[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J26, 1999/2 pp11-15]

The Forgotten Crusader:
Andrew Carnegie and the simplified spelling movement

George B Anderson

Andrew Carnegie devoted much of his time, energy and fortune to the American Simplified Spelling Board, yet his biographers have little or nothing to say on the matter. Here we have the fullest account yet of that forgotten story. George B Anderson is a retired primary school teacher. A Glaswegian, he now lives in Fife on the east coast of Scotland within walking distance of Andrew Carnegie's cottage, a local tourist attraction. He continues to put the case for reform whenever and wherever the occasion presents itself in the Scottish print medium.

foto of Andrew Carnegie

0. Abstract.

This paper expands a short article by the late Bob Brown (1995) on Andrew Carnegie's involvement in spelling reform. It counters the disparaging one-liners found in biographies and articles on Carnegie. It shows how Carnegie first became involved and to what degree, and describes the infighting among reformers during the four-year gestation period of the Simplified Spelling Board (SSB) in the U.S.A. and how Carnegie's personality affected events. We are reminded of the hostility the reformers faced and of some of their successes. We gain an insight into Carnegie's state of mind when he broke with the SSB. Finally, his dealings with the spelling reformers in the UK are briefly touched on.

1. Andrew Carnegie: brief biography.

About a dozen or so miles north of Edinburgh, Scotland, lies the town of Dunfermline. It has an ancient Abbey, parts of which go back to the 9th century, and is the resting place of Robert the Bruce. Its ancient ruined Royal Palace was the birthplace of seven Scottish queens and two Scottish kings. A stone's throw away is a weaver's cottage, once the home of Andrew Carnegie - 'Steel King of America'.

There, on November 25, 1835, the first son of William and Margaret Carnegie was born. He lived there for twelve years, receiving four years of formal schooling at the nearby Rolland Street primary school.

The cottage was in fact a home-cum-workshop - upstairs the main living quarters, downstairs reserved for handloom weaving and where Andrew's father had his damask linen business. Life had always been a struggle, but the mass production of the huge new linen factories meant the end of the cottage industry. In 1848 the Carnegies emigrated to Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, to join relatives already there.

At only thirteen years of age Andrew began his working life as a bobbin boy in a factory, then on to a job with Pennsylvania Railroad. But it was as a speculator in stocks and shares - 'the goose that lays the golden eggs' - that Carnegie acquired his early fortune. His uncanny ability to play the market eventually led to his becoming a steel manufacturer, and, later, one of the richest men in the world.

Having amassed his fortune, he began giving it away. Free public libraries were financed, the first in 1881 in his native Dunfermline, and thereafter throughout the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. By 1910, when he officially retired from business, his philanthropy extended to colleges, schools, churches, nonprofit organizations and associations, including the spelling reform movement in America and Britain. All told, he gave away about $350,000,000 in his lifetime. Today, many of his legacies continue in the form of trusts.

He died in Lenox, Massachusetts on 11 August 1919 in his 84th year, nine months to the day after the guns of Flanders field fell silent - a carnage he laboured tirelessly to prevent.

2. Process of research.

It was in a 1995 newsletter put out by the Simplified Spelling Society that I first encountered an article concerning Andrew Carnegie's involvement with spelling reform. It was by Chris Upward, Editor-in-Chief, and the late Bob Brown, then Secretary of the SSS, and was entitled 'Founding Fathers: who were the men who launched the Simplified Spelling Society?'. Chris concentrated on the Society's five Grand Old Men who founded the SSS in 1908, while Bob Brown presented a short piece entitled 'The Carnegie Connection'. My curiosity was aroused.

I began my research in the reference room of the Dunfermline Central Library, searching the Carnegie papers. Nothing. Not a word on his involvement with the Simplified Spelling Board, based in New York. I read biographies, I made enquiries at the Carnegie Cottage, I wrote several letters to Newspapers in Fife and to various sources in the United States. At the end of it all I had collected very little in the way of hard archival information. From the Acting Secretary of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, based in Menlo Park, California, I was informed of the following: "I have asked scholars at the Foundation if they were aware of archival materials dealing with (spelling reform) and no one here was familiar with Carnegie's interest in that area." [1]

Fortunately the acting secretary mentioned a number of sources based in the U.S. that might be able to help. One was Dr. John Hayes, the specialist for 20th century political issues at the Library of' Congress, Washington DC. To be informed that Carnegie's personal papers and correspondence are kept there was more than I had hoped for. Eureka!

