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Noah Webster (1758–1843)

Webster's Innovations, Perfecting the Spelling Book for Reading Instruction, Other Works

The first person to write a dictionary of American English and permanently alter the spelling of American English, Noah Webster through his spelling book taught millions of American children to read for the first half-century of the republic and millions more to spell for the following half-century.

Born a farmer's son in what is now West Hartford, Connecticut, Webster attended Yale College from 1774 to 1778, during the Revolutionary War. After graduating, he taught at Connecticut district schools before studying for the bar. The dismal conditions of these schools, combined with his patriotism and a search for self-identity, inspired him to compose three schoolbooks that, he believed, would unify the new nation through speaking and writing a common language. (Previously, almost all American schoolbooks had been reprints of imported British ones.) Part one of Webster's A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, a spelling book, was printed in 1783; part two, a grammar, in 1784; part three, a reader (a compilation of essays and poetry for children who could already read), in 1785. Webster then left on an eighteen-month tour south to promote his books and register them for state copyright, in the absence of national copyright legislation. In 1787 he revised the Grammatical Institute, retitling his speller the American Spelling Book and his reader An American Selection of Lessons.

He began editing periodicals in New York: the American Magazine for one year (1788–1789) and the pro-federalist American Minerva (1793–1798). Between the two came his marriage to Rebecca Greenleaf in 1789, the publication of various collections of essays, and an introduction to his reader, the Little Reader's Assistant (1790). In 1798 he retreated from politics and periodicals to New Haven and helped open a private school there.

After publishing a commercially unsuccessful history of epidemics, Webster began writing schoolbooks with renewed vigor, issuing the first three volumes of Elements of Useful Knowledge (1802–1806). He had obtained national copyright protection for his speller in 1790, when the first national copyright law was passed, a law that granted protection for fourteen-year periods. However, the income from his speller, for which he negotiated a penny a copy in 1804 (the date of his first copyright renewal), could not support his large family, and in 1812 he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, to economize. He was instrumental there in founding Amherst Academy, now Amherst College. In 1816 Webster sold the entire rights to the American Spelling Book for its third copyright period, 1818 to 1832, to Hudson and Company of Hartford, Connecticut, in order to work solely on his major dictionary. In 1824, with his son William to aid him, he voyaged to Europe to complete it. Titled An American Dictionary of the English Language, it was published in New York in 1828. A year later, Webster produced the final revision of his speller, the Elementary Spelling Book, in conjunction with Aaron Ely, a New York educator. From then until his death in 1843 Webster issued several other schoolbooks and a bowdlerized edition of the Bible. The latter was the fruit of a conversion experience to fundamentalist Christianity in 1807.

Webster's Innovations

One of Webster's most important and lasting contributions to American English was to change, for the better, the spellings of certain groups of words from their British spelling. He used the principle of uniformity to justify his alterations, arguing that words that were alike, such as nouns and their derivatives, should be spelled alike. He therefore transformed words such as honour to honor (compare honorific), musick to music (compare musical)–the latter a change now adopted by the British–defence to defense (compare defensive) and centre to center. This last alteration actually violated his own principle–compare central–but brought centre and congruent words into conformity with numerous other words ending -er. Webster also respelled many anomalous British spellings, writing gaol as jail, and plough as plow. Earlier, in works such as the Little Reader's Assistant, Webster had gone much further with his reforms, with spellings such as yung and nabor. However, these had evoked so much ridicule that he soon abandoned them. His ability to introduce his major classes of spelling reform into his spellers and dictionaries was crucial to their success, as they became imprinted on the minds of each new generation.

Webster's second major contribution to American education was in the field of lexicography. Indeed, the word Webster is still virtually synonymous with dictionary. Although Webster issued a small stopgap dictionary, his Compendious Dictionary, in 1806, his masterpiece was his An American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828, a two-volume work of more than 70,000 entries and the first truly American dictionary. In it, Webster eliminated words that were not useful to Americans, such as words associated with coats of arms, and included those unique to the United States, like squash and skunk.

Webster was not equally successful in all aspects of his dictionary. By modern standards, his etymologies are flawed. His conversion to fundamentalist Christianity had led him to believe in one original language as the progenitor of all the rest, and his etymologies were compromised by his efforts to fit all words into this framework. On the other hand, he brought a new approach to definitions, which were more accurate, comprehensive, and logically organized than in any previous dictionary. His orthography has become standard American orthography. His indication of pronunciations by the use of diacritical marks was also innovative; lexicographers still use similar markings in the early twenty-first century.

Perfecting the Spelling Book for Reading Instruction

Important as Webster's lexicographical work was, his contributions to the spelling book tradition were even more significant. His spellers enjoyed vastly greater popularity than any other of his works. His original speller, the first part of the Institute (1783), sold out its first edition of 5,000 copies within a few months. By 1804 more than a million copies of its revision, the American Spelling Book of 1787, had been printed, most of them in Hartford and Boston. From 1804 to 1818 Webster's account books document the sales of licenses of another 3,223,000 copies. Between 1818 and 1832, the third copyright period, an estimated 3 million copies were printed. Even higher numbers are documented for Webster's completely revamped version, the Elementary Spelling Book of 1829, which he published in response to what he perceived as the slipping sales of the American Spelling Book under Hudson and Company. Between 1829, the Elementary's first publication, and 1843, the year of Webster's death, almost 3,868,000 copies were licensed for sale. Over all its editions, a conservative estimate puts the total sales of the speller at 70 million.

