How Writing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Animated Map

The old­est known writ­ing sys­tems first emerged in Mesopotamia, between 3400 and 3100 BC, and Egypt, around 3250 BC. The Latin alpha­bet, which I’m using to write this post and you’re using to read it, grad­u­al­ly took the shape we know between the sev­enth cen­tu­ry BC and the Mid­dle Ages. Over the eras since, it has spread out­ward from Europe to become the most wide­ly used script in the world. These are impor­tant devel­op­ments in the his­to­ry of writ­ing, but hard­ly the only ones. It is with all known writ­ing sys­tems that his­tor­i­cal map ani­ma­tor Ollie Bye deals in the video above: not just those used today, but over the whole of the past five mil­len­nia.

The con­quests of Alexan­der the Great; the Gal­lic Wars; the col­o­niza­tion of Latin Amer­i­ca; the “scram­ble for Africa”: these and oth­er major his­tor­i­cal events are vivid­ly reflect­ed in the spread of cer­tain writ­ing sys­tems.

Up until 1492 — after the expi­ra­tion of eight and a half of the video’s eleven min­utes — the map con­cerns itself only with Europe, Asia, and the north­ern three-quar­ters of Africa (as well as an inlaid sec­tion depict­ing the civ­i­liza­tions of what is now Cen­tral Amer­i­ca). There­after it zooms out to include the New World, and indeed the whole world, though cen­turies pass before most of its blank spaces fill up with the col­ors that indi­cate the adop­tion of a dom­i­nant script.

Ara­bic and Per­sian appear in lime green, sim­pli­fied Chi­nese in red, and Cyril­lic in light blue. Before Bye’s ani­ma­tion reach­es the mid­dle twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, most of the world has turned medi­um blue, which rep­re­sents the now-mighty Latin alpha­bet. The use of these very let­ters for all writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion by such a wide vari­ety of cul­tures mer­its a vol­umes-long his­to­ry by itself. But per­haps most intrigu­ing here is the per­sis­tence of rel­a­tive­ly minor scripts: Cree, used among the natives of north­ern Cana­da; hira­ganakatakana, and kan­ji in Japan; and also hangul in Korea — which I read and write myself every day of my life in Seoul, and to whose con­tin­ued dom­i­nance here I can con­fi­dent­ly attest.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Atlas of Endan­gered Alpha­bets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Pre­serve Writ­ing Sys­tems That May Soon Dis­ap­pear

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

Dic­tio­nary of the Old­est Writ­ten Language–It Took 90 Years to Com­plete, and It’s Now Free Online

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

The Improb­a­ble Inven­tion of Chi­nese Type­writ­ers & Com­put­er Key­boards: Three Videos Tell the Tech­no-Cul­tur­al Sto­ry

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

What It’s Like to Work in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iconic Office Building

Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew so much inspi­ra­tion from the wide open spaces of mid­dle Amer­i­ca, designed just two high-rise build­ings. The sec­ond, com­plet­ed late in his long career, was 1956’s Price Tow­er in Bartlesville, Okla­homa. The first opened six years before that, as an addi­tion to one of his already-famous projects. That was the head­quar­ters of S. C. John­son & Son, bet­ter known as John­son Wax, in Racine, Wis­con­sin. Seen at a dis­tance, the Research Tow­er stands out as the sig­nal fea­ture of the com­plex, but it’s the ear­li­er Admin­is­tra­tion Build­ing that offered the world a glimpse of the future of work.

The Admin­is­tra­tion Build­ing’s con­struc­tion fin­ished in 1939. Back then, says Vox’s Phil Edwards (him­self an estab­lished Wright fan) in the video above, “offices were small and cramped, or pri­vate. This build­ing had a spa­cious cen­tral room instead, meant to encour­age the spread of ideas.” Such a con­cept may sound famil­iar — per­haps all too famil­iar — to any­one who’s ever worked in what we now call an “open-plan office.” But it was dar­ing at the time, and it seems that no archi­tect has ever imple­ment­ed it quite as strik­ing­ly again. What oth­er office makes you “feel like you’re under­wa­ter, that you’re in, maybe, a lily pond”?

