Noah Webster House
By Christopher Gay
West Hartford, CT-
If you've ever found yourself in need of a dictionary, chances are you're at least somewhat familiar with the name Webster. As it turns out, Noah Webster, Jr. was a very important Connecticut Colonial whose influence is still felt throughout the country, and not just to the modern day hardcore Scrabble player. For those who yearn to learn more about Webster and his
many contributions to our society, a great place to start would be a visit to the Noah Webster House. On a recent Friday afternoon, I decided to make such a visit. The brick red house is nestled on South Main Street in West Hartford, and is fairly easy to get to. After paying my admission, I quickly joined a tour in progress and stepped into the Parlor room. This was the exact room, I was told, in which Noah Webster was born in October 1758. Within minutes of this revelation the others in my group departed. I soon found myself receiving a personally guided tour. For the next hour, I was taken from room to room by the very knowledgeable Liz Payne, a(n) historical interpreter in period dress who has volunteered at the Webster House since 1978. In the various rooms Ms. Payne took me through, I was able to view such items as period beds, desks, spinning wheels, and even a butter churn. As expected, the kitchen came with its requisite 9 foot fireplace/oven, with a separate cubby hole for baking bread. My helpful docent then provided me a nice treat when I was shown the grandfather clock Webster kept in his New Haven home in the latter years of his life. It was truly an interesting timepiece, and as I continued to look around, I found myself reminded a little of Old Sturbridge Village. As we moved along on our little tour, I was continuously provided with an interesting and educational narration. Through it, I discovered that Webster went to Yale right at the cusp of the Revolutionary War. After graduation, he taught school in the Hartford area to earn money to study law. He was dissatisfied by the conditions of American schools and did not want to use English books to teach American children. His immediate solution in 1783 was to write what was to become known as the Blue-backed Speller. For a century, this book was the most popular of its kind and was endorsed by none other than Ben Franklin, a contemporary of Webster's. In addition to spelling, The Blue-back taught moral lessons and provided historical tidbits.
Since in his time we had just become independent of England, Webster had little use for British words, and tried to Americanize some of them. He was of the opinion that words should be spelled like they sounded. Although he was unsuccessful with “soop”, he is the reason why we drop the “u” in colour, humour and honour, as well as the “k” in publick and musick.
Webster was considered a patriot and thought that Americans should speak and spell alike throughout the entire country. So at age 43, he sat down and began the first American dictionary. Almost 30 years and several quill pens later, he wrote in the last of his approximately 70,000 words.
Webster's dictionary wasn't all that, ahem, defined him, however. Additionally, he was the first major influence on state legislatures to pass copyright laws, the first president of the board of trustees of Amherst College in Massachusetts, and an advocate for a strong central government.
My tour ended with a viewing of an 8 minute film on the life of Noah Webster. And although the short was a little dated, it still was a nice way to cap off my visit. That movie may well be updated soon anyway, according to the executive director, Chris Dobbs. Dobbs is an energetic young man who is always looking for new and better ways to make Webster House fun and interesting for the public. Among recent events, the house has hosted a successful Tavern Night, which included food and games among the merriment, and a Hearth Cooking workshop.
Eleven thousand school children a year visit Webster House, and there are many interesting and interactive activities for them. Kids can sign up for educational programs, birthday parties, and even a summer camp where they spend a week as a child who “lives” in the 1770's. There they are able to learn and participate in activities as if they were a child of that era. There are ample brochures on hand that trumpet upcoming events for any and all age groups.
It was pointed out during my tour that unlike some historical buildings, Webster House sits upon its original location, having never been moved. After 27 years, neither has Liz Payne. Upon reflection she says, “I love it here, I keep learning. You can never know everything.” After being there only 90 minutes, I can see how she feels that way. There is a lot to see, do and read at Webster House. All in all, it turned out to be a pleasant, educational way to spend a small part of the afternoon. Connecticut is interwoven with American history, although it's not always publicized as well as perhaps it could be. Webster House is doing its small part to bring that history alive.