Within weeks I had a reply. Imagine my feeling of disappointment, which, in turn, gave way to disbelief on being informed: "The Carnegie papers in possession of the Library of Congress contain a single folder dealing with Mr. Carnegie's interest in spelling reform. It contains only two clippings. I enclose copies ... the folder is in box 259 of the Carnegie papers ... There is, in addition, a large collection of correspondence in the Carnegie papers. The correspondence, however, is organized chronologically (not by subject) and is beyond my capacity to search all this for letters dealing with spelling reform. I hope these clippings are of some assistance to you.[2]

Two clippings in a folder, in a box marked 259 after three years of probing! The devastating news answered at least one question that had puzzled me - why had so many biographers failed to flesh out the bones of this story, a story which took up more than 14 years of the man's life, plus a good deal of his fortune both in the United States and in Britain?

Until someone can nitpick his way through the contents of the Carnegie archive in the Library of Congress, Washington DC, all we have on the subject is this article. It is limited in scope and should be regarded as a footnote, a detail of a much larger canvas.

3. Origin of Carnegie's interest in spelling.

The beginning of the 20th century was a time when Andrew Carnegie's devotion to the cause of world peace was at its height.

What could be a more effective agency than that all men should communicate with each other in the same language, especially if that language were English? It became his hope that English would become universal, "the most potent of all instruments for drawing the race together, insuring peace and advancing civilization." But to this there was "a chief obstacle" to be overcome. "The foreigner has the greatest difficulty in acquiring it because of its spelling."

But the instrument he chose to improve matters - the American Simplified Spelling Board - took almost four long years to get off the ground. Indeed, a look at its history shows the Board could well have died at birth.

Although the Spelling Reform Association (SRA) in the U.S.A. was moribund at the beginning of the 20th century, wide publicity was given to the vigorous activities to promote spelling reform carried on in the National Education Association (NEA), led by E O Vaile of Chicago, and spelling reform was sometimes debated in the press (Tauber, p 164). But it was Melvil Dewey, of Dewey Decimal library classification fame, who is credited with getting Carnegie on board. Other figures were Brander Matthews, a professor at Columbia University and Dr C P G Scott, Etymological Editor of the Century Dictionary.

Whilst working for the NEA in 1902, Vaile told Dewey that he had sought financial help from Carnegie to assist the work on new spellings he was undertaking, but that the philanthropist had refused.

Having earlier been involved in Carnegie's endowment of American libraries, Dewey decided he would apply for funds to promote spelling modernization, explaining the potential of amended English spelling as a medium of international communication for world peace. Despite touching on one of Carnegie's favourite interests, Dewey's request received no reply.

By chance, sometime later, Dewey found himself at dinner with Carnegie and "for four solid hours" talked of his ideas on reforming English spelling. Carnegie must have been impressed, for he pledged $ 10,000 per year for ten years. [3]

There were conditions: the agreement had to be kept in confidence and there was to be no publicity regarding his involvement. A third condition was that the money would only be provided if Dewey could assemble twenty university presidents to form a Board.

This oral commitment, made by Carnegie in April 1902, proved, subsequently, to be anything but watertight, as we shall see.

4. Carnegie's 10 word strategy.

There is little doubt that Carnegie saw the merits of spelling reform but that difficulties lay in the detail. We get the impression he wanted the reformers to tread cautiously, yet sometimes he expressed annoyance at their lack of progress. And it was Melvil Dewey who was usually first in his line of fire. That it usually came in the post must have irritated considerably.

In a note dated 2 April 1903, at a time when the campaign was struggling to get off the ground, Carnegie's exasperation is clear (Tauber, p168). He reminds Dewey of "the ten most awkward words" to be reformed and questions whether the prominent men who pledged to use them would in fact do so.

