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The ABCs of Wooden Alphabet Blocks

The history of these educational toy sets spans many centuries.

Alphabet block toys.
Alphabet block toys. Philip Cohen/CC BY-SA 2.0

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

Is something that seems like an obvious idea always quite so obvious?

Consider the alphabet block toy. To look at an alphabet block in the modern day suggests perhaps the most basic, general use for a wooden cube that one can find.

But this incredibly basic form of edutainment has a history and a reason for its existence and mass popularity. And it starts with dice—the similarly cube-shaped objects that, also similarly, convey different information on each side.

Dice, of course, are one of the oldest forms of gaming on the planet, with roots in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, along with associations with the earliest board games, which date back to 5000 B.C.

Alphabet blocks, on the other hand, are a somewhat more recent invention, first conceptualized in 16th and 17th centuries. English philosopher John Locke is closely associated with the popularity of the wooden alphabet block, based on his 1693 work Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which briefly makes mention of the general concept behind alphabet blocks.

“There may be dice, and play-things, with the letters on them to teach children the alphabet by playing; and twenty other ways may be found, suitable to their particular tempers, to make this kind of learning a sport to them,” he wrote.

Locke, however, was not the first person to make the case for blocks to be used in this way—if anything, he simply popularized them. The person who perhaps deserves credit for formulating the concept is Sir Hugh Plat, the English writer who wrote of the idea in a 1594 book of inventions titled The Jewell House of Art and Nature.

The book is full of interesting inventions and discoveries by Plat, including a form of portable ink designed to be carried around in a powder form, a method of catching pigeons, a way to defend a horse from flies, and a cheap way to build a wooden bridge.

It also, most interestingly, includes an illustrated example of what alphabet blocks should look like, along with a basic description of their use case and their point of inspiration.

An early example of alphabet blocks from <em>The Jewell House of Art and Nature</em>, 1594.
An early example of alphabet blocks from The Jewell House of Art and Nature, 1594. Internet Archive/Public Domain

“Cause 4 large dice of bone or wood to be made, and upon every square, one of the small letters of the cross row to be graven, but in some bigger shape, and the child using to play much with them, and being always told what letter chanceth, will soon gain his Alphabet, as it were by the way of sport and pastime,” Plat wrote.

He added that the idea was also inspired by early teaching techniques.

“I have heard of a pair of cards whereon most of the principal Grammer rules have been printed, and the School-Master hath found good sport thereat with his schollers,” he explained.

Plat was ahead of the curve on this concept in the Elizabethan era, and he hasn’t received very much of the credit into the modern day. In fact, one of the few to give Prat credit for his work throughout history is the 19th century historian Alice Morse Earle, who wrote of Locke’s influence on the alphabet block in her book Child Life in Colonial Days, but properly gave Prat his credit for the idea.

Earle explained, while quoting a series of letters, how General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, later a military leader in the Revolutionary War, learned the alphabet as a result of the wooden blocks he was given.

“He will soon be the best scholar, for he can tell his letters in any books without hesitation, and begins to spell before he is two years old,” Pinckney’s mother, Eliza, wrote in a letter to her sister.

The blocks apparently did the trick.

Certainly, these early endeavors helped forge the existence of the alphabet block. But someone had to make a market for its wide use by young children around the globe.

Nobody was more responsible for that than the 19th-century German educator Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel.

Friedrich Fröbel
Friedrich Fröbel Public Domain

In the final years of his life, Fröbel rededicated himself to hands-on education, focusing on young children, and in 1837, opened an activity-driven institute for children in the village of Bad Blankenburg.

By 1840, he had changed the name of the institute to Kindergarten (or “children’s garden”). There he perfected his early-childhood education techniques, which focused on the concepts of activity-driven play. He wasn’t the first person to think in this direction, but he was perhaps the most influential.

To help with this, Fröbel designed a series of educational toys he called “gifts,” a series of ever-more-complex materials designed to spark creativity among children. (They’re still sold today.)

