History of Consistent Spelling in English

The norms for writing words consistently are collectively called orthography.  Consistency in writing and spelling is a relatively recent development, largely spurred on by printing practices which allowed writing to be disseminated to a wider audience, therefore replacing regional spelling changes.  It is not easy for writers to remember consistent spelling without written reference materials, so consistent spelling was not typical before the late 15th or early 16th centuries in England.

English has an alphabetic writing system based on the Roman alphabet that was brought to Anglo-Saxon England by Christian missionaries and church officials in the 600s.    The advent of printing in the late 1400s drastically changed the speed at which manuscripts could be produced, and the adoption of paper also made documents cheaper and therefore more widespread.  Not only religious texts, but political and legal documents and stories for pleasure drastically increased in the 1500s.

This time period also saw a rise of schools designed to train religious workers and secular workers for government, which resulted in a rise in literacy and spread the developing norms for orthography.  Standard written norms based on London English developed and were widespread even in places where the spoken dialogue did not change, and therefore did not match the “sound” of the written word.

By the late 1500s the large variety of regional spellings had condensed and the English language was well on the way to the modern orthography we use today.

Cracking Codes in Medieval Books

A wonderful in-depth article on Medieval books and the art and process of hand-lettering. It really gives you an insight into these treasures.


Reading a medieval book may not seem so different from reading a  volume from your own bookshelf: just pick it up, flip to the first page, and start reading. However, apart from the fact that you cannot really hold the average medieval book in your hand – a single volume often weighs as much as a whole pile of today’s books – there is also a problem that occurs when you actually start to read. It turns out you need to decode quite a bit. The first round of decoding happens when your eyes meet the page. The letters on it are shaped very differently from what our brains usually process, so the CPU in our head starts to spin like mad, perhaps even encouraging us to give up. See what happens when you read this snippet from the famous Leiden Glossary (Fig. 1). When you’re done with that, try Thomas Aquinas’ autograph, written in what is appropriately called a ‘littera inintelligibilis’ –…

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May Billinghurst

BillinghurstRosa May Billinghurst was born in England in 1876. She was healthy at birth, but suffered from an illness at five months old that paralyzed her whole body. She eventually regained the use of her hands and arms, but never walked. She made her way around on crutches or a tricycle-style wheelchair.

Christabel Pankhurst inspired May to become a suffragette. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant suffragette movement, in 1907. Her family donated a significant amount of money to the organization as well.

In November of 1910 May was one of 159 women arrested at a demonstration outside the House of Commons. Other suffragettes had testified that May used her disability to her advantage, often charging the lines of police in her tricycle. It was a moving sight to see police officers arresting a disabled woman, and May used this fact to gain publicity for the cause.

In March 1912 the WSPU started a campaign that involved smashing shop windows. May would hid stones underneath the rug covering her knees. This campaign led to her first arrest. She was sentenced to one month’s hard labor, and spent the time in Holloway Prison, although she never had any labor assigned to her.

After her release, May took part in the WSPU campaign to destroy mail boxes. By December the government claimed that over 5,000 letters had been damaged. May would conceal packages full of tar in her tricycle, concealed under the rug, and went from box to box.

She was eventually arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to eight months in Holloway Prison.
She immediately went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. Over fears that she would die of a heart attack due to the treatment, she was released on January 18th, 1913 after only a few weeks.

When World War I began in August 1914 the WSPU agreed to suspend all campaigning in exchange for WSPU members being released from prison. May went along with this agreement.

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act, May ceased to be politically active. She died on July 4, 1953.

Suffragists vs. Suffragettes

The term Suffragist is a general term used to define someone who is campaigning for the right to vote.  It was first used to describe people campaigning for the right of black people to vote in America in the 19th century.  Later, it was used to describe people campaigning for votes for women.

The term Suffragette was coined by William E. Hands in a Daily Mail article written in 1906.  The term was meant to be disparaging, but it was quickly adopted by the Women’s Social and Political Union, the more militant branch of Women’s Suffrage in Great Britain led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

In Britain, the media began using the term Suffragette to refer to the militant suffrage movement, and Suffragist to refer to the more peaceful branch led by Millicent Fawcett.  It is still used to differentiate between the two branches today in Great Britain.  Many suffragists in America always thought the term suffragette was insulting and refused to use the term.


The Orphan Trains

orphan train Charles Loring Brace, a philanthropist and minister, witnessed many children living in poverty on the streets of New York City: selling newspapers and matches, begging for food and money, and participating in criminal activities.  The estimated number of homeless children in Now York City in 1854 was 34,000.  In 1853, Brace formed the Children’s Aid Society to help these children.

Brace did not believe orphanages were worthwhile institutions.  He thought they stunted and destroyed children and did not let them develop into self-reliant adults and productive members of society.

He arranged to send the orphaned children to American pioneers in Western and Southern states, reasoning that they could use the help and had enough prosperity and charity to take in these orphans.  He formed the Orphan Trains, which sent orphaned or abandoned children on trains to western cities where they would be taken in by families.

An effort was made to screen host families, although responsibility for this often fell on local community leaders who might have different criteria, or no criteria at all.  Families were expected to not only care for the children physically, but also support them emotionally and send them to school.  The children were not required to stay with their new families if they did not like the situation.  Ideally, social workers were supposed to visit placed children at least once a year, although in practice they sometimes lost track of children or failed to meet the yearly deadlines.

Between 1853 and 1929 an estimated 250,000 children rode the Orphan trains.  In a report in 1910, the Children’s Aid Society estimated that 87 percent of children placed by the Orphan Train program had done well.  While there was occasional abuse, most people agreed that over all, the children were generally better off than on the streets of big cities without proper food, clothing and shelter.

By 1909, at the first White House Conference on Dependent Children, the country’s top social reformers praised the CAS’ emigration movement, but argued that children should either be kept with their natal families or, if they were removed as a result of parental neglect or abuse, every effort should be made to place the child in a foster home nearby. The Orphan Train movement ended in 1929, 75 years after it had begun as a social experiment.Orphan Train poster

Welcome to History

This will be a probably somewhat disjointed blog of people and events in history that I find interesting.  These won’t always be nice people or good events.  Sometimes I might find something fascinating and horrible all at the same time.  But history is always with us and I think knowing about the bad things in our shared past can help us avoid those mistakes in the future.  My favorite points of history are Medieval, Edwardian and the 1920s, but I branch out into a lot of other areas as well.  I’m hoping to have a place to explore topics that are interesting to me and connect with other people who love history.