That descrip­tion comes from archi­tect and Wright schol­ar Jonathan Lip­man, one of the experts Edwards con­sults on his own pil­grim­age to John­son Wax Head­quar­ters. He want­ed to spend some time work­ing there him­self, some­thing eas­i­ly arranged since S. C. John­son has by now moved most of its oper­a­tions into oth­er facil­i­ties. But how­ev­er sat­is­fy­ing it feels to sit in the shade of Wright’s “den­dri­form columns” sprout­ing through­out the Great Work­room, the expe­ri­ence proves unsat­is­fy­ing. “It was­n’t a real thing with­out any peo­ple around,” Edwards says, “with­out the ener­gy of being in that office.”

Wright spoke of his inten­tions to cre­ate “as inspir­ing a place to work in as any cathe­dral ever was to wor­ship in.” Today, amid the silent absence of typ­ists on the ground floor and man­agers on the mez­za­nine, the Admin­is­tra­tion Build­ing must feel holi­er than ever. The space exudes a mag­nif­i­cent lone­li­ness, and open­ing a Mac­Book to log into Slack sure­ly inten­si­fies the lone­li­ness rather than the mag­nif­i­cence. “In 1939, this was the future of work,” Edwards says. “These big cor­po­rate cam­pus­es, the Googles and Metas and Ama­zons: they owe a debt to this cam­pus here.” But for the increas­ing­ly many liv­ing the remote-work life, even those twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry big-tech head­quar­ters have begun to seem like tem­ples from a pass­ing era.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lost Japan­ese Mas­ter­piece, the Impe­r­i­al Hotel in Tokyo

12 Famous Frank Lloyd Wright Hous­es Offer Vir­tu­al Tours: Hol­ly­hock House, Tal­iesin West, Falling­wa­ter & More

Build Wood­en Mod­els of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Great Build­ing: The Guggen­heim, Uni­ty Tem­ple, John­son Wax Head­quar­ters & More

When Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Dog­house, His Small­est Archi­tec­tur­al Cre­ation (1956)

The Mod­ernist Gas Sta­tions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe

When the Indi­ana Bell Build­ing Was Rotat­ed 90° While Every­one Worked Inside in 1930 (by Kurt Vonnegut’s Archi­tect Dad)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Behold the Medieval Wound Man: The Poor Soul Who Illustrated the Injuries a Person Might Receive Through War, Accident or Disease

Do you swoon at the sight of blood?

Suf­fer paper cuts as major trau­ma?

Cov­er your eyes when the knife comes out in the hor­ror movie?

If so, and also if not, fall to your knees and give thanks that you’re not the Wound Man, above.

A sta­ple of medieval med­ical his­to­ry, he’s a gris­ly com­pendi­um of the injuries and exter­nal afflic­tions that might befall a mor­tal of the peri­od- insect and ani­mal bites, spilled entrails, abscess­es, boils, infec­tions, plague-swollen glands, pierc­ings and cuts, both acci­den­tal and delib­er­ate­ly inflict­ed.

Any one of these trou­bles should be enough to fell him, yet he remains upright, dis­play­ing every last one of them simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, his expres­sion sto­ic.

He’s hard to look at, but as art his­to­ri­an Jack Hart­nell , author of Medieval Bod­ies: Life, Death and Art in the Mid­dle Ages writes in British Art Stud­ies:

The Wound Man was not a fig­ure designed to inspire fear or to men­ace. On the con­trary, he rep­re­sent­ed some­thing more hope­ful: an imag­i­na­tive and arrest­ing her­ald of the pow­er­ful knowl­edge that could be chan­nelled and dis­pensed through the prac­tice of medieval med­i­cine.

A valu­able edu­ca­tion­al resource for sur­geons for some three cen­turies, he began crop­ping up in south­ern Ger­many in the ear­ly 1400s. In an essay for the Pub­lic Domain Review, Hart­nell notes how these ear­ly spec­i­mens served “as a human table of con­tents”, direct­ing inter­est­ed par­ties to the spe­cif­ic pas­sages in the var­i­ous med­ical texts where infor­ma­tion on exist­ing treat­ments could be found.

