90,000 Miles to Me

28,858 Miles • Noah Webster

Two years ago, I visited Noah Webster’s birthplace in Hartford, Connecticut, and even went into the building, but was put off by the $8 sticker price. Yes, $8 was too much for me, and though I’m a little better off financially now, something would still have to be very personally meaningful to me to fork out $8. 

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see the museum. I do. I just have to ration my resources to keep up this Journey in the manner that has been so psychologically impactful (read: without job commitments). 

So this time, I came prepared. With my NARM membership in hand, I finally got to see the Noah Webster House in Hartford. 

The museum was well done (I personally appreciated the soft lighting) and I learned a lot about him. I had of course associated him with the Webster Dictionary, but did not realize that he was also one of the prominent federalists associated with the writing and ratification of the US Constitution. Apparently, he was extremely outspoken and made enemies which kept him from representing Connecticut officially, so was not one of the signatories to the Constitution, but he was in Philadelphia at the time of its signing, conversing daily with many of those who were there officially, trying to get his views accepted into the Constitution. 

Some of those views did make it in; some did not. He was a strong proponent of intellectual property and copyright law, as well as an outspoken critic of slavery and advocate of equal rights for women. 

These values he learned at home, from his parents. Though Noah was a promising student, his father could not afford to send him to college and thought he should follow in the family trade as a weaver. Noah eventually persuaded his father, who mortgaged the family house to afford the expensive tuition.

When he graduated from Yale in 1778, a young man in need of money, the colonies were in the midst of revolution and job prospects were scanty. He took a position as a schoolteacher and was dismayed by the widely varying pronunciation of words by children from different colonies, as well as the fact that the few school books that were used were British school books. He thought that Americans needed to have American school books and an American way of pronouncing and spelling our language.

He wrote a three volume spelling and pronunciation book called A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, though its blue cover earned it the nickname the “Blue-Backed Speller.” He traveled extensively to promote it himself throughout all of the 13 colonies.

It was well received and very popular, so much so that others tried to copy his work and reprint it as their own. He then spent years advocating for intellectual property rights for himself and other authors as well as musicians.

He later studied law and worked as a lawyer, yet his friends encouraged him to put his language skills toward writing an American dictionary. He poured several years of work and effort in that project, even traveling to Europe for several months to study multiple languages for their etymologies, but his dictionary was criticized and did not sell well. 

Less than a year later he regrouped and started work on a much larger, better researched, and more thorough version, which he published 21 years later and dubbed his “magnum opus.” That one was extremely well received and earned him the accolades he had always desired, though the $20 price tag, the equivalent of nearly $500 today, kept it out of the reach of most households. This is the dictionary we think of today as Webster’s American Dictionary.

Just a few years after his death, the G&C Merriam company bought the copyright to his dictionary, revising it and putting out several more editions under the name Merriam-Webster Dictionary. They still hold the copyright today.

Both the dictionary and the spelling book were his attempts to unify the American states by creating a feeling of solidarity through standardization of language. 

He also helped found several schools, including Amherst College, in part to ensure that his six daughters got just as good of an education as his two sons.

On another note, part of the museum is the original house he grew up in—the one that was mortgaged to finance his education—and is set up to show how housework was done in the late 1700s. I was intrigued by the similarity of the “bake oven” to the thermal cooking methods I’ve been using recently, where things cook slowly over a long time in a warm space rather than directly over the fire or in a modern oven.

The bake oven is essentially a hole in the brick wall behind the fireplace where the cook would have put hot coals with a cast-iron pot on top of them with more hot coals heaped on top, to bake whatever was inside the pot. In a video demonstration, a woman in colonial garb pointed out that there was an old saying, “fire burns, coals cook.”

* * *