Early American colonists valued basic literacy as preparation for civic life, commercial interactions, and the practice of religion. Typically, young children received their most rudimentary education at home, after which boys continued to more advanced levels in schools or with tutors. Books were scarce, and the Bible often served as a text for beginning readers.

Enlightenment ideas in the late 17th century, notably those of John Locke, profoundly affected attitudes regarding child nurture and the need for instruction to include pleasurable aspects. The New England Primer, for example, reflects both old and new approaches to pedagogy, with its Calvinist text partially presented in rhyming quatrains with illustrations. The text became the most widely circulated American school book of the 18th century, and 19th-century editions were not uncommon. With the acquisition of the Zinman Imprints Collection, the Library acquired many early primers. Over time, spellers, readers, writing manuals, catechisms, etc. supplanted the all-purpose primer.

After the American Revolution, many believed an educated citizenry was key to the success of a democracy, with women having a special role in raising future citizens. Schools for young ladies increased in number. In addition, the career of professional educator expanded for women. In later years, women such as Mary Lyon, Almira Lincoln Phelps, and Catharine Beecher would have full careers as educators and writers. Our collection contains numerous school catalogs and treatises on education, many of which are by, for, or about women.

In keeping with Enlightenment ideas on education, philanthropically minded individuals took a new interest in educating the poor and other disadvantaged groups. In 1790, Benjamin Rush founded the Society for the Establishment of Sunday Schools, Sunday being a time when poor Christian children would not be working. In the early 19th century, educators developed various strategies for educating the deaf and the blind. Quaker Philadelphia had some of the earliest schools for African Americans. Our collection contains annual reports and other publications issued by various philanthropies.

In the early years of the Republic, many printers retitled existing texts to stress the nation’s independence from Great Britain. In reaction, Noah Webster, Samuel Goodrich, and others produced books specifically for American children. In the 19th century, Sunday school unions and commercial publishers vied to supply books to a burgeoning market for school books and juveniles.

Starting in the late 1820s, states passed laws requiring communities of a particular size to establish public schools. Horace Mann promoted public education tirelessly, first in Massachusetts and then in Washington. Many public schools conducted classes in the Lancasterian or monitorial system, in 1818 Philadelphia under the direction of Joseph Lancaster himself. But Philadelphia also became the site of bloody riots between Catholics and Protestants over the use of the King James edition of the Bible in the public schools – one of the most public controversies regarding curriculum.

Higher education was available for elite young men beginning in 1636 with the founding of Harvard College. In the 19th century, numerous girls’ schools, women’s colleges, and normal schools (for training teachers) were founded, and existing schools added programs for women. After the Civil War, professional schools, especially medical and business schools, proliferated. The collection includes catalogs, commencement addresses, and other publications from institutions of higher learning, plus student publications, some related to Greek letter societies or parodying the official school publications.


Ruth Miller Elson. Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks in the Nineteenth Century (Lincoln, Neb., 1964). The bibliography lists over 1000 school books.

Cornelia S. King. American Education, 1622-1860: Printed Works in the Collections of The American Philosophical Society, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and The Library Company of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1984).

D’Alte A. Welch. A Bibliography of American Children’s Books Printed Prior to 1821 (Worcester, Mass., 1972).