The pro­to­col for injuries to the intestines or stom­ach called for stitch­ing the wound up with a fine thread and sprin­kling it with an anti­he­m­or­rhag­ic pow­der made from wine, hematite, nut­meg, white frank­in­cense, gum ara­bic, bright red sap from the Dra­cae­na cinnabari tree and a restora­tive quan­ti­ty of mum­my.

The Wound Man evolved along with med­ical knowl­edge, weapons of war­fare and art world trends.

The wood­cut Wound Man in Hans von Gersdorff’s 1517 land­mark Field­book of Surgery intro­duces can­non­balls to the ghast­ly mix.

And the engraver Robert White’s Wound Man in British sur­geon John Browne’s 1678 Com­pleat Dis­course of Wounds los­es the loin­cloth and grows his hair, mor­ph­ing into a neo­clas­si­cal beau­ty in the Saint Sebas­t­ian mold.

Sur­gi­cal knowl­edge even­tu­al­ly out­paced the Wound Man’s use­ful­ness, but pop­u­lar cul­ture is far from ready for him to lay down and die, as evi­denced by recent cameos in episodes of Han­ni­bal and the British com­e­dy quiz show, QI.

Delve into the his­to­ry of the Wound Man in Jack Hart­nel­l’s British Art Stud­ies arti­cle “Word­ing the Wound Man.”

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Dis­cov­er the Per­sian 11th Cen­tu­ry Canon of Med­i­cine, “The Most Famous Med­ical Text­book Ever Writ­ten”

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Hyperpolyglots, the People Who Can Mysteriously Speak Up to 32 Different Languages

Poly­glot, as its Greek roots take no great pains to con­ceal, means the speak­ing of mul­ti­ple lan­guages. Some­what less obvi­ous is the mean­ing of the asso­ci­at­ed term hyper­poly­lot. “Coined two decades ago, by a British lin­guist, Richard Hud­son, who was launch­ing an Inter­net search for the world’s great­est lan­guage learn­er,” the New York­er’s Judith Thur­man writes, it refers not just to the speak­ing of mul­ti­ple lan­guages but the speak­ing of many lan­guages. How many is “many”? “The accept­ed thresh­old is eleven,” which dis­qual­i­fies even most of us avid lan­guage con­nois­seurs. But Vaughn Smith eas­i­ly makes the cut.

You can meet this for­mi­da­ble hyper­poly­glot in the Wash­ing­ton Post video above, which com­ple­ments Jes­si­ca Con­tr­era’s sto­ry in the paper. Smith grew up in D.C. speak­ing not just Eng­lish but Span­ish, his moth­er’s native lan­guage. On his father’s side of the fam­i­ly, dis­tant cousins from Bel­gium expand­ed Smith’s lin­guis­tic world­view fur­ther still.

At 46 years of age, he now speaks just about as many lan­guages, “with at least 24 he speaks well enough to car­ry on lengthy con­ver­sa­tions. He can read and write in eight alpha­bets and scripts. He can tell sto­ries in Ital­ian and Finnish and Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage. He’s teach­ing him­self Indige­nous lan­guages, from Mexico’s Nahu­atl. to Montana’s Sal­ish. The qual­i­ty of his accents in Dutch and Cata­lan daz­zle peo­ple from the Nether­lands and Spain.”

Unlike his fel­low hyper­poly­glot Ioan­nis Ikonomou, pro­filed in the Great Big Sto­ry video above, Smith is not a trans­la­tor. Nor does he work as a lin­guist, a diplo­mat, or any­thing else you’d expect. “Vaughn has been a painter, a bounc­er, a punk rock road­ie and a Kom­bucha deliv­ery man,” writes Con­tr­era. “He was once a dog walk­er for the Czech art col­lec­tor Meda Mlád­ková, the wid­ow of an Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund gov­er­nor,” which was “the clos­est he ever came to hav­ing a career that uti­lized his lan­guages.” Hav­ing brought him most recent­ly to the pro­fes­sion of car­pet clean­ing, Smith’s life resem­bles a beloved genre of Amer­i­can sto­ry: that of the undis­cov­ered work­ing-class genius, most pop­u­lar­ly told by movies like Good Will Hunt­ing. Con­tr­era’s inves­ti­ga­tion adds a chap­ter in line with a major 21st-cen­tu­ry trend in reportage: the brain activ­i­ty-reveal­ing func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) scan.