Furthermore, he had little patience with the conferences being held to discuss strategy. It was all just "more talk to Carnegie. "I want practical results for my money," he tells Dewey. Here again we detect his somewhat contradictory stance on reform - a mixture of caution and impatience.

Carnegie had as yet put nothing in writing, so the new Language Board was reluctant to switch to a higher gear. Some even began to question Carnegie's intentions, and they had good reason. Replying to Dewey's concerns over finance Carnegie reminded him that not only did he want the "signatures of the leading educationalists on board, but that he wanted evidence that they were using the improved spellings - "Until that is done, I have nothing to do in the premises."

Carnegie was further angered when news of his involvement leaked to the press. His failure to underwrite his promises to Dewey were damaging both to the movement and to Dewey in particular.

What Carnegie did not know, but may have suspected, was that Dewey did not want the Board to be bound by the limited reform proposed by Carnegie.

At the beginning Carnegie had insisted that the words "reform" and "phonetics" were to be avoided, as he thought they would be prejudicial to the cause; that "over-zealous reformers" were to be kept in the background, and people put up-front "who could carry weight with the stupid public". (Tauber, p 165)

Almost two years after the first meeting in 1902, the conflict over the extent of the reforms was still unresolved. In a querulous letter dated 14 January 1904 he told Dewey, I have made up my mind that reform in spelling can only come by degrees". The result was deadlock. On one side was Carnegie determined only to reform the "ten most awkward words", and on the other side was Dewey suggesting to his friend Vaile that the only way to accomplish what he wanted was to have a sort of "French Academy"! (Tauber, p 172) [4]

When next they met, 'Carnegie told Dewey that he wanted not research or a broad approach to the problem, but a militant publicity campaign. A circular was sent out to selected individuals who would promise "to use habitually in my own writing at least ten of the twelve shorter spellings adopted by the NEA." Vaile, who, according to Dewey, "workt like a Trojan", helped draw up a list of names who would publicly sign Carnegie's pledge. By early 1905 the difficulties and doubts on both sides dissipated. Carnegie went public for the first time in a letter to The New York Times on 22 March 1905, indicating his own bias toward a mild reform, adding: "This effort is no fad, no attempt at a phonetic system."

5. Simplified Spelling Board formed.

On 29 April 1905 the Editor of the Century Dictionary, Dr. Benjamin E Smith, reported to Dewey that a meeting of prominent signers of the pledge was to be held at the home of Brander Matthews in New York. From this meeting a practical plan evolved.

Minutes of the meeting were sent to Dewey, designed to be forwarded to Carnegie with the intention of pinning him down. Though not yet officially in existence, Brander Matthews acted as chairman of the 'Simplified Spelling Board'. It was May 1905.

Finally, Dewey showed Carnegie the names of supporters of the statement he sought. On 12 January 1906, some four years after his first discussion with Melvil Dewey, Andrew Carnegie wrote out orders for $15,000 a year for a spelling reform office in New York, $5,000 more than he first promised, perhaps as a salve to his conscience for the long struggle. [5]

Significant in the lengthy, drawn out negotiations was the establishment by Carnegie of the clear understanding that he was to be at the helm in policy making. Subsequent SSB history reflects Carnegie's control, which some saw as "dictatorial". Carnegie paid the piper, and insisted on calling the tunes.

In a public statement issued from Hot Spring, Virginia, Carnegie again reiterated his hope that English would, in time, become a world language "insuring peace and advancing civilization", and that a reformed spelling system would hasten the day. But he again took the opportunity to put his mark on future development. "The organized effort I have agreed to finance is not revolutionary - far from it, its action will be conservative. Word after word it will endevor to improve the spelling and the language - slowly, of course, but hastening the pace if possible... Hundreds of scholarly men have agreed to use improved spelling for twelve words. These words are already well started in actual use. Other simplifications will be suggested."

Here Carnegie is referring to the twelve "reformed" spellings [6] already sanctioned by the National Association, namely: 'bizness' for business; 'enuf' for enough; 'fether' for feather; 'mesure' for measure; 'plesure' for pleasure; 'red' for read (past tense); 'ruf' for rough; 'trauf' for trough; 'thru' for through; 'tuf' for tough; 'tung' for tongue; 'yung' for young. Other modifications were lined up but kept under wraps.