The national popularity and huge sales of Webster's spelling books can only be understood if it is appreciated that they were books designed primarily to teach children to read, and only secondarily to spell, through the alphabet method of reading instruction. The underlying assumption of all spelling books was that "reading" (defined as oral, not silent, reading) was a matter of pronouncing words, spelled aloud syllable by syllable, and that once a word was pronounced correctly, comprehension would follow. Webster's contribution to the spelling book tradition was to indicate how words should be pronounced. He introduced a system of numerical superscripts to indicate vowel pronunciation and altered the syllabification of words to their present format (si-ster now became sis-ter). In so doing, he improved significantly on his model and rival, A New Guide to the English Tongue (1740) by the British Thomas Dilworth. In his final revision, the Elementary of 1829, Webster replaced the superscripts with diacritical marks very similar to those he had used in his American Dictionary a year earlier–another innovation.

Other Works

A fourth contribution to education by Webster was to originate works that others would improve upon. He had a very large view of American education: He attempted to influence school content, "beginning with children & ending with men" (Monaghan, p. 69) who would progress from the Webster spelling book through other subjects up to the Webster dictionaries. Webster's grammar of 1784 was swiftly superseded by Lindley Murray's grammar, and his revised reader, An American Selection, was also overtaken, first by Caleb Bingham's American Preceptor and later by Murray's English Reader. (The latter would appear in some 350 editions by 1840.) Webster's school dictionaries, his four-volume Elements of Useful Knowledge (1802, 1804, 1806, 1812), his Biography, for the Use of Schools (1830), his History of the United States (1832), and his Manual of Useful Studies (1839) introduced many topics that would later evolve into school staples: geography and history of the United States and elsewhere and (in a primitive form in the fourth volume of the Elements) biology.

The "First" American Author

Webster was innovative in a fifth arena: he was the earliest American author to make a living from his own publications. He saw as a young man that there was money to be made from a schoolbook and sought protection for his first spelling book even before it was in print and before any state had yet passed laws protecting intellectual property. Webster has become known as the "father of copyright," and indeed he remained active in promoting copyright protection throughout his life. He might with more justice be termed the "father of royalties," as he was one of the first to exact payment from his publishers according to the number of books they printed or that he licensed to them.

Webster's ability to live from the proceeds of the spelling book was aided by another factor: his extraordinary promotion of his own books. He was the first, but certainly not the last, American author to involve himself deeply in the publishing and promotional aspects of his books. His activities prefigure almost all aspects of modern publishing. His first concern, particularly for part one of the Institute and later for the Elementary Spelling Book, was with the quality of the printed product. He monitored every printer himself, first across New England and then in the middle and southern states. He fussed over every internal detail of the product in an effort to make all his editions uniform across publishers: the spelling, the paper, the standing type. He revised and corrected each edition unceasingly.

His second concern was with promotion. No aspect of it escaped him. As was common practice at the time, he sought recommendations. (Both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington turned him down.) He went on promotional tours, as he did for the Institute in 1785. He gave lectures that brought him to the public's attention; he advertised the series and, when possible, planted "notices" (equivalent to press releases) in local newspapers; he donated his books to colleges and schools; he even gave portions of his proceeds to worthy causes. He was originally his own best agent, and used paid agents only late in his life. Above all, Webster kept an eye out for competitors and did not hesitate to launch stinging attacks, often in newspapers, on his rivals. In much of this, for better or worse, he foreshadowed modern practice.

The view of reading instruction incorporated in Webster's spellers–as systematic, sequential, letter-based, and learned by rote–would not be challenged until the 1820s. The charge brought against all spelling books hinged on the meaninglessness to the child of much of the spelling book's content. Reformers deplored the long lists of syllabified words that children had to encounter before they met sustained reading passages. By the late 1830s the success of the new-style readers, those like the Eclectic series originally authored by William Holmes McGuffey, were rendering spelling books obsolete as reading instructional texts.

Yet the sales of Webster's Elementary Spelling Book, now dubbed affectionately the "blue-back speller" or just "ole blue-back," continued to increase. By 1859, according to Appleton and Company of New York, the firm was printing the speller at the rate of a million and one-half copies per year. For the blue-back speller still had an educational role to play: It lived on for the rest of the century as a spelling instructional text and as the favorite arbiter at spelling bees in and out of school.


MONAGHAN, E. JENNIFER. 1983. A Common Heritage: Noah Webster's Blue-Back Speller. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.

ROLLINS, RICHARD M. 1980. The Long Journey of Noah Webster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

ROLLINS, RICHARD M., ed. 1989. The Autobiographies of Noah Webster: From the Letters and Essays, Memoir, and Diary. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

SKEEL, EMILY ELLSWORTH FORD. 1971. A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster (1958), ed. Edwin H. Carpenter Jr. New York: New York Public Library and Arno.

WARFEL, HARRY R., ed. 1953. The Letters of Noah Webster. New York: Library.

WARFEL, HARRY R. 1966. Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America. New York: Octagon.

WEBSTER, NOAH. 1783. A Grammatical Institute of the English Language …, Part I. Hartford, CT: Hudson and Goodwin.

WEBSTER, NOAH. 1787a. An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, Calculated to Improve the Minds and Refine the Taste of Youth …, 3rd edition. Philadelphia: Young and M'Cullough.

WEBSTER, NOAH. 1787b. The American Spelling Book Containing, an Easy Standard of Pronunciation. Being the First Part of a Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Philadelphia: Young and M'Cullough.

WEBSTER, NOAH. 1790. The Little Reader's Assistant …. Hartford, CT: Elisha Babcock.

Webster, Noah, to Samuel L. Mitchell, June 29, 1807.

WEBSTER, NOAH. 1828. An American Dictionary of the English Language …, 2 vols. New York: S[herman] Converse.

WEBSTER, NOAH. 1829. The Elementary Spelling Book; Being an Improvement on the American Spelling Book. Middletown, CT: Niles.


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