Friday, June 27, 2014

Noah Webster Home (Updated)

Huntington, NY July 29
Edsel Ford
Copy to Mr. Campsall Dearborn, Mich
Noah Webster House at New Haven - an attractive plain house built about Eighteen Hundred - is in the hands of wreckers -*stop*- Believe it will fit in well with your father's scheme and can be purchased for a small sum -*stop*- Immediate action is required as it will be torn down Friday
RTH Halsey 9:20 a.m.
The above written telegram shows just how close the world came to losing this wonderful piece of American History.

With demolition already begun (!) by Yale University, the house's plight was, luckily, brought to Ford's attention by way of his son through one of his dealers.
The Webster home was soon purchased and brought to Dearborn. The dismantling and restoration of this 1822 New Haven, Connecticut house in which Noah Webster wrote his dictionary provides us with a fine example of Ford chief architect Edward Cutler's technique.
When Cutler had first reached New Haven in September 1936, wreckers had already demolished parts of the house. The interior was also in a poor state of repair due to the home being used as a college dorm.
Once the men began the dismantling process, the house was down and packed up in two weeks. Quick but accurate. As Cutler put it, "Of course, you have to do these things right," and whenever possible, the crew removed building materials in large pieces, making reassembly easier.
The structure went up in Greenfield Village during the winter of 1936-37 and soon looked much the way it did when Mr. Webster lived there.
It was used as a girls home economics laboratory much through the 1940's and 1950's and was finally opened to the public in 1962.

Noah Webster (1758-1843) was more than just America’s greatest lexicographer.  He was also a Founding Father who helped define American culture.  In 1783, he published the first edition of his legendary spelling book, which would teach five generations of Americans how to read.  A leading Federalist, who was a confidant of both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Webster was in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention where he  wrote a highly influential essay on behalf of the nation’s founding document.  During the greater part of the 1790s,  he edited American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper.  A dedicated public servant, he served as a state rep in both Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Webster was also a founder of Amherst College – he was an early president of the college’s Board of Trustees. 

Granddaughter Mary's bedroom
Besides being noted for his many literacy efforts, his most important work took place later in his life right inside this very house when he wrote his 'An American Dictionary of the English Language,' first published in 1828. A manuscript page and a first edition of the 'Dictionary,' as well as numerous hand-written letters are on display inside the home. His 'Blue-Backed Speller,' is also on display.
Webster was a devout Christian, and thus his speller was very moralistic, and his 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of biblical definitions given in any reference volume. Webster considered "education useless without the Bible."

Youngest daughter Louisa's bedroom

This Federal-style home was originally designed and built by David Hoardley. The Webster family watched the "progress of this building. A glad one was the day we moved into more commodious quarters. We sat on low chairs and sewed the parlor carpet ourselves."

The Webster's also realized the importance of describing everyday life and activities in their letters to each other. Noah especially treasured hearing of the minute details of domestic life that he missed while on far-away business travels.

His wife, Rebecca, wrote about their lives in great detail to her husband: "I wish you could take a peek at us in the present moment," and proceeds to describe, for example, her granddaughter, Mary's, activities as she was "in the corner (of the parlor) her favorite amusement, sewing, because it keeps her quiet...and (grandson) William driving around with his stick." Rebecca, herself "enfeebled" but able to "engage in quilting bed quilts with only two or three to finish." Lucy Griffin, the free black servant had taken ill as family members "sit with her" until she can walk downstairs.

Another example of life in this Webster home, this time from a letter to married daughter Eliza from her mother: "Papa longs to see you all. I heard someone conversing in the drawing room (parlor) the other day and found him standing before your portraits. We often talk together of our singular happiness in our sons-in-law and daughters and such a promising bunch of grandchildren."


The paintings of daughter Eliza and her husband that Mr. Webster was found speaking to - notice the horsehair sofa that Mrs. Webster was so fond of.

The original portraits of daughter Eliza and her husband, Henry Jones, hang still in the drawing room, above the Empire black horsehair sofa, one of Mrs. Webster's most treasured pieces of furniture. Other original pieces belonging to the Webster's acquired by descendants are also part of the home.


As one walks through this nearly 200 year old home, it is easy to imagine life as once lived by this notable American family; the parlor where the grandkids played, the dining area, the upstairs bedrooms...there is also a shrine to Noah that the historians of the Village put together, which holds his original Dictionary, Blue Back Speller, and other documents.


An addition to the back of the building gives a short documentary (through a power-point type media) of Mr. Webster, although I have not taken the time to watch it. The only change I would make would be to remove the shrine from the second floor and, instead, put it into the back addition on the first floor, allowing the whole second floor to become as it once was during Webster's time.

However, for the most part, this is another fine example of history presented as it should be.
(Hint to the powers-that-be at the Village: maybe you can get a male dressed in accurate clothing of Webster's time to be a presenter here at the house. What a great presentation that would be!)