A Brief History of Spelling Bees in America

A word doesn’t care if you arrived on the Mayflower or in steerage. And therein is one of the traits that maintains the Bee’s status as a folk tradition. Like America itself, perhaps even more purely, the Bee is a true meritocracy. It is the levelest of level playing fields.

James Maguire, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds

The skill of spelling correctly has long been held in high regard by Americans, with spelling contests dating back to the early 1800s. As families began to move west during the era of Manifest Destiny, literacy denoted a high social position. Unless you had means, it was unlikely that you had time to learn how to read; most frontiersmen and women were too busy surviving the rough outdoors. As spelling matches moved to the West, participants became increasingly rough-and-tumble, with quite a few instances of physical fights breaking out amongst the finalists!

The popularity of spelling matches skyrocketed with the publication of The Hoosier Schoolmaster in 1871. In this brief work of fiction, the main character competes in a spelling match and is soon a finalist, along with a young servant girl with whom he falls in love. This story emphasizes the social aspect of spelling bees, and in fact the term “spelling bee” became popular during the 1870s. In early American life, the word “bee” referred to social gatherings in which something productive was accomplished, such as sewing bees or corn husking bees. The term is sometimes thought to stem from the productive yet social environment within a beehive. In April of 1875, The New York Times published an article titled, “Spelling for Amusement,” in which the editorial team analyzed “what should cause the present outbreak of spelling matches.” The article goes so far as to compare spelling matches to an epidemic.

On June 29, 1908, the National Education Association hosted a conference in Cleveland, Ohio, in which bands and choirs performed. Alongside these musical acts, the NEA also held the first National Spelling Bee. Marie Bolden, a 14-year-old African-American girl became the first National Spelling Bee champion, which caused quite a stir.

The famous African-American educator, Booker T. Washington spoke of Ms. Bolden’s win in connection to race relations:

You will admit that we spell out of the same spelling book that you do. And I think you will also admit that we spell a little better.

Booker T. Washington

Perhaps because of Marie Bolden’s contentious championship, the next National Spelling Bee was not organized again until 1925.

Today, the National Spelling Bee serves as a wonderful representation of all the races, classes, genders and religions in the United States. Kids from all different backgrounds come together to share their love of orthography, the study of spelling, and engage in a little healthy competition. At the Bee, diversity is not only reflected in the participants, but also in the word choices. The 2013 National Spelling Bee winner was a perfect example of what makes the Bee so truly American: Arvind Mahankali, an Indian-American boy, won with the Yiddish word knaidel.

Nickolas Vaughan and cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Peter Flynn at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays at Ford’s Theatre through May 17, 2014. Watch the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee featuring spellers ages eight to 15, live from Washington, D.C., on May 28 and 29, 2014.

Essay by Hannah Silberman. This content is reprinted from the 2013-2014 Ford’s Theatre Study Guide.