Carnegie Support

The New York Times, March 12, 1906

With the new financial support of Andrew Carnegie and the ongoing support by leading scholars (see: The Rise of the Spelling Reform Movement), the movement made some immediate gains.

The formation of the Simplified Spelling Board was announced on March 11, 1906. Andrew Carnegie provided virtually all of the initial funding for the New York City based organization. The New York Times described Carnegie’s support as being based on his believe that “English might be made the world language of the future” and “an influence leading to universal peace”, but that this role was obstructed by its “contradictory and difficult spelling”. His financial support included a commitment of $15,000 per year for five years. That would be a commitment of over $350,000 a year in 2010 dollars.

The Board

The inaugural board of the Board was a diverse and well-respected set of luminaries. Among the early board members were:

Chancellor Andrews of the University of Nebraska, Justice Brewer of the United States Supreme Court, President Butler of Columbia University, O. C. Blackmer of Chicago, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Dr. Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal Fame), Dr. Isaac K. Funk, editor and publisher of The Standard Dictionary; Lyman J. Gage, ex-Secretary of the Treasury; Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine; Dr. William T. Harris, United States Commissioner of Education and editor of Webster’s International Dictionary; Prof. George Hempel of the University of Michigan, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry Holt, Prof. William James of Harvard, President Jordan of Leland Stanford University, Prof. Thomas R. Lounsbury of Yale, Prof. Francis A. March of Lafayette, Prof. Brander Matthews of Columbia, Dr. Benjamin E. Smith, editor, and Dr. Charles P. G. Scott, etymological editor, of The Century Dictionary; President H. H. Seedley of the Iowa State Normal School, Cedar Falls; Col. Charles E. Sprague, President of the Union Dime Savings Institution; Prof. Calvin Thomas of Columbia, Dr. William Hayes Ward, editor of The Independent, and President Woodward of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Presidential Approval

The first big boost in awareness for the movement came when President Teddy Roosevelt endorsed the reforms and required their use in the White House later that year.

President Adopts the Carnegie Spelling Reform

The Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling BookOYSTER BAY, August 24. President Roosevelt has indorsed the Carnegie spelling reform movement. He Issued orders today to Public Printer Stillings that hereafter all messages from the President and all other documents emanating from the White House must be printed in accordance with the recommendations of the spelling reform committee headed by Brander Matthews, professor of English at Columbia University. This committee has published a list of 300 words in which the spelling is reformed. This list contains such words as “thru” and “tho” as the spelling of “through” and “though.”

The President’s official sanction of this reform movement is regarded as the most effective and speediest method of inaugurating the new system of spelling throughout the country. Not only will the printed documents emanating from the president’s office utilize the reform spelling, but his correspondence also will be spelled in the new style.

The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, September 08, 1906

Roosevelt's Letter to the Government Printing Office

Oyster Bay, August 27, 1906 To Charles Arthur Stillings

My dear Mr. Stillings:

I enclose herewith copies of certain circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board, which can be obtained free from the Board at No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York City. Please hereafter direct that in all Government publications of the executive departments the three hundred words enumerated in Circular No. 5 shall be spelled as therein set forth. If anyone asks the reason for the action, refer him to Circulars 3, 4 and 6 as issued by the Spelling Board. Most of the criticism of the proposed step is evidently made in entire ignorance of what the step is, no less than in entire ignorance of the very moderate and common-sense views as to the purposes to be achieved, which views as so excellently set forth in the circulars to which I have referred. There is not the slightest intention to do anything revolutionary or initiate any far-reaching policy. The purpose simply is for the Government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it and at the same time abreast of the views of the ablest and most practical educators of our time as well as the most profound scholars—men of the stamp of Professor Lounsbury. If the slightest changes in the spelling of the three hundred words proposed wholly or partially meet popular approval, then the changes will become permanent without any reference to what officials or individual private citizens may feel; if they do not ultimately meet with popular approval they will be dropt, and that is all there is about it. They represent nothing in the world but a very slight extension of the unconscious movement which has made agricultural implement makers write “plow” instead of “plough”; which has made most Americans write “honor” without the somewhat absurd, superfluous “u”; and which is even now making people write “program” without the “me”—just as all people who speak English now write “bat,” “set,” “dim,” “sum,” and “fish” instead of the Elizabethan “batte,” “sette,” “dimme,” “summe,” and “fysshe”; which makes us write “public,” “almanac,” “era,” “fantasy,” and “wagon,” instead of the “publick,” “almanack,” “aera,” “phantasy,” and “waggon” of our great-grandfathers. It is not an attack of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, because it is in some instances a going back to the forms they used, and in others merely the extension of changes which, as regards other words, have taken place since their time. It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all. It is merely an attempt to cast what slight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.

Sincerely yours,

Theodore Roosevelt

Despite what some newspaper reports at the time described, this order by Roosevelt only applied to the Executive branch of the government.   Congress, the Supreme Court, and the much of the popular press were not receptive to the change.

Resistance also came directly from the Government Printing Office and as well as others who had the job of carry it out the order.

Congress had not liked Theodore Roosevelt, “and his five years of making them do what they didn’t want” and decided that the uproar presented them with an opportunity to “give the President a jolt.” So they voted, 142 to 24, that “no money appropriated in this act shall be used (for) printing documents … unless same shall conform to the orthography … in … generally accepted dictionaries.” When his term of office ended, in March 1909,  the conservative New York Sun published a one word editorial, “Thru.”

–“WRITTEN DIALECTS N Spelling Reforms:
History N Alternatives” by Kenneth H. Ives

TR the Reformer

Despite the setback with Congress, the Board and movement kept up its work.

