Neglect of Economic Education in Webster's 'Blue-Backed Speller.'(Interview)

By Nelson, C. Louise | American Economist, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Neglect of Economic Education in Webster's 'Blue-Backed Speller.'(Interview)


Nelson, C. Louise, American Economist


It is likely that for more than a century, Webster's Blue-Backed Speller had more influence on the intellectual development of school-children in the United States than any other textbook used in the nation's schools. Referring to him as "Schoolmaster to America," one critic observed, "It was the Speller that conquered the land. . . . No other secular book had ever spread so wide, penetrated so deep, lasted so long."(1)

The purpose at hand is to examine this remarkable textbook and to suggest that in retrospect, its neglect of economic education may be viewed as a significant factor for a century or more in economic illiteracy of Americans.

Purpose of the Speller

Noah Webster (1758-1843) developed his elementary spelling book in order to facilitate his work as a teacher in a classical school in Goshen, New York. In 1783, he published the first edition of it as one of three volumes entitled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. In 1788, the title of it was changed to The American Spelling Book: Containing an Easy Standard of Pronunciation, Being the First Part of a Grammatical Institute of the English Language. At this time, the publication contract provided for the use of a blue paper cover, upon which its synonymous title, the Blue-Backed Speller, is based. In 1830, the title was modified to substantially its permanent version, The Elementary Spelling Book, Being an Improvement on the American Spelling Book.

Webster, a patriot keenly aware of the political issues of his time, considered textbooks then in use in American schools to be unduly biased toward English traditions and neglectful of what he termed "the American scene." He sought to emphasize this scene in the Speller and to minimize the English bias in the education of American children.

The introduction to the first edition contained a notable "Literary Declaration of Independence" which incorporated the basic tenets of Webster's philosophy of education. Hundreds of sentences that were compatible with the declaration were included in the lessons of all subsequent editions of the textbook. Clearly, Webster intended to make the sentences serve as instruction in the fundamentals of numerous areas of knowledge as well as instruction in the meaning of words the children learned to spell. His approach was similar to what is currently known as an infusion approach to teaching economics to schoolchildren, beginning at the kindergarten level.(2)

The first edition of five thousand copies of the Speller sold out within a year. Webster estimated that fifteen million copies were sold during the first fifty years of its publication. Later estimates were that approximately one hundred million copies were sold during the first century of its publication. It was used as a textbook in some school systems in the United States for more than a century.

Despite the large volume of sales, Webster's income from the Speller was modest, estimated to be less than one cent a copy. However, estimates of sales and of Webster's income from them are somewhat suspect because problems with bootleg issues developed immediately after the publication of the first edition. (His efforts to protect his interests and those of other authors led to the passage of federal copyright legislation in 1830.)

Webster's biographer summed up the impact of the Speller with the observation, "He became our greatest schoolmaster . . . by teaching simple fundamentals - in language, morals, economics, politics - to the masses."(3)

Fundamentals of Economics in the Speller?

From time to time, Webster published essays on banking, finance and insurance. As editor of a magazine and of a daily newspaper for a brief period, he was credited with being "one of America's best eighteenth century economists," and phrasing "many new ideas on economics."(4) However, claims that the Speller taught simple fundamentals in economics to the masses or even that it reflected the American economic scene are not warranted. …

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