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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