“They are a coherent system, starting at each stage from the simplest activity and progressing to the most diverse and complex manifestations of it,” Fröbel explained in his writings. “The purpose of each one of them is to instruct human beings so that they may progress as individuals and members of humanity is all its various relationships.”

Many of Fröbel’s gifts took the form of square or rectangular blocks that worked together in a complex system, introducing forms of spatial play over time. It’s not hard to see the concepts of the modern toy industry in the gifts that Fröbel created.

Fröbel’s gifts.
Fröbel’s gifts. Kippelboy/CC BY-SA 3.0

(Nor is it hard to see how this might inspire some of our greatest architectural thinkers. Frank Lloyd Wright, famously, claimed inspiration from Fröbel’s gifts.)

But while Fröbel set the groundwork and his Kindergarten idea started to catch on globally not long after his 1852 passing, it was an American lithographer and board game manufacturer who would help carry the torch in the United States. That man’s name was Milton Bradley.

In 1870, Bradley’s namesake company came out with a set of building blocks based on Fröbel’s work called Bradley’s Original Kindergarten Alphabet and Building Blocks. The blocks were based on Fröbel’s sixth gift, which included a variety of basic geometric shapes. Bradley, however, added the additional wrinkle of letters and numbers.

Milton Bradley’s Original Kindergarten Alphabet and Building Blocks.
Milton Bradley’s Original Kindergarten Alphabet and Building Blocks. Internet Archive/Public Domain

The 1996 book Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present suggests that Bradley’s play was purely commercial, but offered up something of a happy accident in the process.

“What probably seemed like an insignificant alteration to Bradley radically changed the purpose of the blocks, turning them into a didactic teaching device rather than a symbolic play material,” author Barbara Beatty explained.

Beatty noted that the growth of early education, a space inspired by Fröbel’s work, had created a quickly expanding commercial toy industry, and that industry didn’t necessarily understand the educational fundamentals of the educators that made the space viable.

“Toy manufacturers were usually more interested in selling their wares than in observing the finer points of pedagogical correctness,” she noted.

Perhaps, but they nonetheless played an important role in mainstreaming Fröbel’s ideas.

Bradley wasn’t alone in mass-marketing wooden blocks for educational purposes in the late 19th century.

Samuel L. Hill, for example, received a patent for his alphabet blocks in 1867. While he wasn’t first, his Brooklyn company was among the first to mass-market the cube-shaped devices.

“The blocks being thus constructed, and reference being had to the numerals placed thereon and the printed key,” Hill’s patent stated. “it will be found that words can be readily spelled by combining the requisite number of blocks and those words in which the same letter occurs more than once, which was not possible with the style of blocks now in use.”

The set of 20 cube blocks was big enough to spell some fairly lengthy words (as long as you had the right letters).

And one other figure who deserves a mention is Mother Goose for Grown Folks author Adeline Dutton Train Whitney, who patented an early alphabet block system in 1882.

Alphabet blocks were conceptualized in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Alphabet blocks were conceptualized in the 16th and 17th centuries. Public Domain

Although her block system probably has more in common with Fröbel’s approach than the cube-shaped alphabet block, she is often credited with the invention of the alphabet block. That’s perhaps a step too far, considering all the prior art, but she definitely deserves credit for expanding the potential of teaching the alphabet using wooden blocks.

If there’s a lesson to be taken from this—besides the ABCs, of course—it’s that it’s hard to figure out who was first with an idea or an invention, and who’s getting the right amount of credit.

References to Plat’s role in the alphabet block are rare; references to Locke’s role are common. (And, to be fair, it’s always possible Plat might have been inspired by someone else.) When someone has an idea as seemingly basic as putting a bunch of letters on a block of wood, or making a die large enough so that it’s the perfect size for a child to hold, or philosophically making the case for the use of such an object by children, these ideas add onto one another and turn a small idea into a much larger one.

Or to put it in a punnier way: A lot of building blocks were involved.

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.