The History of Flashcards

Modified on by Amanda Moritz-Saladino

The History of Flashcards

Our new favorite blog is the Flaschards Guru! It’s a blog all about our favorite study tool. We are thrilled to share a blog post from the Flashcards Guru on the history of flashcards. The Flashcards Guru has assured us that there will be more blog posts coming soon on the modern history of flashcards.

Reading Disentangled – The Beginnings of Flashcards

We all know that using flashcards is a common and effective study tool for memorizing information. The ‘traditional’ flashcard is an empty rectangular piece of lined or checkered paper or carton that allows for notes to be written down. Finished cards can also be bought for a wide variety of subjects. In the 21st century, flashcards, like other paper sources, are slowly being replaced by electronic devices that offer the same features. As it’s common knowledge, you were already well aware of all of this.

What you may not know yet about flashcards is their history, origins and predecessors. In fact, not many details are known about when the learning device first emerged. Nevertheless a bit of research unearthed several facts about the history and ancestors of the flashcard that might be interesting to know.

Before paper was discovered as a cheap and easily available writing material, books – in fact, all study materials – in the western world were written on parchment. Its production was both complex and expensive. As a result, few had the means to afford it. Schools sometimes used chalkboards or wax tablets to allow their students to take notes, but neither option offered much writing space or could be preserved for long periods of time (the writing was erased when it was no longer needed). Study materials necessarily needed to be more permanent, but an entire book made out of parchment was often impossible to afford. Soon other devices were created, such as hornbooks. These were wooden slates with a handle on which a single piece of parchment was placed and then protected by a layer of flattened cow horn. The sheet was inscribed with the letters of the alphabet and often some letter combinations and prayers.  During the 18th century hornbooks were a commonly used study material in both England and America.

When paper became more readily available with the beginning of the 1800s other forms of study materials quickly became more popular. It is Favell Lee Mortimer, an author of educational books for children, who is credited with creating the first flashcards as we know them today. Her book Reading Disentangled included cards with drawings as well as the corresponding word and its first letter. This language learning guide focused on the phonetics of letters to teach children how to read and speak.

The rest, as they say, is history. Flashcards became widely popular and continue to be a valuable learning tool today – be it to study languages, geography, vocabulary, or just random facts.

[Ed: our favorite modern flashcard tool, of course, is Brainscape – check it out!]


Flashcard. Retrieved December 2, 2011 from

History of the Hornbook. Retrieved December 2, 2011 from

Mortimer, Favell Lee. (1873). Reading Disentangled; or, Classified Lessons in Spelling and Reading. London: Edward Stanford.

Pruzan, Todd; Mortimer, Favell Lee. (2006). The Clumsiest People in Europe, or, Mrs. Mortimer’s bad-tempered guide to the Victorian world. New York: Bloomsbury. Retrieved from

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Rich 4 years ago

And Brainscape is taking the next step in the evolution of flash cards! I'm a Spanish IV student in high school and have been using the free spanish learning apps to brush up on the basics and it works much better than the physical flashcards that I used to use.
It's great that you guys look into the past before leaping into the future!

Amanda Moritz 4 years ago

Thanks, Rich!

When did you download the free Spanish apps? You might be interested in hearing that our AP Spanish Vocab and Verbs apps are free until tomorrow.

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