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Early History of Picture Books

"The Bookbinder" in Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts.

Early History of Picture Books in America

The first illustrated book for children dates from the 1650s. The Orbis Sensualium Pictus, or The World of Things Obvious to the Senses Drawn in Pictures, was translated into English in London in 1658. It contained 150 illustrations designed to help young readers define objects and animals, understand theological concepts, and identify trades. The earliest books printed in America for children were nowhere near as elaborate as the Orbis, but they were similarly instructive. Early American children’s literature is firmly grounded in religious subjects and was intended to be used as an aid to moral development. Few of these early titles were illustrated. Gradually, images made their way into books for juvenile readers, beginning with frontispieces and slowly multiplying to become the fully illustrated picture books that we recognize today.


The printing centers of the early colonies were primarily urban, with books produced in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia dominating the marketplace. As the population expanded across the young United States, printers in smaller towns like Worcester, Massachusetts, and Whitehall, Pennsylvania, began to produce books for juvenile readers to satisfy a growing market. During the pre-1820 period many books, including titles for children, were also imported from Europe and would have sold in bookshops next to their American equivalents.

Diverting History of John Gilpin

Illustrators during this early period worked primarily in relief printing processes such as wood cut and wood engraving. These techniques allowed the images to be set on a press with type, eliminating extra work and allowing the publisher to produce all of the content for a book in one shop. Around 1780, a few American publishers introduced copperplate metal-engraved illustrations into their children’s titles. Engraving is an intaglio process and requires a different style of press, paper, and technique than relief printing and the plates cannot be printed simultaneously with letterpress type. Most engraved illustrations for juvenile literature first appeared opposite the title page as frontispiece illustrations and, eventually, were inserted throughout to punctuate the main body of the text. Both relief and intaglio printing processes were available in the United States and were used widely in book production in general, including for illustrations in bibles, almanacs, primers, and other texts that would have been seen by children. As the production of a separate literature for children expanded in the early nineteenth century, illustration took on more importance, working with—and sometimes outshining—the text.

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Early History of Picture Books