6. Public reaction.

In Britain there were cries of horror. The poet Swinburne viewed the entire exercise as "a barbarous, monstrous absurdity", whilst Conan Doyle stormed, "Reformed spelling might become universal but it would cease to be the English language." There were blunt warnings that the language of Shakespeare and the Bible was under threat from across the Atlantic.

But there was support for the reforms as well. President Theodore Roosevelt not only supported Dewey's efforts, he promoted them within the White House and initially ordered all government printing offices to use the Simplified Spelling Board's new spellings.(Marks, 1985) [7]

A number of American newspapers not only agreed with the changes, but used them. The editor of the State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, spoke for most of the SSB's supporters: "This reform is unquestionably needed. Our spelling is not only absurd, it is dishonest. It does not represent, it has never fully represented, our spoken language ... to keep up such a farce is not worthy a sensible people ... (the Simplified Spelling Board) must face and overcome a prejudice that has its roots in the granite of ignorance, which it takes to be pride in the language and a lordly conservatism."

Mark Twain, an early opponent, thought the reforms proposed by the SSB did not go far enough. He wanted a "sudden and comprehensive rush". Were this to happen, "We all know quite well what would happen. To begin with, the nation would be in a rage; it would break into a storm of scoffs, jeers, sarcasms, cursings, vituperations, and keep it up for months - but it would have to read the papers; it couldn't help itself... By a sudden and comprehensive rush the present spelling could be entirely changed, and the substitute - spelling be accepted, all in the space of a couple of years; and preferred in another couple. But it won't happen, and I am as sorry as a dog. For I do love revolutions and violence."

But the Philadelphia Public Ledger would have none of it. It spoke of destroying the 'genius' of the English language. "We put on one side any sentimental affection for old forms in an old and dear literature. But we do think and venture to say that the proposals of spelling reforms are more likely to make ,confusion worse confounded' .. than make it easier for the foreigner." A correspondent in the New York Times suggested that the "Bored of Speling" should begin with simplification of their own names - "Androo Karnage", "Brandr Mathooz" and the like.

If a dozen or so changes to spelling could provoke such venom, worse was to follow (Tauber, p179, footnote 3) [8] when the reformers suggested dropping U in words like labour, and substituting F for PH as well as a phonetic rendering of GH, as in cough, changes which Carnegie himself endorsed. Journalists and the literati in general had a field day.

7. The Board's response.

Matthews, as Chairman, countered with an article in November 1906, that the spellings, now about 300, were merely selections from among thousands of possible simplifications to be considered and that the principle of simplification was the important thing.

Carnegie also hit back. To Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune, he wrote: "Amused at your calling improved spelling movement 'a fictitious movement' ... move up, move on before old age comes - don't be an old fogey - if you can help it." When his critics attacked him for changing bright to brite, Carnegie retorted that books in Queen Anne's time printed spighte for a word since shortened to spite, and that fish in Elizabethan times was spelt fysshe.

The Board's first official statement (Tauber, pp 174-78) of its policies came in a published circular, issued on 2 March 1906.

It pointed out that English had a destiny as an international tongue. Only its spelling kept it from fulfilling that role. Gradual simplification would save time in education, and reduce costs in printing.

The Board's statement refuted the objection that etymology would be obscured by improvement of the spelling. Changes in orthography had long been taking place and would continue to do so. The statement concluded that the 'twelve words' put forward for modernizing were a good beginning.

Brander Matthews, as spokesman for the SSB, developed the statement further in an article published 14 April 1906. He pointed out that earlier movements for reform failed to accomplish much because their leaders did not take into account natural conservatism. The SSB would avoid the errors of unrealistic fanatics and was prepared to progress slowly. Matthews' article was later issued as Circular No.4 of the SSB. All this was almost a carbon copy of what Carnegie had preached from Hot Spring the month previous.

It was necessary for the Board to constantly restate these principles to correct distortions of its position, and to stress its philosophy of moderation.

