The Biology and Taxonomy of a Second Grade Primer, 1897

by Jennifer Frazer on August 15, 2009

Second Grade Primer, 1897

In my last post I discussed Carol Yoon’s recent article and book on the decline of taxonomy among scientists and the public. Taxonomy, which could easily be a dinner conversation subject and hobby for most of the 19th century (TR had quite extensive collections in his youth, for example), has virtually vanished among the general public today. This was brought to my own attention a few weeks ago, when I discovered a second grade primer published in 1897 on the desk of a colleague who collects old maps.

I opened and began skimming. The inside cover announced in spidery childhood cursive that the book had belonged to one Mildred Pennington, of Cuba, Ohio.

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I looked up Cuba, Ohio on Google Maps and discovered it is nothing but the intersection of  a highway with one or two buildings now.

The first 16 pages were, unfortunately, missing. Here’s the copyright page and the first existing page of the text. The image should be familiar to every American . . .You Know Who is standing in the doorway watching.

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The engravings that illustrated the text were astoundingly beautiful, and stories were an impressive assortment of “modern” tales, fairy tales, and fables. And there were two stories from ancient times, one set in Rome called “Androclus and the Lion”, and another set in Persia, called “Filling a Basket with Water”. Here is an engraving from the Persian story.

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There also seemed to be a fair balance of stories calculated to appeal to either boys or girls.

But what struck me even more was the way natural history permeated the book. There was a story about a boy who nursed the broken wing of a bat he named Bobby, and stories on the natural history of bees and butterflies and the beaks of birds.

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Finally, the elusive snipe is found!

And gloriously, On p. 20-22 in the margins were beautiful line engravings and the names of eight different species of oak (scarlet oak on last page not shown).

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At the end of the story, the text asks the student, “Do you know how many kinds of oaks there are? Find as many kinds of acorns as you can. Find as many kinds of oak leaves as you can. Which kind of oak tree grows the tallest? Which kind bears the largest acorns? Which kind has the smoothest bark?”

Remember, this is a reading primer, not a biology or science book.

According to Yoon’s article, a two-year old child of the Tzetzal Maya people of Mexico can name 30 plants, and a four-year old, 100. How many can you name?

At the end of the book is this page. I thought you might like to see it too.

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And being Victorians, they couldn’t help but embellish the back cover as well . . .

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Captain Skellett August 16, 2009 at 9:26 pm

What an awesome book, very beautiful

David Russi August 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Great post, Jen, enjoyed it almost as much as the book!

Jess Gribble August 21, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Thanks so much for sharing this book, Jen! It’s gorgeous. I think I might have a Baldwin reader at home; I’ll have to look. What could be better than science, artfully displayed in a book?

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