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Early American Textbooks: Resources in Special Collections: Home


Special Collections has about 1200 American textbooks published before 1960, including a few British imports and reprints in the earliest years. 

The HathiTrust Collection has digitized about 2850 textbooks published before 1960, which are available online.

Historical significance of textbooks

"Textbooks are not just pedagogical instruments–they are intensely political documents whose content reflects a given vision of a people, their history and position in the world, and their values and aspirations."

Joseph P. Farrell, writing in the Encyclopedia of Education (Macmillan Reference USA, 2003)

Save America's Treasures Grant

Grayscale image of a children's arithmetic book from 1822 shows extensive writing on the title page and inside front cover by children who used the book.

In 2005 we received a major grant to support conservation work on our American textbook collection, thanks to the importance of this genre in understanding American history.

The Save America's Treasures grant program is administered by the National Park Service, in cooperation with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This online exhibit describes the conservation treatments given to our collection by expert conservators.

Resource GuideEditor

Ruth Ann Jones

Instruction/Outreach Librarian

Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections

Michigan State University Libraries


American history textbooks

American history textbooks are one of the great battlefields of the culture wars in the United States. Disagreement about how the nation's history should be depicted goes back almost as far as American history textbooks have been written.

The history of these controversies is described in Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts Over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present by Joseph Moreau. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.) MSU has print and ebook editions.

Search for general American history textbooks in Special Collections by subject: United States--History--Textbooks.

American history textbook authors in Special Collections

This list provides links to American history textbook authors in MSU Special Collections, which are mentioned at least five times in Schoolbook Nation (above). This is meant to help identify topics which are likely to have been discussed in additional secondary sources, AND for which Special Collections has a copy of the actual textbook being discussed.

This is NOT meant to be a  comprehensive list of topics. Special Collections has many other American history textbooks which have been discussed by educators and historians but weren't covered at length in Schoolbook Nation. And, online copies of textbooks not in Special Collections may be found in ERIC, an education database, or in HathiTrust. The MSU Libraries catalog will take you into the contents of both; just search by title or author..


Arithmetic textbooks

Basic arithmetic skills were considered necessary even for children who would be leaving school to work at an early age.

To find them, do a keyword search for arithmetic and textbooks with results limited to Special Collections.

Among our holdings are two textbooks that seem to have been used very widely:


Before typewriters and keyboards, business records and many other documents were written by hand. Penmanship was an important school subject.. Several representative titles:

Find additional titles with a subject search for penmanship.

Hornbooks and Battledores

Hornbooks and battledores were produced in England and America to help children learn the alphabet.

A hornbook is a wooden paddle with the alphabet and a short text.. In the right-hand column on this page, the first image from the top is a hornbook. In this hornbook, as in many, the readiang passage below the alphabet is the "Our Father," a Christian prayer.

A battledore is an inexpensive pamphlet with the alphabet and other simple text, such as lists of one-syllable words or an easy reading passage. In the right-hand column on this page, the second image from the top is a battledore.

The four titles listed above are MSU's only specimens of hornbooks and battledores, but you can do a subject search for hornbooks to locate books about both hornbooks and battledores. (The subject headings use the single term "hornbooks" to cover both types of artifact.)

Multicultural representation

Until after the Civil War, all or nearly all American textbooks were intended only for white children.

The earliest textbook we have for Black children is A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1890 by Edward A. Johnson. It was first published in 1891; we have an 1893 printing here at MSU.

The earliest textbooks we have for Native American children are the Indian Life Readers from the 1940s.

We have many good examples of picture books and chapter books intended for and featuring Chicanx/Latinx children, but have not identified any in the collection that were specifically intended for classroom use.The same is true for books intended for and featuring Asian American children.

Please go to the research guide Early Multicultural Children's Books: Resources in Special Collections for more on this topic.

Outside Special Collections:


"Readers" are anthologies idesigned for children to practice reading skills.

The subject heading Readers (Primary) will identify readers for young children, including simple ABC books

The subject heading Readers will identify readers for children and teenagers. These often have excerpts from history books, science writing, fiction, and poetry.

Special Collections has examples of some of the earliest readers produced or printed for the American market:

Series Readers

In the mid-1800s, publishers started producing reader series with content organized by reading level, each new book containing more advanced selections.This section identifies some of the most prolific series readers.

The series known as "Dick and Jane" books (which are frequently satirized in popular culture) actually had several different titles:

A parallel series was produced for Catholic parochial schools:

Science textbooks

How have controversial topics like sex education or evolution been handled in American science textbooks? Special Collections has many sources to explore.

For general science textbooks in Special Collections, do a keyword search for science and textbooks, limited to Special Collections.

Or, use the term textbooks and the name of a specific discipline, such as "textbooks and botany" or "textbooks and geology."


Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was the forerunner of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries still published today. He also wrote:

Early textbooks

Image of an early American hornbook: a wooden slate on which is pinned a copy of the alphabet, short words, and a reading selection such as the Lord's Prayer. At the bottom of the slate is a handle. The overall shape is similar to a ping-pong paddle.Image of The New Royal Battledore, from the 1830s. A battledore was an inexpensive pamphlet printed with the alphabet and simply reading exercises for young children to learn reading. Beginning of the ABCs in The New England Primer. "In Adam's Fall We Sinned All / Thy Life Amend This Book Attend / The Cat Doth Play and After Flay / A Dog Will Bite a Thief at Night"Title page of Noah Webster's Elementary Spelling textbook. Above the title is a small illustration of a schoolmaster instructing four little boys.Cover of The American Splelling Book by Noah Webster. Blue background with black type and decorative border.Title page of The American Pictorial Primer, from the mid-1800s. Below the title is a woodcut image of a woman sitting at a small table outside, talking with her young daughter.A page from Marmaduke Multiply, an 1860 arithmetic picture book, has the rhyme "Six times eight are 48. Dear Aunt, your dress is out of date." A little girl makes this remark to a woman in an elaborate ball gown. The aunt has a sour expression.Title page for The American Preceptor: A Selection of Lessons for Reading and Speaking, from the 1810s.Cover of McGuffey's Third Eclectic Reader, Revised edition, has a flowered pattern in blue and white.Cover of Cyr's Fifth Reader, circa 1899. Boiund in dark red cloth with gold lettering.The cover of Fun with Dick and Jane shows a boy, girl, and dog running in play.Hardcover copy of "A School History of the Negro Race" printed in 1893. Bound in green cloth with title and decorative scrolls in black.