Monday: The New Sunday

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Founded in Philadelphia in 1824, the American Sunday School Union (ASSU), a non-sectarian missionary society was the most prolific publisher of juvenile literature in 19th-century America. The Union’s publications were American in spirit and moral in tone. They cover a wide range of subjects including history, geography, biography, natural and physical sciences, poetry, catechisms, primers, and hymnbooks. A large archive (20k volumes) is in the Rare Books Division of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The ASSU was founded in 1824 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to promote early literacy and spiritual development of children, teaching them to read through the use of booklets published by the Union. The ASSU continued its publication program until l960 and some time later changed its name to the American Missionary Fellowship, which. Although the publications were meant to be nondenominational, many of the images tell biblical stories with a conservative leaning. One such shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a note: “Not to be used unless clothed.”

May 25, 1830 in Philadelphia the American Sunday School Union had adopted its name and constitution. Now the members were pledging themselves to take on an enormous task:

“Resolved, that the American Sunday School Union, in reliance upon Divine aid, will, within two years, establish a Sunday school in every destitute place where it is practicable, throughout the Valley of the Mississippi.”

In just two years they hoped to reach over 4,000,000 people in an area of over 1,300,000 square miles, The first year the American Sunday School Union sent out 49 missionaries. The next year, they sent out 112. Such small numbers could not hope to do the job alone. They were told to recruit helpers in every little community. Their instructions could be boiled down to: Start a class, teach it, and where possible find a Christian man or woman willing to lead it, give that person a bundle of books and tracts and set forth an multiply.

American Sunday-School Union was the most prolific publisher of children’s books in 19th-century America. The Union illustrated its books and periodicals copiously, mainly with wood engravings. The original woodblocks were used through multiple printings and retained by the Union and are now in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia: Teitelman Collection of American Sunday-School Union Woodblocks and Imprint.

There were few public schools so Sunday schools taught people to read and showed them how they could become voters. That made Sunday schools popular, making it possible for families to keep contact with distant members through letter writing. Education drew them into the life of the nation. And for families living alone in the woods or on the prairie, it was wonderful to look up and see the unfamiliar face of a missionary with news from the rest of the nation. Later, the Sunday School Union published Christian fiction that made reading a lot more fun for children.

This is one of those fun volumes, said to be illustrated In the style of Kate Greenaway. Many other famous illustrators, like Arthur Rackham were also employed.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →