From Noah Webster's American Spelling Book,
better known as the "Blue-backed Speller."

the first page:

websters speller 1

The first lesson: two-letter combinations

the second and third lessons: three-letter words, four-letter words

websters speller 2

A reading lesson teaches children easy words in a moral setting:

websters speller 3

Noah Webster's Spellings

Noah Webster was struck by the inconsistencies of English spelling and the obstacles it presented to learners (young and old alike) and resented that American classrooms were filled only with British textbooks. The spelling reform featured in his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, was based on the author’s combined vision of logic and aesthetics. He changed the –ce in words like defence, offence, and pretence to –se; abandoned the second, silent "l" in verbs such as travel and cancel when forming the past tense; dropped the "u" from words such as humour and colour; and dropped the "k" from words such as publick and musick. The "publick" readily accepted many of these changes and just as readily rejected some of the others.

Suggestions that were successful

Suggestions that didn't catch on

before Webster --


what Webster wanted --


before Webster --


what Webster wanted, but didn't get --


gaol jail ache ake
mould mold soup soop
travelled traveled sleigh sley
honour honor sponge spunge
centre center tongue tung
humour humor cloak cloke
masque mask determine determin
publick public women wimmen

Later spelling reforms:

In 1898, the National Education Association began promoting a list of 12 spellings. They were: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, pedagog, decalog. How many of these spellings persist?

The NEA later adopted a list of 40 respelled words;

NEA list of 40 simplified spellings

In 1906, the Simplified Spelling Board was sponsored by Andrew Carnegie and was composed of some fairly famous people, including Mark Twain and William James, the presidents of Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, a Supreme Court justice, the U.S. Secretary of Education William T. Harris, Isaac K. Funk, the lexicographer (Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary), the publisher Henry Holt (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), and Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (writer and friend of Emily Dickinson), James J. Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and other notables.

Later that year, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to adopt the 300 "simplified spellings" recommended by the SSB. Congress was in recess at the time, but when the representatives returned, 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."


Text of Roosevelt's letter to the GPO:

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 critcism 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 cahieved, 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 slighest 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 sleight 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


The SSB recommendations included:

abridgment decalog mama surprize
accouter develop maneuver synonym
acknowledgment domicil meter theater
addrest draft mixt tho
adz dript mold thoro
affixt dropt neighbor thorofare
altho dulness naturalize thoroly
anapest egis omelet thru
anemia encyclopedia orthopedic thruout
anesthesia eon paleontology vext
anesthetic era pedagog wagon
apprize esophagus phenix wilful
arbor esthetic plow whisky
archeology ether prefixt woful
ardor exorcize preterit woolen
armor fagot prolog wo
artizan fantasm program wrapt
ax favorite pur
behavior gage quartet
blest gazel rancor
blusht fulfil rime
brazen good-by savior
caliber harbor silvan
catalog harken sithe
center hiccup skilful
check judgment simitar
clue jail stedfast
comprize kist stept
controller license subpena
cutlas liter sulfate

Joseph Medill, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, was a member of the Spelling Reform Association and forced the Trib to adopt some of its simplified spellings. His grandson, Col. McCormack, continued the tradition, and in 1934 the Tribune began using a growing list of shortened spellings:

"An unsystematic list of 80 respelled words was introduced in four editorials over a two month period, and used thereafter in the paper, which had the largest circulation in Chicago. On January 28, "advertisment, catalog," and seven more "-gue" words were among those shortened. The February 11 list included "agast, ameba, burocrat, crum, missil, subpena." On February 25, "bazar, hemloc, herse, intern, rime, sherif, staf," were among those introduced. On March 11 an editorial reported that "short spelling wins votes of readers 3 to 1." On March 18, the final list included "glamor, harth, iland, jaz, tarif, trafic." The list gradually shortened, and on Sept. 29, 1975, the paper abandoned simplified spelling altogether.

Tribune editorial abandoning spelling reform