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A small, elementary book for teaching children to read; a reading or spelling book for a beginner; a book of elements. — Webster, 1882

The book was so pretty with pictures of cats and dogs and birds and trees. I was proud when I could read, for Ma, about the tree. – Pioneer Girl

Over two hundred years before Laura Ingalls Wilder was born, the first “American” primer, not brought from overseas but a truly American product – The New England Primer – was in use as a printed aid to teach children both reading and Christian moral lessons. Wilder doesn’t mention this primer by name, but included in her Little House books is its successor, The Blue-Back Speller by Noah Webster.

Laura Ingalls learns to read at the age of seven, according to On the Banks of Plum Creek, saying that she was the only pupil in the school who couldn’t read! She sounds out her letters for Miss Beadle and just before dinner-time the first day – Laura was able to read, C A T, cat. And thanks to the new stove in the Wonderful House, she can remember P A T, Pat, as well.

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder tells us she was reading from Mary’s primer back in Wisconsin. Laura admires Mary’s pretty book, and she includes a verse from it in her manuscript, still remembered over fifty years later:

     “The sun is up and it is day,
     The dew is on the new mown hay,
     But it did not wet the old oak.”

The verse is from J. Madison Watson’s The National First Reader or Word-Builder, published in 1860. Don’t you like Laura’s version better? This book isn’t the primer, but the next book in the series, the first reader, and it is part of the National Reading Series which included the Fourth and Fifth Independent Reader, owned by the Ingallses.

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder also tells us she didn’t like reading a story that began, “Laura was a glutton,” found in another primer, Lydia Maria Francis Child’s Flowers for Children, published in 1854. You can read this primer in its entirety HERE; Little Laura’s story is below.


Little Laura is a glutton. Do you know what that means? A glutton is one who eats more than he needs, merely because he likes the taste. Sometimes Laura eats more than is good for her. Then she has the head-ache, and is very cross. If her brother comes and pulls one of her curls, just for fun, she stamps her foot, and says, “Get away, Tom.” This is because she has eaten too much, and made her head ache; for Laura is a good-natured little girl, when she feels well.

     I do not know what makes Laura so silly as to eat more than she needs. Her kitten never eats a mouthful more than she needs. She leaves the dinner in her plate, and lies down to sleep, when she has eaten enough. Her little Canary birds are not so silly as Laura; for if she were to fill their cage with seed, they would only eat as much as they need, and leave the rest till to-morrow. The little busy bee is wiser than Laura. She flies about among the flowers, and might eat out of their honey-cups all day, if she chose; but she only eats enough to keep her alive and well, and carries the rest home to her hive. The little squirrel is not so silly as Laura. He eats half a dozen acorns, and then frolics about. If he had a house filled with acorns, he would never need to have a doctor come to see him; for he would not eat one more than he needed, merely because it tasted good.

     Laura will never feel as well as the squirrel, or have such nimble little feet, if she eats more than she needs. Little children that each much cake, or pie, or candy, do not have such rosy cheeks, or bright eyes, or such sweet lips, or such happy tempers, as those who eat but little. The kitten, and the birds, and the bees, and the squirrels, are good-natured, and industrious, and frolicsome, because they never eat many different things, and only eat just enough.

     I had rather be a squirrel, and live on acorns in the woods, than to be a glutton. I had rather be a bee, and make honey for good little boys and girls to eat, than to be a glutton. I had rather be a bird, even if they shut me up in a cage, than to be a glutton. I had rather be a kitten than a glutton; even if the people cried, “s’cat,” when I came their way. — L. Maria Child, Flowers for Children (New York: C.S. Francis & Co., 1854), II: 112-114.

Almanzo’s primer. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo Wilder begins school at age nine and learns to read by studying the words in his primer at school. There is no mention of — or clues given in manuscript or published text — from which one can figure out which primer Almanzo may have used. Textbooks to be used were not written into school law; it is probable that Almanzo used whatever primer his siblings had used before him. Some of Eliza Jane’s books are on display at the Almanzo Wilder Farm Museum, but a primer is not among them.

Malone had at least two booksellers during Almanzo’s early years in school, and both frequently advertised primers and other schoolbooks in both Malone and other Franklin County newspapers. A period advertisement by E.M. Tilley & Co. noted: “School Books. We shall continue to make our Establishment the acknowledged Headquarters for the supply of all the different kinds of School Books now used in Franklin County. Country Merchants and Teachers can rely on being furnished as heretofore at the Lowest Market Price. We have constantly on hand a good selection of Juvenile Books, Cards & Primers! Suitable for Gifts for School Children.” -Malone Palladium, April 30, 1863. White’s Book Store advertisement shown here is also from the Palladium .


primer (FB 1, 4; BPC 37; SSL 27; LTP 18; PG)
     primer class (FB 1, 4)
     Mary’s primer (PG)
     Laura was a glutton (PG)