In our nation’s early history, many children learned to read, by reading the Bible. While, yes, this is a great idea, we must also consider that there just wasn’t much literature, in print during this time, which was written at their level. Jacob Abbott, born in 1803, in Hallowell, Maine, would help to change this. Jacob Abbott was possibly the most prolific American writer of juvenile literature of the nineteenth century.
Jacob Abbott was from a long line of Puritans, the second of seven children. He and each of his four brothers graduated from Bowdoin College, studied theology, and became teachers or ministers. Three of the five boys became authors, and with his brother, John Charles, Jacob authored the famous and widely read “Makers of History” series of biographies. He wrote books with titles like The Way for a Child to Be Saved. With one of his brothers, he prepared a child’s translation of the New Testament.
He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1820; studied at Andover Theological Seminary in 1821, 1822, and 1824; was tutor in 1824-1825, and from 1825 to 1829 was professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Amherst College; was licensed to preach by the Hampshire Association in 1826; founded the Mount Vernon School for Young Ladies in Boston in 1829, and was principal of it in 1829-1833; was pastor of Eliot Congregational Church (which he founded), at Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1834-1835; and was, with his brothers, a founder, and in 1843-1851 a principal of Abbott’s Institute, and in 1845-1848 of the Mount Vernon School for Boys, in New York City.
It is Jacob Abbott’s fiction which made him famous. He wrote over 200 books, many of them in series. One of his series taught science, travel and other subjects through the adventures of a boy named Rollo. Jacob created Rollo with enough personality and naughtiness to seem real. His parents used his misbehavior to teach him right from wrong. Other characters were also realistic enough to stick in the mind. And the Rollo stories were full of fun things to try.
His Lucy series may have been the first girl’s series, first published in 1842.
Devout and orthodox, he became a teacher, writer and preacher. Jacob trained as a Congregational pastor. As a teacher, he introduced methods of kindness in place of harsh discipline and pioneered women’s education. One of his most famous pupils was young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Many authors would follow in Abbott’s footsteps.
It was around 1848 that Jacob and his brother embarked on the idea of doing a series of biographies aimed at young people. The Abbott brothers eventually produced a set of biographies that were critically acclaimed, and widely read. Within a few years of their publication, the Abbott biographies became standard reference works of juvenile history, and were available in libraries throughout America. They were originally published as the ‘Illustrated History’ series, but were republished many times during the next sixty years in various collections, entitled ‘Famous Characters of History’, ‘Famous Queens of History’, and others. They were most recently republished in the early 1900’s as the ‘Makers of History’ series.
An example of the significance of the “History” series can be found in this quote:
“I want to thank you and your brother for Abbott’s series of Histories. I have not education enough to appreciate the profound works of voluminous historians, and if I had, I have no time to read them. But your series of Histories gives me, in brief compass, just that knowledge of past men and events which I need. I have read them with the greatest interest. To them I am indebted for about all the historical knowledge I have.”
Jacob Abbot died on October 31, 1879, in Farmington, Maine, where he had spent part of his time after 1839, and where his brother, Samuel Phillips Abbott, founded the Abbott School.
For more information, including a great archive of Jacob Abbot’s books, with all of his books and series chronicled, visit the official website: