Among the earliest textbooks were hornbooks, which resembled laminated paddles.
Among the earliest textbooks were hornbooks, which resembled laminated paddles.

In the colonial era, before modern printing methods made it feasible for schoolchildren to use bound textbooks, pupils learned from hornbooks. These simple “books” consisted of a single page, backed with a stiff, durable surface, such as wood. They usually were protected by a clear piece of horn, which gave hornbooks their name. Making a hornbook requires basic woodworking and crafting skills; depending on how historically accurate you want yours to be, you may use readily available materials.

Making the Board

The hornbook’s backing is a paddle-shaped board, with a handle sized for a child’s hand. The Library of Congress’ collection includes hornbooks in a variety of materials, including ivory and silver; wood is the most common backing. The Folger Shakespeare Library suggests that a typical antique hornbook was small, less than 4 inches long, but you may want a larger one. Draw or trace a paddle shape on paper -- a rectangle with a handle at one end. Trace this template onto a board no more than 1 inch thick. Cut out the shape with a band or scroll saw, then sand or rout the edges until they're smooth. A coat of varnish gives a smoother, more durable surface. To make the wood appear aged, stain it before varnishing. Some teachers make the backing from cardboard so students can do their own cutting.

Decorating the Back

Keep one side of the board blank so you can attach the lesson page. The back, however, can be decorated. Historically, the reverse of a hornbook featured patriotic images, like engravings of King George III, or fanciful ones, like mermaids, explains New Hampshire Public Television’s history of schoolbooks. The Folger Shakespeare Library recommends letting children be creative in decorating this side. Paint or draw directly onto the surface of the board if you varnished it. You can also decoupage drawings or book illustrations here.

Designing the Page

The educational side of the hornbook is a single sheet of paper or vellum. Size this sheet approximately an inch smaller than the board on all sides. Either type the text or handwrite it, depending on the appearance you prefer. A cross often began a hornbook, the first thing on the top row, as some of the examples from the Library of Congress, the Folger Library and New Hampshire Public Television show. Hornbooks usually featured the alphabet next, as well as numbers and sometimes Roman numerals. The Lord’s Prayer filled the bottom portion of the page in many traditional hornbooks. Select an antique hornbook to copy, or make your own updated version. The main consideration is that the text page must have an educational purpose.

Covering the Front

The final step is covering the book with some material transparent enough to read the text through. Use a single piece of the covering, as seams can obscure the text. Traditional horn may be hard to come by, but you can purchase sheets of mica in scrapbooking and art-supply stores. Clear plastic is another option, or simply decoupage the sheet onto the backing and cover it with several coats of varnish. Glue down the plastic or mica, or tack it down around the edge. If you are making a simple cardboard version with children, the Folger Shakespeare Library suggests wrapping it with clear plastic wrap.