Back in the 1870s, public school curriculum put a lot of emphasis on rote learning — and proper spelling was crucial. These and other literacy skills might advance young people out of the laboring classes to clerical and professional positions. However, our long-ago ancestors also discovered that spelling could be fun!
Two years after the Panic of 1873, which brought a national depression, Fitchburg was still suffering but you’d never know it from the number of spelling matches that year which gathered hundreds of residents at nail-biting competitions of brain power.
The fad started on the Ides of March, 1875, when an item in the Sentinel mentioned “an exciting spelling match” in Easton, Pennsylvania between students from two local academies. Fitchburg’s Dr. Jabez Fisher and his wife noticed this story and got a brilliant idea: why not create a local “spelling match.”
This local couple had influence: Dr. Fisher was a “hydropathic” physician; musical director of the Fitchburg Choral Union, and the first chairman of the first Board of Water Commissioners in Fitchburg, which oversaw the construction of Overlook and Marshall Reservoirs. He also presided over “Pomoland” his family fruit orchard and served as a Senator in the State Legislature (Fisher Road is named after his family).
Within days, the Ladies of the Universalist Society planned a “Spelling Match,” on April 1, with “umpires” Stephen Shepley and D. H. Merriam (an attorney and later the fourth Mayor of Fitchburg). Tickets were just 15 cents.
Mistakes were on easy words, such as “fabrick” for “fabric,” and “fruntere” for “frontier,” as well as ten-dollar ones: aesthetic, heterogeneous, received, and authorities. The custom then was that a misspelling meant the next speller tried his or her skill at the same word. How many of us — under the pressure and excitement of a public match — could place all the ‘r’s in the right spot with “referring,” or the placement of ‘c’s in “accommodated” and “lacquer”? These words “sent three into the back seat” according to Sentinel coverage.
Despite Fisher’s eclectic background (think of all the unusual words he encountered in his various occupations), Mrs. Fisher’s side performed well. Two finalists from each side remained until Miss Lizzie Sleeper a pupil at the Day Street School, put an “e” into the word “using,” and Mr. Watson left an “e” out of Beethoven. Miss Lora Alger who worked at the Sentinel won by default, and her trophy was Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and — one hopes — hours of bragging rights at the office.
Eight days later, April 9, 1875, another match with school children and adults was held which drew nearly 100 participants. The students easily trounced the adults on words like “atafia” and “achromatic.”
Finally, “Miss Nellie E. Bates was the only representative of the schools with Fred Fosdick and Mrs. James H. Whitcomb for the other,” wrote the Sentinel writer. “Euphony was too much for Miss Bates and gillyflower sent Miss Whitcomb down, leaving Mr. Fosdick the sole survivor.”
Four days later, on April 13, a third spelling match “was well attended. Schools had 52 contestants, opposite side 28.” A week later, the fourth Fitchburg spelling match pitted ladies against gentlemen. The Sentinel writer observed that the words “were by no means easy,” and that “the first to fall was a gentleman and “niche” was the word that dropped him.”
Before long, champion Frederick Fosdick and Day Street School pupil Miss Lizzie Sleeper were in the finals. Poor Mr. Fosdick was obliged to spell four words to one for each of his four female opponents “and finally slipped on ‘solecism.’ “
Miss Abbie A. Whittemore, a teacher in the West Fitchburg grammar school took the laurels, while Miss Lizzie Sleeper won a barrel of the best St. Louis flour.
Whatever became of those spellers?
The aftermath of spelling match fever must have been a letdown for all participants – there are no records of subsequent matches for many years. However, Frederick Fosdick was elected as Fitchburg’s ninth mayor in 1886, and Lizzie Sleeper got top marks at Fitchburg High School, and later became a teacher there. Just think how far she’d have gone had women the vote, and the opportunity to run for office. But as the consistently highest-scoring female speller in Fitchburg, her title remains her own.
Sally Cragin is an award-winning writer and the Director of Be PAWSitive Therapy Pets and Community Education.