Spreading the Word

With the funding provided by Carnegie, the Simplified Spelling Board was able to employ field workers who traveled the country to connect with schools and publishers.  Over time they managed to get commitments from 460 institutions of higher education to allow their students to use the NEA’s 12 words, as well as many of the “List of 300” that was released in 1906.

The SSB’s first chairman, Columbia professor Brander Matthews, produced some of the most compelling reasoning behind the need for reformation and many of his essays were published or excerpted in newspapers and magazines around the country.

One of his most famous, The Spelling of Yesterday and the Spelling of To-morrow, contains most of the recurring themes the Board and its supporters

Brander Matthews

(Excerpted) There is no uniformity now, and there never has been any uniformity.

If any man insists upon the misleading spelling of comptroller, we can assure him that this orthography misrepresents the sound of the word, that it also suggests a false origin, and that there is an absurdity in combining a sturdy old English word with Frenchified complexities which mean nothing. But the culprit may retort that he likes to spell the word in just that way and that he proposes to do so for ever and ever; and what are we going to do about it? To this there is no answer except to admit that the right of any individual user of the language to spell as he sees fit. This admission assures to the wilful man the privilege of clinging to comptroller, while it also asserts the right of any one else to use the more logical, the simpler, and the older controller.

Other wilful men may cling to metre, altho they are in the habit of spelling it meter in its compounds diameter and thermometer. They may prefer to bestow a needless French tail upon programme, altho they always spell epigram without any such wasteful redundancy. They may have a fondness for another French termination in cigarette and aigrette, altho omelet and epaulet and toilet have long managed to survive shorn of this appendix.

The English-speaking race is essentially conservative, and it declines to be driven too fast. It will not give up the symbols to which it is accustomed. Any scientific phonetic reform of our common spelling is absolutely impossible; it lies outside the sphere of practical politics. But altho phonetic reform is impossible, improvement of some sort is possible, if too much is not demanded too suddenly. As Sainte-Beuve once suggested: “Orthography is like society; it will never be entirely reformed; but we can at least make it less vicious.”

–Prof. Brander Matthews

Dr. W. W. Folwell, Librarian at the Minnesota State University,  was skeptical about the sort of hasty reform favored by Roosevelt and some of the more well known reformers.  He told the The Minneapolis Journal: “This is a step in the same direction. The day is coming when the English-speaking child will be emancipated from the spelling book. It will not come in 100 years, probably not in 200 years, but it will come. Some time the English-speaking child, as the German-speaking children of today, will have only to learn the letters of the alphabet and their sounds before it be gins to read.”

A Loss of Momentum

The high-profile conflict between Roosevelt and the House of Representatives produced a great deal of unflattering publicity. The press had a field day with the “reform spelling crusade” and editorials and cartoons appeared all over.

Despite losing Federal support, the Board made the mistake of continuing to believe reform could be accomplished using a top down approach through schools and publishers forcing it on their students and customers.

History has shown us that this is never an easy path for American reform movements.  Look at healthcare or educational standards in the 21st century.  The past shows us that the only way build a consensus for change comes from grassroots efforts with, at best, minimal government support.

Another problem facing the reform movement was a complete overestimation of the ease with which people could become familiar with the details of the reform movement (see: Common Core and ACA.)  Among the wealthy and academic elite behind the movement, the absolutely necessity of reform seemed self-evident and thought that it was just a matter of having a budget large enough to spread the word.  They sincerely believed that anyone who understood the spelling reforms they planned would eagerly embrace the change.  They did not count on a sizable portion of the public being completely disinterested in hearing the details.

This approach led to the Board’s downfall.

Losing Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie, the movements major benefactor, fundamentally disagreed with the board’s approach of dictating change to the public. Carnegie felt the organization would be more effective by low-level changes. He told an editor of the New York Times: “Amended spellings can only be submitted for general acceptance. It is the people who decide what is to be adopted or rejected.” A few board members considered Carnegie to be too meddlesome in its business, despite his generous financial backing.

Matthews reported a list of newspaper adopting the reforms in 1915 and, in reply, Carnegie complained, “…not one Eastern paper. I see no change in New York and I am getting very tired indeed, of sinking twenty-five thousand dollars a year for nothing here in the East.”

In February of 1915 Carnegie sent a letter to publisher Henry Holt, then president of the board saying “A more useless body of men never came into association, judging from the effects they produce. […] Instead of taking twelve words and urging their adoption, they undertook radical changes from the start and these they can never make….”

Interestingly, he used spelling that confirmed his belief in the spelling reform in practice, even if he did not support the Board’s methods: “I think I hav been patient long enuf… I hav much better use for twenty thousand dollars a year.”

The Simplified Spelling Board’s Legacy

The National Education Association continued promoting their list until 1921. The Simplified Spelling Board remained active until about 1920, aided by the Carnegie money. However, Carnegie did not provide any money in his will for the Spelling Board.

With the end of Carnegie funds in 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board went inactive, and the Spelling Reform Association was brought back to life by many of the same people associated with the SSB. It it still aimed for thorough reform. In 1930, the Spelling Reform Association published its phonemic alphabet.

To this day, a few continue to carry the torch for the Simplified Spelling Board, in name at least. The remaining Simplified Spelling Board and the Spelling Reform Association were merged in 1946, and today there is a group with a different name and an additional goal: the American Literacy Council. This group is at least as concerned with the general teaching of reading and writing as it is with spelling reform.

The 300 Words

The list of 300 words appeared in a 1906 guide produced by the US Government Printing Office.  There is also a digitized list of the 300 words.

The spellings on Simplified Spelling Board’s list, for a number of years,  were listed alongside the conventional spellings in dictionaries. The larger editions of Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries did this until sometime in the 1950s.