Spelling Reform, Phonetic Type, and Woman Suffrage


Spelling Reform, Phonetic Type, and Woman Suffrage

From October 2019-October 2020, we will be featuring a special guest blogger once a month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. This month we are excited to share a post from Katherine Durack, PhD. A former college professor, Durack has been deeply involved in the telling of suffrage stories since 2015. We are excited to share her knowledge with you! You can learn more about the series here.

When people ask me how I discover some of the stories I tell about Ohio and the fight for woman suffrage, I typically reply that I “follow breadcrumbs.” The starting point for most of what I’ve learned has been The History of Woman Suffrage, which, although flawed, remains the best initial resource for researchers.

Among the Ohio suffragists mentioned in the massive, 6-volume set are Cincinnatians Elias Longley — “the constant and true friend of suffrage for women” — and his wife, “clear-eyed and true hearted” Margaret.

As I searched further for information about Elias and Margaret, I came across Type of the Times, a fascinating mid-nineteenth century Cincinnati newspaper that championed women’s rights, as well as abolition, temperance, and even vegetarianism. The paper was a family business: Elias Longley was the publisher, and he was aided by his wife, Margaret, as well as his brothers Alcander, Cyrenius, Septimius, and Servetus. Originally published as “The Phonetic Magazine,” one unusual characteristic of the periodical is that the majority of articles were published in phonetic type, which means that every word looks like the pronunciation guide you would find in the entry for that word in a modern dictionary. Actually reading most articles in Type of the Times involves decoding every word according to the phonetic alphabet published in each issue.

Though his rationale for using phonetic type might seem odd to readers today, Elias explained that the goal was to “reduce the labor of learning to read, from the dreadful task of memorizing the spelling of 50,000 words, to the simple act of learning the sounds of 40 letters….” Elias believed that adopting phonetic type and reforming idiosyncratic English spelling would rapidly improve literacy within the general population and thus strengthen democracy —“this Reform,” Elias asserted, “must be one of the most important, if not the most important of all the social and political reforms now agitated. Educate the whole people…from the highest to the lowest, and all other reforms will follow….”

Armed with a little information about the Longleys, I speculated that Type of the Times might have covered the 1855 National Woman’s Rights Convention in Cincinnati, one of the few national conventions that did not publish official proceedings. As I quickly scanned pages of issues published in the months leading up to the convention, I noticed this headline

—“Woman’s Rights.” Even though the story beneath the headline was not about the Cincinnati convention, I was intrigued, so I started a list of headlines and issues so I could return to them in the future, when I had more time to learn the phonetic alphabet.

This is where my friends, Chris Smith and Grace Cail, enter the picture. Chris, a librarian at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library, connected me and Grace because he knew we shared a common interest. Grace, who describes herself as a suffrage fanatic, first became interested in the woman suffrage movement when she was in 9th grade.  Since then, she has spent considerable time researching strong-minded women of the 19th century and feminist leaders of the 20th and 21st century. Grace, and her friend Bridget Vogt, asked if they could help with research on Cincinnati area suffragists, and I immediately thought of the Longleys and Type of the Times. I was thrilled when they agreed to take on the challenge of translating articles from phonetic to standard type.

Over the next six months or so, Grace and Bridget spent Wednesday mornings in the Cincinnati Room at the public library, poring over the pages of Type of the Times as they mined the publication for suffrage stories, as well as articles on temperance and other related causes. And every month or two, they’d send the latest translations to me.

One of Grace’s favorite stories is “Wouldn’t Give Up the Bloomers,” about a young woman who sought work as a compositor at a women’s newspaper but was fired by the more conservative owner for wearing the radical “bloomer costume” to work.  Another favorite with surprisingly sage advice even for women today is “How to Avoid a Bad Husband,” which recommends that women “never marry for wealth,” “never marry…one who drools and draggles through life,” “never marry a sloven,” and “shun the rake as a snake, a viper, a very demon.”


Although the relevant issues of Type of the Times were not included in the collection in the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library, through communication with Tutti Jackson of the Ohio History Connection Archives and Library, I learned that Elias and Margaret had indeed covered the 1855 National Woman’s Rights Convention in Cincinnati. These issues of the periodical seem to be quite rare: Tutti had to search the few hard copy issues in their collection because they don’t appear in the more widely available microfilm of the periodical. Much to my delight, the stories are in plain English type! You can read those pages here.

Grace Cail is a self-described woman suffrage, theatre, and Disney fanatic. Her latest project is a one-woman show that features women’s rights activists Alice Paul, Claudette Colvin, Malala Yousafzai, and Fraidy Reiss.

Bridget Vogt is a Community Builder with Starfire Cincinnati.

Chris Smith is a Reference Librarian in Genealogy and History at the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Public Library.

Tutti Jackson is a Reference Archivist at the Ohio History Connection Library & Archives.

Katherine Durack, PhD, is the originator of The Genius of Liberty, a podcast series created in partnership with Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library about Ohio and the fight for woman suffrage. She serves as Ohio’s representative on the National Board for the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association, and is a member of the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative task force. A former college professor, Katherine has been researching and sharing stories about woman suffrage since 2015 when she launched her Suffrage In Stitches project. Her stories and original crochet designs have been featured in PieceWork magazine as well as Vogue Knitting and Yarn Market News. Katherine has appeared on Cincinnati Public Radio’s Cincinnati Edition and Feelin’ Good with Shelly Abrams, a production of Lebanon (Ohio) cable TV 6.  Contact Katherine at [email protected]

Posted January 7, 2020

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