Bell, Alexander Graham (1847 – 1922)

A fascinating archive of eight letters relating to Visible Speech

A unique archive of eight autograph letters signed by Alexander Graham Bell, including four standard letters (totalling seven pages) plus four postcards, dating from 1872 to circa 1874, all to Prof. Abel S. Clarke at the American Asylum in Hartford, now known as the American School for the Deaf. Bell writes regarding ‘Visible Speech’ and the Visible Speech Pioneer, a periodical circulated to schools and institutions to promote his father’s ‘visible speech’ system. Two of the letters are written and signed using visible speech symbols — a novel and appealing rarity — the only such Graham Bell autographs we have ever encountered — and one remains untranslated. All four letters include their original mailing envelopes, addressed in Bell’s hand, and all of the postcards are addressed to Clarke by Bell on the reverse.

The postcard, written in well-defined visible speech symbols, reads (translated): ‘Dear Mister Clarke, I trust you have received the first number of the Pioneer safely. Please do not send it off till you hear from me. Kind regards, A. Graham Bell.’

The second, in full: ‘Please forward Pioneer No. 3 to Illinois. The thirteenth draws near. I hope to bring some totally new ideas before the Convention. I trust that Hartford may be able to give us some hints. Yrs. Respectfully, A. Graham Bell.’

The third postcard, in part: ‘My dear Sir, I am extremely sorry that you may be unable to attend – and hope that Miss Sweet may. I have been rather disappointed about the arrangements as I had expected that Miss Rogers, as one of the Committee of Management, would have requested room &c as she did before. However, finding that she expected me to do this I have just secured the hall & made… arrangements. I do hope you may be able to come. A G. Bell.’

The fourth postcard, in full: ‘Visible speech Pioneer No. III will reach you probably on Monday. Please retain Pioneer No. II until you hear from me, as I fear the First Number has gone astray. I have not received any acknowledgment from Illinois. Yrs respectfully, A. Graham Bell.’

The first letter, dated December 18th 1872, is written in a cursive variant of ‘visible speech’ and is untranslated. The original mailing envelope is affixed to the reverse.

The second, dated January 16th 1874, in part: ‘Miss Rogers has been making arrangements with the authorities of the Boston & Albany, & the Connecticut Riv. Railroads for tickets at reduced rates. If you can let her know how many will attend from Hartford—she could get tickets for you…I know of ten who are going from Boston alone. Probably a similar number from Northampton. Probably Miss Jones will prepare a paper on new developments in teaching articulation by V.S. I propose to read a paper on “Lip Reading, and the Education of Semi-mutes”. I shall also propose the establishment of a visible speech periodical, to be printed by means of the types at present at our disposal—if a sufficient number of copies will be taken up by the institutions.’

The third, dated January 19th 1874, in full: ‘The Convention will be held in the High School Buildings. The meeting will commence at 10 o’clock, and terminate at 4 o’clock p.m. Recess for a short time about noon when we can all sally out in search of refreshment. You and Miss Sweet, and the Northampton teachers can leave by the 4:25 p.m. train. All the Boston Papers of Saturday have noticed the Convention. Prof. Monroe will give us a few hints on Physical Training and Prof. Treat will explain the Anatomy of the Larynx, illustrating with models—and give us the latest researches concerning the voice. F. Allen, who was instrumental in introducing Vis. Sp. into America, will make an address. I think it also not unlikely that J. W. Philbrick, Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, and one of the American Commissioners to the Vienna Exposition, will attend and tell us something about Articulation Teaching abroad.’

The fourth, dated October 16th 1874, in part: ‘The Pioneer No IV received last night. Another number has been sent from Buffalo the postage on which is 4 cents. There seems to be no difficulty in forwarding the Pioneer if it is sent off as a Book-parcel without entering into any explanations about it. There is so much ‘red tape’ about the Post-office that if we take the Pioneer to the Post-Masters—they, not understanding that it is really and truly a Book-parcel, dispose of the matter by saying “pay letter-rate”. The employees, on the other hand, finding a real book enclosed pass it perfectly readily. I should advise you to send the Pioneer through the post as a book-parcel and let us await the result. So far as I can find out no extra charge has ever yet been made upon it. The circulation of the Pioneer will be resumed on Monday the 2d of November.’

In overall fine condition. Visible Speech is a system of written symbols that represent sounds capable of being made by the human voice. This system, which can be used not only with English, but also with foreign and obscure languages, was developed by Alexander Melville Bell, father of Alexander Graham Bell, and became popular with the publication of the latter’s book Visible Speech in 1867. A. Melville Bell developed the Visible Speech system with the intent that it could aid deaf students in learning to speak through teachers trained in this system. He was invited to provide training to teachers at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes, but declined and offered his son’s services instead, who had begun assisting his father with research and during various tours. Alexander Graham Bell began teaching his father’s system upon his arrival in Boston in April 1871, and by March/June 1872, he was providing the same training to teachers at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Mass., and the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn. In 1874, Bell began printing the Visible Speech Pioneer, a periodic publication that provided helpful information to various institutes for the deaf.