An abecedarium is an alphabet that arrays letters in order, often presenting each typographic design alongside a word and picture that begins with that letter and represents it. “A is for apple,” for example, calls attention to the form and shape of the A just as it does to the illustrated fruit alongside it. In its most familiar form, it is used as a teaching instrument for young students (“abecedarians”) to learn their A-B-Cs, an illustrated variant of the plain alphabet delivered via the earlier hornbook. Modern artists have gravitated to the abecedarium as a framework for celebrating letterforms and typographic history, recalling early childhood learning experiences, or simply as a convenient format for exploring word and image combinations. Works included here demonstrate light-hearted experimentation, invite interaction through kinetic activity, and sometimes parody the abecedarium as an apparatus of instruction.

Learn Your ABC’s With Me

Eric Orr, who collaborated with Keith Haring on Graffiti and other forms of street art in the 1980s, created the first Hip Hop-themed comic book, “Rappin’ Max Robot.” In this unpublished manuscript project, Orr brings his passion for letterforms to the page, where Rappin’ Max becomes a teacher.

Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain & Perfect Pronunciation

This sendup of the 1836 classic compilation of tongue twisters was produced on its centennial by a group of well-known type designers. Just as in the original version, ditties were organized in alphabetical order and featured each letter, but the designers couldn’t help but expand on the standard twenty-six. The great Bruce Rogers, dean of twentieth-century American type design, added an ode to the ampersand, in which every instance of the letters “and” has been substituted with the &, and the text printed on sand—s&—paper.

Carved bone hornbook

As portable alphabets, hornbooks were meant to be kept close at hand, and were near, if not dear, to many an early learner’s heart in England and America from the mid-fifteenth to the late-eighteenth centuries.

28 Letters

In 28 Letters, the Egyptian scholar and artist Islam Aly has laser cut each of the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet onto handmade flax paper. The accordion binding and bifold pages create a sense of fluidity and instability that encourages the reader to move through the alphabet, paging through, rehearsing, and interacting with the letters’ forms and meanings.

Libro di M. Giovambattista Palatino cittadino romano: nel qual s’insegna à scriuere ogni sorte lettera, antica, & moderna di qualunque natione

The renowned Italian calligrapher, Giovanni Battista Palatino (ca. 1515-ca. 1575), produced this landmark treatise on letterforms as a manual. In addition to its catalog of writing styles, it presents non-Latin alphabets. Herman Zapf revived interest in Palatino in 1948 when he designed a font (now ubiquitous in digital form) based on the Renaissance penmaster’s work and named it Palatino. Catalogs of alphabets such as those that Palatino produced have inspired contemporary artists to re-examine the possibilities of this (now) conventional format.

Printer’s Blocks

Letterpress printer Jessica Springer both satirizes and pays homage to the abecedarium through this charming set of printed letter blocks. Using vintage wood type and border patterns, as well as images related to the letter featured on each cube, she offers a limited edition, fine press “book” for adults to recall their days as abecedarians, literally building meaning with blocks of letters.


Marion Bataille has produced an elaborate, yet wordless pop-up alphabet of engineered letterforms that invite the reader to create letters by moving pages. Delicately-cut letters appear in a silent, but active conversation with the reader. The intricate strands of a carefully die-cut paper construction emerge from the fold to form a wiry, sculptural U, very much in keeping with Bataille’s Art Deco sensibility.

Aunt Louisa's Alphabet Book

The archetypal abecedarium was an alphabet learning book in full color that taught privileged children their letters, based on simple words that referenced familiar concepts.

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