Paper was scarce and expensive during colonial days. A student’s first lesson, the ABCs, was written on a piece of parchment. The parchment was laid on a flat wooden board with a handle. To protect the parchment on the board, a flattened cow’s horn was placed over it. To flatten the material, the cow horn was first stored in cold water for several weeks, separating the horn from the bone. Then the horn was heated, first in boiling water, then by fire, and pressed by plates and machines to make it smooth and transparent. The thin, translucent horn was then fastened onto the parchment, protecting the lesson from its daily use. Each hornbook handle had a hole so a rope could be fastened to it and the hornbooks worn around the neck or fastened to a belt. Thus, hornbooks would not be lost on the way to school and were easily accessible.Hornbooks were the first elementary lessons.
Lessons consisted of different combinations of the following: the alphabet, vowel and consonant combinations, and a religious verse or the Lord's Prayer. At the very top of the hornbook, just before the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer, a small red cross often appeared, called "Christ's Cross." Children would bless themselves before beginning the alphabet. This term later became "crisscross," a word now used to describe a pattern created by crossed lines.
The earliest records of hornbooks are noted in 1442. In the 1500's the hornbook became standard equipment in English schools. As English settlers sailed to America's colonies, their hornbooks came with them. As time went on, hornbooks were also made of a variety of other materials besides wood. Ivory, various metals, leather hornbooks ranged from plain, whittled types, to elaborately carved hornbooks.
Hornbooks were used only in England and America until their decline in the early 1800s. As paper became more available to common folk, hornbooks became obsolete, kept as historical artifacts and to relive warm, school memories. Today, authentic hornbooks may only be viewed at museums or private collections. However, 21st Century hornbooks are available from the American Hornbook Company. See Products.