A lecture by Jill Shefrin on the reading book of Silvia Cole from 1719.  Sadly I can find no images to accompany this report.  I wish that this charming book would be scanned and made available.  It may be the oldest surviving children’s book in the English language.  The original is now held at Lilly University.

The earliest known books published for children in English are dated to the 1740s, 1750s.  Let’s suppose that 50% of the material survived in some form or another.  So we know children owned books.  Evidence they read these curiosities is thin on the ground.  Our history of literacy is dominated on the literacy of boys and literacy through schools that girls did not attend.  We might get a different perspective if we assume that literacy went without comment among upper class girls because it was commonplace.

Silvia Cole’s book, which I think is preserved in the Jane Johnson collection at Lilly University in Indiana (I haven’t confirmed the reference from their online catalogue).  It is a little hand-made book of 63 pages.  It records her voyage from Holland to London, from her merchant parents to her uncle’s house.  The book mentions the street-sellers of her neighbourhood.  She is accompanied by household members Jack and Isabel to see the building of her uncle’s new house.  When she reads blackamores blow trumpets and play drums because she reads so well.  Pictures are sketched on every page with the words, painted in water colours.  A member of the middle-class Cole household made this book for Silvia.  Somebody preserved it after her lifetime until it was added to a collection.

Imagine if reading was uncommon.  A parent, usually the mother would teach a child her letters from a horn-book.  A citizen needed to read the oath of loyalty to the Hannoverian kings.  Silvia Cole’s book includes her attending the celebration of the Hannoverian succession on the 1st of August.  It could have been that little books made for children like this one was not unusual.  For the most part these things are lost or discarded as a person matures.  This one survived because people valued it.

The Reading Lesson by Nicholas-Bernard Lepicie, from the Wallace Collection, London

The Reading Lesson by Nicholas-Bernard Lepicie, from the Wallace Collection, London