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“Notwithstanding the importance attached to gesture-language by the teachers of the Combined Method, they do not teach it” – Zenas Westervelt

By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 6 July 2018

We have a small collection of original annual reports for various United States Deaf Institutions from the 19th century.  There is for example a run for the Clarke School from the first report in 1867 all the way to 1961.  There are some shorter runs and odd volumes or single reports.  Here we have the Rochester, Western New York Institution for Deaf Mutes, Thirteenth Annual Report for 1890.

At that time the principal was Zenas Freeman Westervelt (1849-1918).  Born in Columbus, Ohio, Westervelt‘s New York born mother mother Martha Freeman was matron of the Ohio Institution, and he grew up there, so we must suppose he was very familiar with sign language – or gesture as he calls it.  He became a teacher of the Deaf in the Maryland School (1871-3), before moving to the New York Institution (1873-5) (American Annals of the Deaf, 1918 p.226).  In New York he was one of “five bright young teachers under Dr. Isaac Peet, who later became principals or superintendents and of whom Dr. Westervelt was the last survivor” (ibid.).

Westervelt had been gathering names of Deaf children in western New York state who were not in school, and Mrs. Gilman Perkins, who had a Deaf daughter Carolyn, and asked Westervelt to start a school there (1872).

He chose to use the manual alphabet, spelling English, as the medium of instruction –

to the exclusion of the sign language […] thus placing the pupils in a constant environment of the English language.  He was also an advocate of oral teaching. (ibid. p.227).

In the thirteenth Annual Report for the school, Westervelt wrote an article called The American Vernacular Method (p.43-60) as he termed it.  He discusses what he calls The American Combined Method, and how it used –

the language of gesture, and the idea of the idea of the combination is that through this medium the attempt shall be made to teach English composition and reading, dactylology, speech and speech-reading on the lips, and aural apprehension.[…]

Notwithstanding the importance attached to gesture-language by the teachers of the Combined Method, they do not teach it; that is, there is no systematic instruction looking to the mastery of the language by the little deaf child.  The teachers, however, use it to the little ones, expecting them to understand; the older pupils use it with the same confidence that the children will learn its meaning through use, as it is the vernacular of the Combined-Method schools. […] One not familiar with the work of the profession might be justified in asking,: at what grade in the Combined-Method schools is the limit (p.47-8)

He develops his argument, and I cannot do justice to it so include the whole of this, the first of two articles (1890 and 1891?).  I suppose the second part is in the following annual report – unfortunately we do not have that.

His relationship with sign language is complex.  He does not appear to have been anti sign language, indeed he call it “ingenius [sic],” and says of De l’Epee that “What he accomplished was giving to the deaf signs for ideas, words, which they could readily use and comprehend” (ibid. p.48-9).  Yet he says gesture is more restrictive in expression and vocabulary, and that (p.52) “No books have been written in gesture.”  Further on, he says-

Yet when the educated gesturer is compared with the deaf mute as he was before the invention of the gesture-language of De l’Epee, the incalculable good that it has accomplished  is manifest.  Under the circumstances which prevailed during the early years of deaf mute instruction, when those admitted to the schools were adults or fully grown youths, and the time allowed at institutions was but four years, there was doubtless need of gesture language.

It seems clear that he did not mean oral education – “the following summary of the reasons which have led me to oppose the “Combined Method,” which teaches through “signs,” also the “German Method,” which teaches through speech” (p.45).  What he wanted was for Deaf children to acquire English and an ability to read and write English using the manual alphabet – finger spelling – later called the Rochester Method.  “It were better for every child who is to spend his life among the American people that he should be brought up an American and not a foreigner.”  He wanted Deaf children to fit into American life and language as immigrants did – or at least as some did if you read the footnotes in his article (see page 60 particularly).

Presumably in that second part he explains his attitude to the “German Method,” and then his system.  There must be copies of all these reports in U.S. libraries.  Perhaps if someone comes across it they could scan it and make it available online.

From 1892 passport records we know Westervelt had at that time brown hair, an aquiline nose, grey eyes, a square chin, and was 5′ 8″ tall.  He was twice married, firstly in 1875 to Mary H. Nodine (died 1893) then in 1898 to Adelia C. Fay, whose son Edmund he adopted.  He died of heart failure on 17th of February, 1918.

As to how anyone could have lip-read him with that beard, we cannot hazard a guess.

Obituary, American Annals of the Deaf, 1918 Vol.53 (2) p.226-7

Padden, C. and Gunsauls, D.C., How the Alphabet Came to Be Used in a Sign Language. Sign Language Studies vol.4 (1) 2003

Westervelt, Z.F., The American Vernacular method, (p.43-60) in Thirteenth Annual Report of the Western New York Institution for Deaf Mutes, 1890

1860 Census – Year: 1860; Census Place: Columbus Ward 3, Franklin, Ohio; Roll: M653_964; Page: 127; Family History Library Film: 803964

1900 Census – Year: 1900; Census Place: Rochester Ward 17, Monroe, New York; Page: 1; Enumeration District: 0137

1910 Census – Year: 1910; Census Place: Rochester Ward 17, Monroe, New York; Roll: T624_992; Page: 16B; Enumeration District: 0159; FHL microfilm: 1375005

Passport Records – National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 396; Volume #: Roll 396 – 24 Jun 1892-29 Jun 1892

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