CLOSE

15 Fun Facts About Dick and Jane

Once a beloved teaching tool, Dick and Jane was later denounced as dull, counterproductive, and even misogynistic. Still, whether you loved or hated them, there’s no denying that little Dick and Jane have earned their place in history.

1. THE CHARACTERS WERE CREATED BY AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER. 

A former teacher from Laporte, Ind., Zerna Sharp approached education theorist William S. Gray with an idea that would change the face of American literacy.

In her view, very young students had a hard time reading because they couldn’t relate to standard children’s books. So Sharp proposed a collection of short stories that would each introduce a handful of new words. They’d star average kids that any elementary schooler could identify with. And—critically—these characters would appear in simple illustrations designed to help connect a given word with its definition.

Gray loved the concept. Under his guidance, Sharp developed a core cast: Dick, Jane, baby Sally, Mother, Father, and a well-behaved dog named Spot. As she once explained in an interview, “There’s nothing these book children could do that [actual children] couldn’t remember having done themselves … We made reading easy for them and encouraged them to read more.”

Sharp didn’t personally write any of the several dozen published Dick and Jane compendiums, but she helped supervise their basic plots and paintings. The teacher, who never had any kids of her own, called Dick and Jane my children.” She passed away in 1981.

2. THEY DEBUTED IN 1930'S ELSON BASIC READERS: PRE-PRIMER

Gray co-authored Pre-Primer with William H. Elson, who had been churning out reading primers since 1909. In 1934, it was re-released under the more famous title Dick and Jane. Dozens of sequels would appear over the next 35 years.

3. DICK AND JANE USED A GRADE-BASED COMPLEXITY SYSTEM. 

Editions that were intended for first-graders contained about 300 words apiece. Third-graders were given 1000 and, in 6th grade, kids followed similar escapades in 4000-word volumes.

4. THE SIBLINGS WERE PART OF AN EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION. 

For many years, most teachers would get new readers started by going over the relationship between letters and sounds (“M” makes an “mmmm” noise, “-tion” sounds like “shun,” etc.). Dick and Jane primers, on the other hand, came with guides that championed the “look-say” approach. This method—which became popular during the 1930s—calls for largely ignoring phonics. Instead, a printed word is repeatedly shown to a child while the teacher says it out loud. Helpful pictures are often involved as well. So typical Dick and Jane paragraphs go something like this: “Look, Spot. Oh, look, look Spot. Look and see. Oh, see. ”

With enough repetition, pupils learn (at least in theory) to “sight read” a given word and add more to their vocabulary—and subconsciously pick up the basics of phonics in the process, enabling them to break down and pronounce new words on their own.

5. BY 1950, AN ESTIMATED 80 PERCENT OF AMERICAN FIRST GRADERS WERE READING DICK AND JANE TEXTS.

Some 85 million first graders plowed through these books between 1930 and 1970.

6. THE BOOKS RELIED ON A GLACIALLY-PACED FORMULA.  

Every page contained one—and only one—new word that the reader hadn’t yet seen in any previous Dick and Jane collections. On every third page, all the new words would be combined. And not a single story introduced more than five or six total.

7. MOTHER AND FATHER REALLY KEPT UP WITH THE TIMES.

Illustrator Eleanor Campbell would regularly consult Sears catalogs so that she could fit the family with “modern” clothes and vehicles in new editions.

8. CHILDREN WROTE MANY LETTERS TO THE TITULAR CHARACTERS. 

Scott Foresman, the Illinois-based company that published Dick and Jane, received a few thousand letters addressed to Dick and Jane—and employees ghostwrote a reply to each dispatch.

9. THERE WAS A DICK AND JANE BACKLASH IN THE LATE 1950S. 

When the look-say strategy began falling out of favor, its poster kids were vilified. In 1955, the educational manifesto Why Johnny Can’t Read championed a return to phonics-based teaching. And author Rudolf Flesch had some choice words for Dick and Jane. The entire franchise, he argued, was “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, [and] tasteless.”

Over the next decade, the backlash grew. In 1961, English professor Arthur S. Trace released What Ivan Knows and Johnny Doesn’t, which claimed that average Russian fourth-graders commanded a vocabulary that was nearly 10,000 words strong. Half a world away, their American counterparts were mastering less than 1800 at that level.

Trace largely blamed the gap on America's obsession with look-say (which he dubbed “look-and-guess”). Students who had been “taught the sounds of the letters from the very beginning … quickly [learned] to ‘sound out’ the many thousands of words which were already in their speaking vocabulary and they could therefore read highly interesting poems and stories.” Dick and Jane, he argued, had to go.  

