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Book opened to two pages, showing woodcut of author on the left and title page on the right.
The Library's 1664 copy of "Orbis Sensualium Pictus." Photo: Elaina Finkelstein.

The First Children’s Picture Book Might Be This One

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Back to school in 17th-century America meant going back to cramped one-room schoolhouses where children were taught Latin, reading, writing and math, peppered with a heavy dose of religious instruction.

If you could afford to send your children to school, “Orbis Sensualium Pictus” — considered the first children’s picture book — or a textbook based on it would have been used to help children become “wise” and learn work skills.

Often translated into English as “Visible World in Pictures,” the book was published in 1658 by Johann Amos Comenius. Born in northern Moravia (in present-day Czech republic), Comenius was a theologian and education reformer who believed in experiential, lifelong learning and in teaching children from a Christian perspective. The book intertwined education and religion in the aftermath of Europe’s brutal Thirty Years’ War.

Designed for school-aged children, Comenius’ book was first printed in Latin and German and later translated into other languages throughout Europe. Combining text, 150 woodcut illustrations and parallel columns in Latin and a local language, this extraordinary book featured myriad subjects ranging from nature to animal husbandry, science, music, cooking, the human soul and biblical references.

The popularity of Orbis extended for more than 200 years; it continued to be used into the early 19th century and helped spawn other children’s illustrated books. The earliest edition in English was published in 1659. In 2012, the Library acquired a 1664 version printed in London.

Another children’s book published a century earlier may have been the precursor to Orbis but never gained widespread acceptance. It’s the last of a three-volume set titled De re Vestiaria, Vascularia & Nauali, or “about clothing, vessels and boats,” by Lazare de Baïf. The Library holds the 1553 printing of the volume on boats and navigation, which is illustrated with eight woodcuts.

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Comments (10)

  1. Has the 1664 edition in LoC been digitized? I didn’t see a link in the article, but I would love to browse this item from afar!

    • Good afternoon, Beth!
      Thank you for your message. Unfortunately, the 1664 version of the book has not been digitized. Please check back with us in the near future for an update. Here is a link to a digitized copy from the 1887 version.

  2. 😍❤️l love this Frist I know about this century of American history ❤️

    • Thank you for your message. We are happy to engage with our audience and to help you connect with our collections. At the Library of Congress, you never lose your sense of wonder!

  3. Good to know that.

  4. Bonjour,
    Votre article est très intéressant.
    La version numérique du livre « Orbis sensualium pictus » (Johann Amos Comenius, 1658) peut être consultée sur le site Gallica / BnF :
    Vos lectrices et lecteurs aimeront éventuellement la feuilleter.

    • Bonjour, Claude!
      Merci pour votre message. La Bibliothèque du Congrès possède également une copie numérique du livre. Voici le lien pour ceux qui souhaitent feuilleter le livre. Aimez-vous les illustrations aussi?

  5. Hi Maria,

    I am not a Latin scholar, but shouldn’t the word sensualium be translated more to ‘physical’ rather than ‘visual’. Even Google lists sensual or physical as the first translation, and never mentions visible.
    Thanks for the interesting article.


    • Hi, Albert!
      Thank you for your comment. Our experts tell us that at the Library of Congress we use the uniform title adopted in English for the work. Thank you for connecting with us! We encourage you to subscribe to our blogs so you can get notified of new content as soon as possible.

  6. Hi Maria!
    How nice to see a 1664 copy at the library. I hope to visit and see it in person. I first came across Orbis Sensualium Pictus when I was writing my PhD on children’s narrative across media and have referenced it many times in my courses at Georgia Tech, at conferences, and in articles and books I’ve had published (see Physical Play and Children’s Games, Springer). I found the version I referenced, which is the translated 1887 version with illustrations and original format, at Project Gutenberg.

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