hand reminder of the simplest of lessons, but also a reminder that God was a constant presence. A small, red cross was almost always included in the upper left hand corner of the hornbook. Students were to ask God to bless them as they reviewed and studied their lessons; the final section of the hornbook remained The Lord’s Prayer, offered up as a routine closing. As colonists moved away from the reign of the church of England, the red cross faded from American hornbooks as primers began to move to include secular teachings.

The Role of Play

The role of play in education was explored as far back as 68 A.D. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian believed that children learned best through play and suggested the first incarnation of what we know today as alphabet blocks, claiming that the best way to learn the alphabet was to give children “blocks and tablets containing the letters to play with.” (Huey, p. 241) It was thought that children who had strongly interacted with objects of educational value would learn and retain information at a much higher rate of success than those who learned through strictly rote methods.

Hornbooks were often used both in lessons and at play. Perhaps the most popular form of hornbook amongst children was one that was made entirely from gingerbread with icing creating the traditionally written portion. Children would get to eat each letter as it was learned. German educational reformist Johann Bernhard Basedow, a large proponent of learning literacy through play, went as far as stating that each school should have a dedicated baker.  “The children must have breakfast, and it is not necessary for any child to eat the alphabet more than three weeks. The cost of shaping the dough into letters is less than one-half penny daily for each child. The acquisition is entirely worth so much and is possible even to the poor children.” (Huey, p. 242) It would appear that school budgets have always been a cause for concern, regardless of time or choice of materials.

Gingerbread Hornbook


Though the hornbook was in use from the middle of the fifteenth century through to the 1800s, the primers it was used alongside with went through quite a bit of change. Once strictly comprised of religious material, primers began to expand to include secular material when adopted by Protestant educators. The A B C book by Schulte, first published in 1532 presented letters with pictures and through rhymes, appealing to children’s interests. (Huey, p. 243)

The New England Primer, a mainstay in Colonial schools, was primarily a church text but included spelling lists, rhymes, prayers and moral lessons. It could be found in every home, alongside the Bible. It eventually declined in popularity, giving rise to the spelling-book, a text that was a combination of speller, primer, alphabet and reader that often included various subjects. Webster’s Spelling Book was first published in 1783 and by 1889 1,200,000 copies were sold annually. (Huey, p. 248)

Children carried hornbooks as small reminders of simple lessons. Colonial American children went on to develop their own versions of handbooks through other mediums. It was not uncommon to find the alphabet, along with favourite rhymes, popular sayings of the time, prayers and other familiar verse stitched in thread upon linen. These personalized versions of handbooks were known as samplers, and by creating them, children were no longer simply reading and reciting simple lessons, but actively creating the content they would later review themselves.


It may be considered a stretch to call electronic devices such as Android phones and iPads the hornbooks of today, but a simple browse through the app store could prove interesting in this regard. In the Apple App Store alone, there are well over 1000 apps listed as a result of searching the term “alphabet.” The apps range in technological advancement from a simple backlit, hornbook-like printed alphabet to fully interactive, animated alphabetical characters who move around the screen to match the swipe of a finger with accompanying music. The basic sentiment of a handheld device existing to help students to remember their alphabet and learn the basics of reading remains the same though the technology has allowed the presentation to become, in some cases, vastly different.

Looking to the Future

It would be interesting to conduct a study on how different alphabet apps, from the very simple visual “hornbook style” to the highly interactive, impact early readers. The increasing affordability and availability of smartphones and e-readers to younger users along with the advancements in app design and content will make it increasingly harder to test children in an untainted state. Some may even argue that the written alphabet, which can still be found strewn across the tops of classrooms the world over, will eventually become obsolete. Of course, the same has been said about brick and mortar libraries.


As with many other forms of advancement, tradition is something that will always be reflected upon when considering full abandonment. In the case of the hornbook, the end of the nineteenth century saw the rise in illustrated tri-fold booklets. Historian Andrew Tuer wrote, “In its later days, the humble hornbook was treated with the full measure of contempt lavished on a thing which has served its purpose. ‘Destroy and forget,’ said everybody, and alas! Everybody did.” (Tuer, p. 6) Perhaps if Andrew Tuer opened a simple alphabet app on a smartphone today, he would be pleasantly surprised at what he might find.



Bookmaking with kids: For the love of reading, writing & art. (2008, Aug 25). Hands-on history of books: Hornbooks. Retrieved from http://www.bookmakingwithkids.com/?p=716.

Huey, E.B. (1913). The psychology and pedagogy of reading. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.

Ong, W.J. (1988). Orality and literacy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Reeder, R.R. (1900). Historical development of school readers and of method in teaching reading. Columbia University Contributions to Philosophy, Psychology, and Education. 8 (2). 92.

Tuer, A.W. (1897). History of the horn-book. London: Leadenhall Press.

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3 Responses to Hornbooks: Most Popular iPad App of the 15th Century

  1. mckay says:

    I have never heard of such a tool before. It certainly doesn’t seem far fetched to compare it to modern tablets at all. Interesting to see how its decline was tied to the rise of spelling books.

  2. murray12 says:

    I would also say that it isn’t far-fetched to compare hornbooks and modern tablets’ affordances as symbols of wealth and privilege. Students and parents taking note of wood types and craftsmanship would likely be rather equivalent to noting company names and model numbers. The technology may change, but the competitiveness doesn’t.

  3. Though it does appear that hornbooks were more readily available to the masses than what I would initially think to be true of iPads, Kindles, and the like today, I did find an interesting parallel between having the most intricate (or expensive) model in both sets of circumstances. Unfortunately, I believe that regardless of time and progress, there will always be a desire to “Keep up with the Joneses” as it were.

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