Under the fMRI scan­ner, “Vaughn works through a series of tests, read­ing Eng­lish words, watch­ing blue squares move around and lis­ten­ing to lan­guages, some he knows and some he doesn’t.” The results were sur­pris­ing: “the parts of Vaughn’s brain used to com­pre­hend lan­guage are far small­er and qui­eter than mine,” writes the monoglot Con­tr­era. “Even when we are read­ing the same words in Eng­lish, I am using more of my brain and work­ing hard­er than he ever has to.” Per­haps “Vaughn was born with his lan­guage areas being small­er and more effi­cient”; per­haps “his brain start­ed out like mine, but because he learned so many lan­guages while it was still devel­op­ing, his ded­i­ca­tion trans­formed his anato­my.” Smith him­self seems to have enjoyed the expe­ri­ence — not that it took his mind off a mat­ter of great impor­tance even to the less inten­sive lan­guage-learn­ers: keep­ing his Duolin­go streak intact.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

215 Hours of Free For­eign Lan­guage Lessons on Spo­ti­fy: French, Chi­nese, Ger­man, Russ­ian & More

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

A Map Show­ing How Much Time It Takes to Learn For­eign Lan­guages: From Eas­i­est to Hard­est

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Why Predator — A Discussion of the Film Franchise on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #133


Thanks to the new film Prey by Dan Tra­cht­en­berg and Patrick Aison, we now have six films (start­ing with 1987’s Preda­tor) fea­tur­ing the dread­locked, cam­ou­flaged, infrared-see­ing race of alien hunters who have appar­ent­ly been fly­ing around col­lect­ing our skulls for 300 years.

Thank­ful­ly, the new film is good, and adds to the recent spate of Indige­nous-cen­tered media, with its young, female Comanche pro­tag­o­nist tak­ing on evil French bison-killers, her sex­ist peers, and a moun­tain lion, in addi­tion to a rel­a­tive­ly low-tech ver­sion of what many com­ic books have called a Yaut­ja.

We talk about what makes for a good Preda­tor film, the appeal of the mon­ster (and when in the films it gets revealed), the pac­ing of the films, the music, direc­tion, effects, humor, social com­men­tary, and more.

A few of the arti­cles we con­sult­ed includ­ed:

This marks the first episode of Pret­ty Much Pop sea­son three, where Mark Lin­sen­may­er’s recur­ring co-hosts will by default ten­ta­tive­ly be those you will hear today: Phi­los­o­phy prof/entertainment writer Lawrence Ware, novelist/writing prof Sarahlyn Bruck, and ex-musi­cian, ex-phi­los­o­phy grad stu­dent, and now ex-research man­ag­er Al Bak­er. The var­i­ous con­vo­ca­tions of musi­cians, come­di­ans, et al, will still hap­pen too, but will at least alter­nate with some per­mu­ta­tion of that core group.

Hear more Pret­ty Much Pop. Sup­port the show and hear bonus talk­ing for this and near­ly every oth­er episode at or by choos­ing a paid sub­scrip­tion through Apple Pod­casts. This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts.

When Marlon Brando Refused the Oscar for His Role in The Godfather to Support the Rights of Native Americans (1973)

At the 45th Acad­e­my Awards, Mar­lon Bran­do won the Best Actor award for his per­for­mance in The God­fa­ther — but sent a Native Amer­i­can civ­il rights activist named Sacheen Lit­tle­feath­er to decline it on his behalf. “The twen­ty-six-year-old activist took the stage in a fringed buck­skin dress and moc­casins,” writes the New York­er’s Michael Schul­man. “When she explained that Brando’s rea­sons for refus­ing the award were Hollywood’s mis­treat­ment of Native Amer­i­cans and the stand­off in Wound­ed Knee, South Dako­ta, there were loud boos and scat­tered cheers.”

More sev­en­ties things have hap­pened, but sure­ly not many. With time, Schul­man writes, “the whole thing cement­ed into a pop-cul­ture punch line: preen­ing actor, fake Indi­an” — the “cry­ing Indi­an” envi­ron­men­tal PSA had aired just a few years before — “kitschy Hol­ly­wood freak show. But what if it wasn’t that at all?”