10. THE SERIES DIDN'T INCLUDE ANY AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHARACTERS UNTIL 1964. 

As the nation finally outlawed public segregation, Fun with Our Friends added an African American family to Dick and Jane’s neighborhood. Among them were an older brother named Mike and his twin sisters Pam and Penny. Catholic schools ran this particular reader a year before public schools picked it up for distribution in ’65.

11. FEMINISTS WEREN'T FANS.

Once the 1970s arrived, Mother swapped Leave it to Beaver-style dresses for pantsuits—but she still spent most of her time around the kitchen. This fact didn’t go unnoticed by the women’s movement. Elizabeth Rider Montgomery, who authored some of Dick and Jane’s most popular titles, admitted in 1976 that “Maybe, by today’s standards, the books are sexist … If I were writing [them] now, I’d have father washing dishes, or mother mowing the lawn. Better yet, both mother and father doing things together, like fixing the car.”

Sharp felt differently. “It never bothered the children,” she said. “That’s all an adult’s viewpoint.”

12. DR. SEUSS BRAGGED ABOUT HELPING TO KILL OFF DICK AND JANE.

Without Sharp’s brainchildren, there’d be no Cat in the Hat. In 1954, Life magazine published a scathing critique of Dick and Jane, which writer John Hersey found painfully boring. Inspired by said piece, William Spaulding—who headed the educational division at Houghton Mifflin publishing—challenged Theodore Seuss Geisel to write “a story that first-graders can’t put down.”

Geisel responded with The Cat in the Hat—his first smash-hit. Children’s literature hasn’t looked back since. “I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries,” he subsequently said. “That is my greatest satisfaction.”

13. A YIDDISH PARODY LED TO A LAWSUIT.

Though Dick and Jane were retired in 1965, Pearson Education retains the copyright. When Elis Weiner and Barbara Davilman released their 2004 spoof book Yiddish with Dick and Jane (which features lines like “Jane is married to Bob. Jane loves Bob very much. Bob is a real mensch.”), the publishing company sued.

Though Pearson claimed that copyright infringement had taken place, the defendants cited their work as satire “entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment and related laws permitting the expression of social commentary.” The parties eventually settled out of court. 

14. TODAY, VINTAGE DICK AND JANE BOOKS ARE COLLECTOR'S ITEMS.

Many of the baby boomers who grew up on older editions now see them as nostalgic trophies. Authentic first-edition copies of Elson Basic Readers: Pre-Primer can now command a $4275 price tag.

15. ONE AUTHOR CAME UP WITH AN EPILOGUE FOR THE FAMILY. 

Education expert A. Sterl Artley joined the Dick and Jane team after World War II. Following his retirement from academia, the scholar busied himself by hitting the road and delivering lectures prior to his death in 1998. Audiences always asked “Whatever happened to Dick and Jane?” Artley’s standard reply was that Dick became a politician who uses the slogan “Run, Dick, run.” As for Jane, she turned into a staunch woman’s rights advocate. Finally, grown-up Sally now teaches at—where else?—an elementary school, where, he explained, she often told her students to “Jump, children, jump.” 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain
arrow
History
The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Warner Bros.
arrow
travel
Rent an Incredible Harry Potter-Themed Apartment in the City Where the Series Was Born
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The Muggle city of Edinburgh has deep ties to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling wrote much of the book series while living there, and there’s even a pub in Edinburgh that named itself after the author for a month. Now, fans passing through the Scottish capital have the chance to live like their favorite boy wizard. As Digital Spy reports, a Harry Potter-themed holiday home in the city’s historic district is now available to rent for around $200 (£150) a night.

Property owner Yue Gao used her own knowledge as a fan when decorating the apartment. With red and yellow accents, a four-poster bed, and floating candles adorning the wallpaper on the ceiling, the master bedroom pays tribute to both the Gryffindor dormitory and the Hogwarts Great Hall. The Hogwarts theme extends to the lounge area, where each door is painted with a different house’s colors and crest. Guests will also find design aspects inspired by the Hogwarts Express around the apartment: The second bedroom is designed to look like a sleeping car, and the front door is disguised as the brick wall at Platform 9 3/4.

Pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia Gao has picked up in her travels are hidden throughout the home, too. If visitors look closely, they’ll find several items that once belonged to Rowling herself, including the writer’s old desk.

Take a look at some of the photos of the magical interiors:

The apartment is available to rent throughout the year through canongateluxuryapartment.co.uk. And if you can tear yourself away from the residence for long enough, there are plenty of other Harry Potter-themed attractions to check out in Edinburgh during your stay.

[h/t Digital Spy]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios