On this day, October 16th, in 1758, a pioneer in American English-language education was born. Noah Webster is one of the most influential figures in the early decades of American history; having published some of the most well-known textbooks and dictionaries of the nineteenth century. Webster’s first famous publication came with his 1783 A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which was nicknamed the “Blue-Backed Speller” for its blue covers. Lehigh Special Collections holds an 1805 edition of Webster’s work The American Spelling Book, a later publication title of the Blue-Backed Speller. Webster aimed to provide a standard for American spelling and grammar, and also sought to educate schoolchildren with books written in America.
In 1801, Webster began compiling a dictionary of American usages and spellings of words. As Americans had slightly different ways of speaking than the English, Webster thought that a comprehensive dictionary would prove useful in standardizing the country’s language. After five years of work, he published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806. This volume contained approximately 37,000 words with concise definitions for each. A first edition copy of this work can be found in Lehigh Special Collections.
Title page of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language
A sample section from A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language
In addition to publishing educational volumes, Webster was active politically and strongly advocated the Copyright Act of 1831. The Webster name is still closely associated with dictionaries as the Merriam-Webster dictionary is still being actively updated and published. The hyphenation is the result of George and Charles Merriam purchasing the rights to Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language following his death in 1843. Noah Webster is still noteworthy today for his push to provide widespread access to high-quality educational resources. As Webster wrote in his 1807 A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language, “the most necessary learning is, ‘to unlearn that which is naught’.”
On this day in 1683, the borough of Germantown, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was founded. Despite encompassing an area of only about three square miles, the area has a surprisingly intricate history. Germantown was founded by German Quaker and Mennonite immigrants, and, even today, October 6 is noted as German-American Day. Germantown first became notable a mere five years after its founding, in 1688, when America’s anti-slavery movement took off there, through the issuance of the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, written by Francis Daniel Pastorius. Germantown also served as a battleground during the American Revolutionary War, when the Continental Army attacked the British garrison there. While a loss for the Americans, the British still suffered heavy casualties. As decades have passed, Germantown’s demographics have consistently changed. While initially comprised of primarily German immigrants (naturally), in the mid-nineteenth century the demographic began to include a large number of Italian immigrants. Another shift occurred around the second World War, as African American families from the south moved to Philadelphia – today, Germantown is a primarily African American community.
While Germantown boasts a truly impressive history for such a small area, what I find most interesting about the borough is its ties to the literary world and Lehigh Special Collections. In the mid-1700’s, Germantown resident Christoph Sauer brought a new element to the infant American printing industry when he started producing books in German and with a standard German type face. In 1739, Sauer printed the first book using a German type face – Fraktur, specifically – in America. Sauer sought to cater to the large numbers of German immigrants in the Philadelphia area who were forced to either buy imported books or use books not printed in Fraktur facing. Four years later, in 1743, Sauer printed the first Bible in any European language in America. Lehigh Special Collections holds original copies of both of these books, which can be seen below.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is an excellent classic to take a look at during Banned Books Week (September 24 – 30). Originally published in 1847, Jane Eyre was written at a time when women rarely played a large public role, with restrictions in place for universities, government, and most careers. The women’s suffrage movement which won women the right to vote wouldn’t take off until decades later. Brontë wrote the work under the gender-neutral pseudonym of Currer Bell to avoid additional criticism because of her sex. Initially published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, Brontë’s work presented itself as a true story advocating radical feminist ideals and advertising individual expression. These were highly controversial opinions for the mid-nineteenth century, which resulted in the novel being banned in various locations, and cited as dissentious, anti-Christian literature unfit for young ladies.
Jane Eyre provides a first-person narrative of the life of a fictional young woman, Jane Eyre, in northern England in the early 1800s. The book begins by describing Jane’s unhappy childhood and stressing her rebellious, outspoken nature. Orphaned from a young age, Jane is brought up by her spiteful aunt, and is sent off to boarding school at age ten. After eight years at school, Jane’s adventurous spirit remains unquenched, and she begins to seek work elsewhere as a governess. Several months later, Jane begins working as a governess for Adele Varens, a young French girl under the charge of the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Rochester and Jane spend time together, often discoursing on a variety of intellectual topics, and each develop feelings for the other. As the novel is written as a narrative, it focuses solely on Jane’s feelings and her brazen approach to love, which is considerably out of place for the time. Rochester and Jane soon plan to be married, but the wedding is called off when it is revealed that Rochester is already married. Jane, proud of her morals, cannot bear to be in unlawful matrimony and flees, endeavoring to make her own way in the world once more. After some time, and a marriage proposal by another man, Jane begins to pine for Rochester once more. Upon her return, she finds Rochester’s wife dead and him half-crippled, and pledges herself to him with the two eventually marrying.
For 1847, Jane Eyre presented a strikingly radical opinion on how young women could behave. Jane’s ability to make decisions independent of what everyone else was telling her and stick to her moral convictions cause her to stand out as an impressive fictional role model even today. While progressive for its time, Bronte’s work helped influence future feminist movements and the emergence of more women authors. I believe that Jane Eyre is still relevant and worth reading today – and certainly should never be banned. Jane Eyre showcases individual thought and active questioning, as well as maintaining one’s morals and coming to understand love. This first edition of this powerful book is now on display in Lindeman Library as part of the exhibition: Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism.Jane Eyre is also available at Lehigh in older editions held by Special Collections, and in newer editions on Linderman Library’s third floor.