Kids' books of yore had moralistic bent

The Education Beat

Basics: Volumes from Julian L. and Linda F. Lapides' collection presage Reading Wars of modern era.

January 14, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ON THE TITLE pages of two books published in Baltimore by J.F. Weishampel, there are these lines:

"Amusement with instruction is combined,

"To please the simple and charm the tender mind."

Such a concept certainly applies to the colorful readers and storybooks that help children of the 21st century learn to read. But it wasn't until the 18th century that books were published for the enjoyment and instruction of children, and it wasn't until the 19th that books were sold for use in schools.

Even then, children's book authors and publishers had a restricted idea of enjoyment. They were as moralistic as an archconservative discussing Bill Clinton and as sure of the validity of their methods as today's gladiators in the Reading Wars.

All of this I learned in a private tour last week of Linda F. and Julian L. Lapides' fabulous collection of children's books on exhibit at the Peabody Library in Mount Vernon.

"For Amusement and Instruction: Children's Books in Bygone Baltimore" is an exhibition of 100 books, most published here, from the Lapideses' extensive private library, and though not a single book on display was published after 1875, addresses and names keep popping out that make the skin tingle.

No Dr. Seusses here, no E.B. Whites. This is largely serious stuff with no mixed messages. "The Good Girl's Soliloquy; Containing Her Parents' Instructions, Relative To Her Disposition and Manners," published in 1823 by Samuel S. Wood & Co. of New York and 212 Market St., Baltimore, spells out standards for behavior. An example: "I must not sit in others' places, nor sneeze and cough in others' faces."

The early books, Linda Lapides says, drew a distinction between reading and writing. "Girls could read, but writing was considered a craft that could only be practiced by boys."

Religious publishers produced the first reading primers. "After all," Lapides says, "you had to learn how to read to read the Bible." And so early readers commonly began with the alphabet, a table of syllables and words, biblical verses, perhaps a catechism.

Along with lists of words, brief stories and maxims, "The Second School Book. For Children Who Are Trying To Read" entreats children to "pledge perpetual hate to all that can intoxicate." And in 1819, Samuel S. Woods & Co. published a book with this title: "The New-York Reader, No. 1: Adapted To The Capacities Of The Younger Class Of Learners; Being, Selections Of Easy Lessons, Calculated To Inculcate Morality And Piety."

Baltimore schools were established in 1829, but they didn't have a superintendent until 1866. That long-ago school chief, John N. M'Jilton, wasn't a chief executive officer, but he was the author of an arithmetic textbook and one on primary grammar. The latter contains 102 grammar lessons and the observation that only humans can pronounce consonants; vowels, which presumably don't require conscious effort, are for the "brutes," according to M'Jilton.

In the exhibit, I saw little sign of complex reading programs in the 19th century. Most of the primers begin with the alphabet and then introduce one-, two- and three-syllable words, sometimes in lists and sometimes in short stories, often with religious themes. (Many of these books were published before public school systems were formed, so there were no First Amendment problems.)

An example in the Lapideses' collection, but not in the Peabody exhibit, is "Cobb's Juvenile Reader," by Lymon Cobb. The book contains a stern prefatory note that reads like a cigarette warning label: "The practice of teaching a child to read before he is familiar with the orthography and pronunciation of words, is productive of great injury. ... No person should attempt to read until he is able to call or pronounce, at sight, the words most commonly met in composition."

Cobb, in 1831, may have fired the first shot in the Reading Wars.

Frederick Douglass steals the show in the Lapides exhibit. Here's a photocopy of "Mrs. Auld Teaching [Douglass] to Read," an illustration from Douglass' autobiography. There are two books, Webster's famous "Spelling Book" and the "Columbian Orator," both also mentioned in the autobiography.

The story always inspires me, as it does Lapides. We can imagine 8-year-old Douglass being taught to read by Sophia Auld, her ship's carpenter husband, Hugh, proclaiming that "if he learns to read the Bible, it will forever unfit him to be a slave," young Frederick carrying Webster's speller in his pocket until it starts to fall apart, getting help from his white playmates on the words he doesn't know. All right here in Fells Point.

"Reading touches the human mind and the soul," says Lapides. "It's so important for people to read for pleasure."

She is so right.

"For Amusement and Instruction: Children's Books in Bygone Baltimore" is on view from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays this month at the Peabody Library, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place. Admission is free.

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