Almost half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, this notable chap­ter in Oscars his­to­ry has come back into the news in the wake of the Acad­e­my of Motion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences’ offi­cial apol­o­gy to Lit­tle­feath­er. It’s now more wide­ly under­stood who Lit­tle­feath­er is, and what Bran­do was going for when he made her his emis­sary that night in 1973.

Bran­do was­n’t espe­cial­ly hes­i­tant to explain his actions even at the time: less than three months after the event, he laid out all his rea­sons on The Dick Cavett Show. “I don’t think that peo­ple gen­er­al­ly real­ize what the motion pic­ture indus­try has done to the Amer­i­can Indi­an,” he tells Cavett. “As a mat­ter of fact, all eth­nic groups.” He then runs down the “sil­ly ren­di­tions of human behav­ior” deliv­ered night­ly on tele­vi­sion, high­light­ing the phe­nom­e­non of “Indi­an chil­dren see­ing Indi­ans rep­re­sent­ed as sav­age, as ugly, as nasty, vicious, treach­er­ous, drunk­en.”

Such clichéd por­tray­als were what Bran­do meant to address by speak­ing through Lit­tle­feath­er. But the pub­lic’s imme­di­ate reac­tion, as Cavett puts it, went along the lines of, “There’s Bran­do jump­ing on a social-cause band­wag­on now, get­ting in on the Indi­ans.” They’d for­got­ten that the actor’s con­nec­tion with Native Amer­i­can caus­es went back at least to 1964, when he was arrest­ed at a Pacif­ic North­west “fish-in” by the Puyallup tribe protest­ing the denial of their treaty rights. And as Lit­tle­feath­er’s fêt­ing by the Acad­e­my shows, that con­nec­tion has long sur­vived even Bran­do him­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Inter­ac­tive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Bil­lion Acres of Native Amer­i­can Land Between 1776 and 1887

Albert Ein­stein Sports a Native Amer­i­can Head­dress and a Peace Pipe at the Grand Canyon, 1931

1,000+ Haunt­ing & Beau­ti­ful Pho­tos of Native Amer­i­can Peo­ples, Shot by the Ethno­g­ra­ph­er Edward S. Cur­tis (Cir­ca 1905)

The God­fa­ther With­out Bran­do?: It Almost Hap­pened

How Dick Cavett Brought Sophis­ti­ca­tion to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Clas­sic Inter­views Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans: Africa, Scandinavia, China, India, Arabia & Other Far-Flung Lands

As we still say today, all roads lead to Rome. Or at least they did at the height of its pow­er, which his­to­ri­ans tend to place in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry. It was in that cen­tu­ry that the Gre­co-Egypt­ian poly­math Ptole­my wrote his book Geog­ra­phy, whose descrip­tion of all known lands inspired an unprece­dent­ed­ly detailed world map. As Ptole­my’s map illus­trates, “the Romans, for all their rhetoric about uni­ver­sal empire, were aware that the world was much larg­er than their domains.” So says ancient-his­to­ry Youtu­ber Gar­rett Ryan in “The Most Dis­tant Places Vis­it­ed by the Romans,” a video essay from his chan­nel Told in Stone.

Ryan explains what his­to­ry has record­ed of “the vast range and reach of Roman mer­chants and adven­tur­ers,” who made it to Africa, Scan­di­navia, India, and even Chi­na. Some may have been moti­vat­ed by pure wan­der­lust (the ancient Roman equiv­a­lent of Eurail-hop­ping col­lege grad­u­ates, per­haps) but sure­ly most of them would have set out on such long, ardu­ous, and even dan­ger­ous jour­neys with glo­ry and wealth in mind.

It was the promise of spices, frank­in­cense, and myrrh, for instance, that drew Roman traders to Ara­bia Felix (or mod­ern-day Yemen), despite the region’s rep­u­ta­tion for being “over­run by fly­ing snakes.”