Not only was it necessary to combat reactionaries [9] who sniped at every turn, but some within the SSB, particularly Vaile and Scott, needed reining in occasionally, neither happy with some of Carnegie's dictatorial antics; Scott. at one point, coming close to resignation. Between 1906 and 1913 the SSB produced four lists of simplified words, but thereafter decided to concentrate on wider adoption of the lists.

8. Carnegie in decline.

By the end of 1914 Carnegie was a broken man. The crusader for peace was shattered by news of the carnage in France. "Happiness is all over for the nonce", is how he put it to his 'old shoe', John Morley. This sense of despair had its effect on what was, up until now, an amazing constitution for a man of eighty.

Signs of a break were apparent as early as 16 January 1915. He received a letter from Brander Matthews which included a list of daily newspapers that had adopted the reformed spellings. Carnegie was not impressed. "Please note," was the reply, "not one Eastern paper. I see no change in New York and I am getting very tired indeed, of sinking twenty-five thousand dollars a year for nothing here in the East." (Wall, p893) [10] He was further irritated to learn that his own trusts' annual reports were seen to be taking "a step backwards in reference to spelling."

On the 5 February 1915 he was subpoenaed to appear before the Industrial Relations Committee which had been appointed by President Wilson to study the whole field of labour-management relations in the United States. (Wall, p1026) [11]

By all accounts he put on a brilliant performance, letting it be known that he had enjoyed the encounter. But it was to be Carnegie's last public appearance. The big occasion, the crowded, overheated conference room, took its toll. He returned home tired and suffering from a slight cold. The weariness persisted for days and developed into bronchitis and then into pneumonia. By the middle of March he was seriously ill.

As he slowly recovered, even the early spring sunshine did little for his spirits. He would sit for hours, staring into space, saying nothing, and showing no interest in anything or anyone. He would make many attempts at letter-writing, but after only a few words he'd be seen pushing the paper aside and would withdraw into himself. (Wall, p1028)

9. Carnegie breaks with simplified spelling.

It is against this background that we must judge his oft-quoted letter of 25 February 1915.

It was written by a man in his eightieth year, in poor physical health and plunged into deep depression by the war raging in Europe, his long personal crusade for world peace lying in tatters. Reforming English spelling was probably the last thing on his mind.

The precise reason why Carnegie broke with the Simplified Spelling Board is not clear. Most say that it is because he thought progress had been too slow. If this is so, it is difficult to reconcile with his belief from the very beginning that progress would have to be gradual - "not revolutionary", "slowly", "conservative" were words he used to describe the pace of the reforms he was financing. He even emphasized that change would not come from the top: "Amended spellings can only be submitted for general acceptance" he told the editor of the London Times, "It is the people who decide what is to be adopted or rejected."

Suffice to say that on that fateful day in February he wrote to Holt (Wall, p893), who was then President of the Board; "A more useless body of men never came into association, judging from the effects they produce." And as if all the years of struggle with the reforms were flashing across his mind he added: "Instead of taking twelve words and urging their adoption, they undertook radical changes from the start and these they can never make... I think I hav been patient long enuf... I hav much better use for twenty thousand dollars a year." And as if to emphasize the seriousness of his intentions, he dispatched a copy to Robert Franks, his faithful business secretary. The Board continued its activities until 1920. Over a 14 year period Carnegie's donations to the Simplified Spelling Board amounted to $283,000.

It was always a condition that Carnegie's dollars had to be matched by results. Some on the Board thought he carried this dogma to excess and complained sometimes of too much interference. That the piper could not call the tunes from beyond the grave may be the reason why Carnegie left no provision in his will for the yet unfinished work of the Simplified Spelling Board.

10. Before Carnegie and after.

Movements for the modernization of English spelling had been in existence long before Andrew Carnegie's first encounter with Melvil Dewey.

As far back as 1876 the International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography met in the United States and developed into the Spelling Reform Association, which in turn became the National Education Association, a body that was in existence when Carnegie became active.

When the Simplified Spelling Board's annual funding dried up, some of its supporters reactivated the SRA, which later merged with other smaller groups and today is known as The American Literacy Council. In 1978 Better Education thru Simplified Spelling (BEtSS) was formed in Detroit. Both have ties with the Simplified Spelling Society based in England.

