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 and supportive publishers have been known to design children’s books that look like rewards for cooperating. One of my favorites is the book above, whose binding 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).
It’s an old ruse in many cultures to associate sweets 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, sugary, spicy “book” and presented it to him.
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 didn’t offer any evidence that such a thing was actually available. Size may not have been the issue, as gingerbread kings and queens enjoyed at fairs could be quite large and detailed. The real test was perhaps carving the letters deeply 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.
Here Giles is shown with a hornbook in hand nowhere as large as the print of the one his father was supposed to have made for him. Another curious discovery made researching this post was that the diagram of the gingerbread syllabary doesn’t appear in Cotsen’s 1782 edition of Giles Gingerbread. The pamphlet is not missing any text, as might be expected of one of the century’s most famous and successful children’s books. It was first published around 1765 by John Newbery, the stepfather of the publisher of the Cotsen copy, and the diagram is present in the earliest known edition dated circa 1766 in the British Library, which I accessed via Eighteenth-Century Collections On-line. Very few copies of any edition of Giles Gingerbread survive, having been read (not eaten) to pieces, so it is difficult to determine when and why the print was dropped. Could it be that after reading Giles Gingerbread, children pestered their parents to for hornbook just like it? Perhaps the beleaguered publisher removed the offending passage to keep peace with gingerbread and pastry bakers all over Great Britain!