How­ev­er impres­sive ancient Rome’s geo­graph­i­cal knowl­edge, they clear­ly had yet to get the details straight. But they knew enough to bring back from a vari­ety of far-flung lands not just tall tales but trea­sures unavail­able else­where, turn­ing the metro­pole into a reflec­tion of the world. Few such items would have been as vis­i­ble in Rome as silk, “an indis­pens­able lux­u­ry used in every­thing from legionary stan­dards to the robes of the emper­ors.” That mate­r­i­al came from Chi­na, most often pur­chased through deal­ers in Cen­tral Asia and India. But some par­tic­u­lar­ly adven­tur­ous Romans made it not just to the Mid­dle King­dom but into the very palace of the Chi­nese emper­or. All those roads to Rome were, after all, two-way streets.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Map Show­ing How the Ancient Romans Envi­sioned the World in 40 AD

Ancient Rome’s Sys­tem of Roads Visu­al­ized in the Style of Mod­ern Sub­way Maps

The First Tran­sit Map: a Close Look at the Sub­way-Style Tab­u­la Peutin­ge­ri­ana of the 5th-Cen­tu­ry Roman Empire

Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Vis­its the Great Pyra­mid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Mem­o­ry of Her Deceased Broth­er

The First Work of Sci­ence Fic­tion: Read Lucian’s 2nd-Cen­tu­ry Space Trav­el­ogue A True Sto­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Enter an Archive of 7,000 Historical Children’s Books, All Digitized & Free to Read Online

5 Little PIgs

We can learn much about how a his­tor­i­cal peri­od viewed the abil­i­ties of its chil­dren by study­ing its chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. Occu­py­ing a space some­where between the pure­ly didac­tic and the non­sen­si­cal, most children’s books pub­lished in the past few hun­dred years have attempt­ed to find a line between the two poles, seek­ing a bal­ance between enter­tain­ment and instruc­tion. How­ev­er, that line seems to move clos­er to one pole or anoth­er depend­ing on the pre­vail­ing cul­tur­al sen­ti­ments of the time. And the very fact that children’s books were hard­ly pub­lished at all before the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry tells us a lot about when and how mod­ern ideas of child­hood as a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry of exis­tence began.


“By the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry,” writes New­cas­tle Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor M.O. Gren­by, “children’s lit­er­a­ture was a flour­ish­ing, sep­a­rate and secure part of the pub­lish­ing indus­try in Britain.” The trend accel­er­at­ed rapid­ly and has nev­er ceased—children’s and young adult books now dri­ve sales in pub­lish­ing (with 80% of YA books bought by grown-ups for them­selves).

Gren­by notes that “the rea­sons for this sud­den rise of children’s lit­er­a­ture” and its rapid expan­sion into a boom­ing mar­ket by the ear­ly 1800s “have nev­er been ful­ly explained.” We are free to spec­u­late about the social and ped­a­gog­i­cal winds that pushed this his­tor­i­cal change.

Afloat with Nelson

Or we might do so, at least, by exam­in­ing the children’s lit­er­a­ture of the Vic­to­ri­an era, per­haps the most inno­v­a­tive and diverse peri­od for children’s lit­er­a­ture thus far by the stan­dards of the time. And we can do so most thor­ough­ly by sur­vey­ing the thou­sands of mid- to late 19th cen­tu­ry titles at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Florida’s Bald­win Library of His­tor­i­cal Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Their dig­i­tized col­lec­tion cur­rent­ly holds over 7,000 books free to read online from cov­er to cov­er, allow­ing you to get a sense of what adults in Britain and the U.S. want­ed chil­dren to know and believe.

Zig Zag

Sev­er­al gen­res flour­ished at the time: reli­gious instruc­tion, nat­u­ral­ly, but also lan­guage and spelling books, fairy tales, codes of con­duct, and, espe­cial­ly, adven­ture stories—pre-Hardy Boys and Nan­cy Drew exam­ples of what we would call young adult fic­tion, these pub­lished prin­ci­pal­ly for boys. Adven­ture sto­ries offered a (very colo­nial­ist) view of the wide world; in series like the Boston-pub­lished Zig Zag and Eng­lish books like Afloat with Nel­son, both from the 1890s, fact min­gled with fic­tion, nat­ur­al his­to­ry and sci­ence with bat­tle and trav­el accounts. But there is anoth­er dis­tinc­tive strain in the children’s lit­er­a­ture of the time, one which to us—but not nec­es­sar­i­ly to the Victorians—would seem con­trary to the impe­ri­al­ist young adult nov­el.