11. Carnegie and the SSS.

Carnegie's influence on the spelling reform movement was not confined to the United States. Whilst on holiday at Skibo Castle in Sutherland in the north of Scotland in the autumn of 1908, he wrote two letters to the Simplified Spelling Society (Brown, pp10-11), which was meeting in London for only the third time.

Both letters were read to the Committee. Referring to the enclosed cheque for $1000 (worth some £25,000 now) he stated he would make "no further promises, because everything depends on results." He outlined progress in America, concluding: I congratulate you upon the eminent men with whom you are surrounded, and shall watch anxiously your doings. 1 hope you will send me copies of all documents produced so that I may keep in touch. We are marching rapidly on the other side and the dear old home is either to join the procession and march, or be left behind."

The other letter expanded on the problem of future funding. To Carnegie's mind, funding the newly-formed Society with foreign money would go down badly and would do more harm than good or, as he put it, "a separate British society supported by an alien would never do." (Brown, p10)

But the likelihood of future financial help remained open: "I can only be one of the subscribers. Please make this point clear." (Brown, p11) [12] Carnegie continued to provide extensive funds for the Society, as the accounts for 1915 show, despite worrying about the radical nature of its proposals. Along with the £1000 sent in early spring came a cautionary note: I shall support no mode of Simplified Spelling that does not advance step by step. I am satisfied that anything like a complete new system is impossible (to implement). We are making great progress here by taking up twelve words at a time."

As in the United States, funds from the great crusader dried up after his death in August 1919.

Bibliography & references.

Blench, Brian (1973) Front Simplified Spelling to 'Sesame Street', Carnegie Birthplace Memorial: Information Sheet, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland: Andrew Camegie Birthplace.

Brown. A R (Bob) (1995) The Carnegie Connection. Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter, Aug. 1995, pp 10-11.

Goodenough S (1985) The Greatest Good Fortune, Edinburgh: Macdonald.

Hendrick, B (1933) A Life of Andrew Carnegie, London: Heinemann.

Kimball, Comell (1996. 1997) Personal communications.

Lester, R M (1941) Forty Years of Carnegie Giving, New York: Scribner.

Mackay, Janies (1997) Little Boss: A Life of Andrew Carnegie, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.

Marks, Paula Mitchell (1985) Three Hundred Words. American History Illustrated, March 1985, pp31-35.

Tauber, Abraham (1958) Spelling Reform in the United States, a dissertation for the degree of PhD at Columbia University. N.Y. City.

Wall, J F (1970) Andrew Carnegie, New York: Oxford University Press.


[1] Letter from J Wilson, Acting Secretary, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 11 Sept. 1997.

[2] Letter from J E Haynes, Manuscript Historian, 20th Century Political History, The Library of Congress, Washington DC.

[3] Carnegie's funding was increased to $15,000 in 1906. Tauber, p173.

[4] Letter from Melvil Dewey to E O Vaile, 22 July 1904.

[5] Tauber, p173. Funds given to spelling reform by Carnegie vary according to source.

[6] Word list taken from Current Literature; Literature and Art, May 1906, p497, 'Andrew Carnegie's Spelling Crusade'. (Produced by The Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Modification 14 deals with -our endings like labour/labor, flavour/flavor, etc.)

[7] Marks' gives a fuller account of President Theodore Roosevelt's promotion of reformed spellings at the White House.

[8] Tauber speaks of a bound scrapbook of nationwide newspaper clippings from 1898 to 1907 of public comment on the proposed new spellings, but I have been informed by Merriam-Webster Inc., Springfield, Mass., that they don't "have anything so formal". (Letter, 9 December 1998)

[9] Tauber, pp173-74.

[10] Wall's extensive notes list a manuscript by Andrew Carnegie on 'My views about Improved Spelling 1906-1915' that can be found among Brander Matthews' Manuscript Collection, Columbia University, p 1106, Note 20.

[11] It is here we learn of Carnegie's failing health "around early February 1915", when he broke with the SSB.

[12] A grand total of Carnegie's giving to the England-based Society is not available. According to Brown "funds dried up after his death in August 1919".

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