Getting Down to the ABCs of Learning and Collecting
This set of Hill’s Building Blocks, with its wooden box and paper lithograph showing a very early St. Nicholas, was in good to very good condition when it sold for $2,500 at Bertoia Auctions in 2014.
While many kids across the country have already gone back to school, and others are joyously trying to use up the last few days of summer before they head back to pencils and books, collectors may recall the basic pre-reading process of learning the ABCs. Such learning took place in many ways over the years, and a myriad of different tools introduced the alphabet to young minds, ABC to XYZ. Along with absorbing the 26 letters, the first steps toward reading and spelling were taken.
Wooden blocks were a favorite, being inexpensive and long lasting. These ranged from simple cubes to more ornate rectangular blocks with printed or lithographed letters, numbers and scenes. Makers of blocks in the early 1800s included Anners and Ruthven. More common are blocks from the mid to late 1800s, manufactured by Crandall, Milton Bradley and McLoughlin Bros., which made many other children’s items as well as blocks.
Puzzles—both cardboard and wooden—were used to instruct the ABCs, too. Like blocks, puzzles ranged from simple to ornate, with some examples having the alphabet or parts on one side and a picture on the reverse. (Something that collectors quickly learn is that fine puzzles at a bargain price often means there is a piece or two missing.)
This spoon, knife and fork set for a child includes impressed building blocks with the ABC’s and numerals on them. They were purchased on eBay for $23.25 on eBay.
Eating utensils sometimes had ABCs, and one boxed set of knife, fork, and spoon is maker-marked “SB/W.” More often, we see plates with the ABCs around the rim, and these exist in large numbers and great variety.
Also known as juvenile pottery, the plates were made of tin, aluminum, and ceramics. ABC plates made of Depression glass are still seen, in colors of clear to cobalt to pink. Mugs and bowls, sometimes matching the plates, were manufactured, and character plates turn up occasionally, such as a glass Shirley Temple.
Pressed-glass plates were made by Adams Co., Richards and Harley and Clay’s Crystal Works among many others. Plates might have the ABCs painted on in gilt, or raised and unpainted. Additional attraction was sometimes imparted with maxims or nursery rhymes, often with appealing pictures of animals or people in the center. For instance, a pink Depression-ware cup and plate has Humpty Dumpty to delight the user.
This Sterling silver Art Nouveau-style baby cup by Gorham features an ABC motif. It realized $152.50 in an auction on eBay.
Learning and games were inseparable, and many games had the ABCs in some fashion. The writer recalls a large cardboard learning toy that employed animal illustrations that appeared in a window when the animal’s name was properly spelled. Of course such devices were a step beyond merely learning the ABCs.
Educational boards were very popular. These were round or oblong, and had wooden letters and sometimes numbers that moved in slots. Words and short sentences could be created. Such boards were made of wood, tin, cardboard, and later, plastic. Products included Cress Educational Boards by the Richmond School Furniture Company, Muncie, Indiana, and, Foxy Toys, Berea, Ohio, a company that specialized in tin boards.
The Foxy Toys had movable blocks with letters, and one scarce example is double-sided. One side has the usual alphabet while the reverse has blocks with small pictures and words. Interestingly, this maker left the center of the boards smooth and painted black so that it could be used as a slate. Educational slateboards by Foxy exist in at least three sizes, from 7 to 13 inches in diameter. Some of the older rectangular wooden school slates have the ABCs imprinted around the four edges, but they are quite unusual.
This ABC plate titled “Wild Animals – The Elephant” was made in 1880 by Brownhill’s Pottery Co., Staffordshire, England. It sold for $750 on eBay in 2014.
Pencil boxes, long associated with schools and learning, sometimes have some portion of the alphabet ornately printed or impressed for lid decoration. This is usually just “ABC,” though some rulers found in pencil boxes have the complete alphabet in much smaller printing.
Easels were used for learning the ABCs and some combined scrolled paper charts and a blackboard. Most often seen are the large floor models with long wooden legs. Much less common are smaller easels that stood on a table or desk. ABC books were made in large quantities and, like childhood alphabet dishes, are a collecting field in themselves. Such books were often large and colorful, sometimes made of linen that was both tear resistant and washable. Makers include Saalfield Pub. Co. and W.B. Conkey Co. “The A.B.C. Series” was put out by M.A. Donohue & Co. Its issue #120 was Mother Goose.
Antique Foxy Toys child’s ABC educational blackboard is dated 1917. This board helped children learn their ABC’s, spelling and mathematics by sliding the little wood letters and numbers around to form words and equations. It sold for $49.50 on eBay.
While the ABCs were standard for some products, they were used only occasionally with others. A good example is cookie jars, and hopefully a youngster learned something while enjoying a treat. Some rubber stamps taught the ABCs and boxed sets can still be found. And for the teacher, large alphabet stencils were made for blackboard use.
Some of the more obvious, and expensive, ABC collectibles are needlework samplers. These were frequently done in the 1800s, and even earlier were hornbooks of the 1600s. There is a great distance in time between hornbooks and the educational programs on television today. The process of becoming familiar with the ABCs was very different but the purpose was the same.
Lar Hothem has written several books about collecting, including “School Collectibles of the Past.”
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