Bible Picture Book

For most Vic­to­ri­an stu­dents and read­ers, poet­ry was a dai­ly part of life, and it was a cen­tral instruc­tion­al and sto­ry­telling form in children’s lit. The A.L.O.E.’s Bible Pic­ture Book from 1871, above, presents “Sto­ries from the Life of Our Lord in Verse,” writ­ten “sim­ply for the Lord’s lambs, rhymes more read­i­ly than prose attract­ing the atten­tion of chil­dren, and fas­ten­ing them­selves on their mem­o­ries.” Chil­dren and adults reg­u­lar­ly mem­o­rized poet­ry, after all. Yet after the explo­sion in children’s pub­lish­ing the for­mer read­ers were often giv­en infe­ri­or exam­ples of it. The author of the Bible Pic­ture Book admits as much, beg­ging the indul­gence of old­er read­ers in the pref­ace for “defects in my work,” giv­en that “the vers­es were made for the pic­tures, not the pic­tures for the vers­es.”

Elfin Rhymes

This is not an author, or per­haps a type of lit­er­a­ture, one might sus­pect, that thinks high­ly of children’s aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ties.  We find pre­cise­ly the oppo­site to be the case in the won­der­ful Elfin Rhymes from 1900, writ­ten by the mys­te­ri­ous “Nor­man” with “40 draw­ings by Car­ton Moorepark.” Who­ev­er “Nor­man” may be (or why his one-word name appears in quo­ta­tion marks), he gives his read­ers poems that might be mis­tak­en at first glance for unpub­lished Christi­na Ros­set­ti vers­es; and Mr. Moorepark’s illus­tra­tions rival those of the finest book illus­tra­tors of the time, pre­sag­ing the high qual­i­ty of Calde­cott Medal-win­ning books of lat­er decades. Elfin Rhymes seems like a rare odd­i­ty, like­ly pub­lished in a small print run; the care and atten­tion of its lay­out and design shows a very high opin­ion of its read­ers’ imag­i­na­tive capa­bil­i­ties.

Elfin Rhymes 2

This title is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an emerg­ing genre of late Vic­to­ri­an children’s lit­er­a­ture, which still tend­ed on the whole, as it does now, to fall into the trite and for­mu­la­ic. Elfin Rhymes sits astride the fan­ta­sy boom at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, her­ald­ed by huge­ly pop­u­lar books like Frank L. Baum’s Wiz­ard of Oz series and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. These, the Har­ry Pot­ters of their day, made mil­lions of young peo­ple pas­sion­ate read­ers of mod­ern fairy tales, rep­re­sent­ing a slide even fur­ther away from the once quite nar­row, “remorse­less­ly instruc­tion­al… or deeply pious” cat­e­gories avail­able in ear­ly writ­ing for chil­dren, as Gren­by points out.

All Around the Moon

Where the bound­aries for kids’ lit­er­a­ture had once been nar­row­ly fixed by Latin gram­mar books and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the influ­ence of sci­ence fic­tion like Jules Verne’s, and of pop­u­lar super­nat­ur­al tales and poems, pre­pared the ground for com­ic books, YA dystopias, magi­cian fic­tion, and dozens of oth­er children’s lit­er­a­ture gen­res we now take for grant­ed, or—in increas­ing­ly large numbers—we buy to read for our­selves. Enter the Bald­win Library of His­tor­i­cal Children’s Lit­er­a­ture here, where you can browse sev­er­al cat­e­gories, search for sub­jects, authors, titles, etc, see full-screen, zoomable images of book cov­ers, down­load XML ver­sions, and read all of the over 7,000 books in the col­lec­tion with com­fort­able read­er views. Find more clas­sics in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Children’s Pic­ture Book, 1658’s Orbis Sen­su­al­i­um Pic­tus

The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet: 1846 Book Teach­es Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils

The Inter­na­tion­al Children’s Dig­i­tal Library Offers Free eBooks for Kids in Over 40 Lan­guages

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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