Schools often used dictionaries and spellers like this one in their efforts to assimilate immigrant students. These textbooks also standardized American-style spelling and pronunciation for all students, teaching children English, regardless of their parents’ language.
In 1783, Noah Webster published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It was a concise dictionary for adults and a precursor to the 1828/1829 compendium, An American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster modeled his spellers and dictionaries after English imports, but included American words, definitions, and pronunciations. He believed that Americanizing spelling, grammar, and pronunciation would unify the new nation.
Webster revised the first speller in 1787 under the title of The American Spelling Book and included tables of pronunciations, common abbreviations, and reading lessons for schools at the back of the book. Webster’s son, William, adapted this sequel for school children in 1844, shortly after his father's death. This edition was used by the majority of literate Americans well into the mid-20th century.
William Webster officially changed the name of the speller to Webster's Elementary Spelling Book, but the edition became known as the Blue-back speller, named for the color of the original cover. This speller became the authority in classrooms across the nation and was used with primers and readers as the core for language arts programs to teach children to read, as the authority for spelling bees, and until recently was the primary tool for immigrants learning the English language. Because it was so popular in schools and homes, old copies were easy to obtain. With the Bible, it was the preferred book of enslaved people and former enslaved people for teaching themselves to read. Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. DuBois all made note of using and favoring their Webster “Blue-backs.”
This copy was used prior to the Civil War and has pencil inscriptions on the inside front cover "Essex Central School" and on flyleaf, "Albion Burnham Dec 1855" and "Emily Allen has got the Mitton." The inside back cover reads: "Olive Rowe broke her toe" and on the outside front cover in ink: "Albion Burnham / Dec 31st/1855." The first and last 2 cover pages contained testimonials concerning using this dictionary in schools. The publisher's and editor's prefaces are evidence of how grammar and language arts were taught during the 19th Century in American schools. The rear cover contains advertisements of other educational text available from the publisher.
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