This battered bit of wood was once a ubiquitous piece of schoolroom equipment. Can you guess what it was used for? On first look, taking the terrible beating it seems to have suffered into account, it’s tempting to guess “A paddle for spanking the little brat’s backsides!”(yes, the good ol days ay?) Though I have zero doubt that this item did speed through the air only to come to rest on naughty backsides, repeatedly, punishment was not in fact its primary function. It was actually a simple primer used for teaching children their alphabet. It was called a “hornbook” and was used in classrooms for at least 400 years. The letters on the model above have long since disappeared, obviously, but take a look below for some more representative models and some accompanying history.

08.28. filed under: books. history.

No—You’re a Hornbook!!!



posted on 08.28 at 07:07 PM.

Yes, I did enjoy. Thanks.

posted on 08.29 at 04:25 AMsimon

I’m so pleased that I properly recognized it as a hornbook. ‘Tis mildly disappointing that I could only display my incredible knowledge to the resident plants and cats.

Glad you’re back, by the way.

posted on 08.29 at 02:45 PMJane

Just a quick note to let you know that I am overjoyed by the fact that you are writing more again.

Your language, style and graphics are a feast!

Thank you!

posted on 08.29 at 05:03 PMGöran

Ditto what Jane said. Except I don’t even have the cats. Even the houseplants are starting to look sickly.

Then again, we both managed to proudly broadcast our knowledge to all readers of this comment page, didn’t we?

Brilliant entry. I’m so glad you’re back.

posted on 08.30 at 05:12 AMbluewyvern

Hornbooks - thwacking the erections out of adolescents since the Renaissance.

posted on 09.01 at 12:02 PMpeacay

I noticed the hornbook is also called sometimes a ‘battledore.’ The badminton racquet and birdie are also called battledore and shuttlecock, the etymology being pretty obviously connected. Same shape, you know… when not being paddled, think the children used their hornbooks as paddles? And did the racquet develop from the misused hornbook?

posted on 09.02 at 05:55 PM.

The battledore is actually the “hornbook 2.0” so to speak. It’s similar but made of a stiff cardboard rather than wood. (I neglected to go into this in the post for simplicity’s sake.) The battledore is pretty much responsible for the decline of the hornbook proper. But yes, I’m sure there was much paddling of makeshift shuttlecocks in either case.

posted on 09.03 at 08:54 AMjmorrison

excellent collection of hornbooks. I’m a bit disappointed in one design element that’s common in many hornbooks. There is a hole in the handle which I assume was used to hang the hornbook on the wall when not being held. As a result, the letters on the hornbook are displayed upside-down. I imagine it’s a bit difficult for children to learn their A-B-Cs when the alphabet is displayed upside-down. Was it common back in the day for kids to walk around on their hands?

posted on 09.05 at 01:03 PMunlikelymoose

return to the front page