After a really aggravating day, there probably isn’t a teacher alive who hasn’t wished that the human mind absorbed knowledge like a sponge soaks up water. Crafty teachers devise strategies that just might make learning this or that easy. Supportive publishers have been known to design children’s books that look like rewards for cooperating. One of my favorites is shown above, with its binding that looks like a tasty big cookie topped with split almond halves. Its title? Die neue Pfefferkuchen-ABC, which can be loosely translated as The New Gingerbread ABC (“pfefferkuchen” being another name for “lebkuchen,” the German spiced honeycakes topped with chocolate icing traditional at Christmas time).
Many cultures try to associate the sweet with mastery of the letters of the alphabet. For example, Alberto Manguel describes a medieval Jewish initiation rite in which the teacher wrote a passage from the Bible on a slate and read it aloud to his pupil. The boy repeated them and if he did it correctly, was allowed to eat the holy words once the slate was spread with honey as a reward (thanks to Lissa Paul for this anecdote).
A time-honored way of encouraging literacy in early modern England was to offer letters or hornbooks made of gingerbread as an inducement to learn their ABCs more quickly. Above Gaffer Gingerbread invites children to spend their pocket money wisely on cakes that will “feed the Little Folks, who are good,/ At once with Learning and with Food.”
At home, the conscientious gaffer took charge of inspiring his own little reluctant learner Giles, which was not all that difficult. By profession a gingerbread baker, the gaffer made his son a special gilt-covered, spicy “book.”
While the gaffer’s presentation of a table of two-letter syllables was novel, the truth is that any primer then contained such a chart, which helped children take a critical first step in learning to recognize and sound out combinations of letters. The eighteenth-century references to gingerbread letters, alphabets and books I’ve found don’t offer any evidence that such a thing was actually available.
The “book” as pictured would have been quite unwieldly. It probably would have broken apart with normal handling–like nibbling a corner as a reward for learning a little bit. Size may not have been as much as a problem as we think, because the gingerbread kings and queens sold at fairs could be quite large and detailed, if the surviving molds are any indication. The real test was carving the letters deep enough in the mold so that they would emerge from the oven sharp and legible. Using a very stiff dough with no eggs or butter would have helped.Another curious discovery I made researching this post was that neither Cotsen’s 1779 nor 1782 edition of Giles Gingerbread has the diagram of the gingerbread syllabary. Both pamphlets are complete. Missing pages wouldn’t be all that surprising for one of the most famous Newberys: it was first published around 1765 by John Newbery, the stepfather of Carnan, the publisher of the Cotsen copy.
The syllabary is present in the earliest known edition of Giles Gingerbread circa 1766 in the British Library, which can be accessed via Eighteenth-Century Collections On-line. I’m guessing the copy in Norwich, which is dated to 1764, also does. Very few copies of any British edition of Giles Gingerbread survive, having been read (not eaten) to pieces, so it is difficult to determine when and why the syllabary was dropped. Digital copies of the American piracies from the 1760s and 1770s don’t have it either.
The diagram was probably just a bit of complicated typesetting that could be cut. It slowed down the story, to tell the truth. But it is amusing to imagine that children who had read Giles Gingerbread pestered their parents for a hornbook just like it and the beleaguered publisher removed the offending passage to keep peace with gingerbread and pastry bakers all over Great Britain! Don’t quote me on that–it’s pure fantasy.