Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

"Best Speller in the United States"

Representative Frank Willis/tiles/non-collection/5/5-26-text-willis-loc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Representative Frank Bartlett Willis of Ohio gained national notoriety for winning the National Press Club’s “Best Speller in the United States” contest in 1913.
Do you know how to spell “hydrocephalus”? If so, you might have had the orthographical muscle necessary to compete against some of the top spellers of the early 20th century. Long before the era of computers and spell check, many Americans participated in a growing national phenomenon: spelling bees. As the popularity of spelling contests blossomed in the United States, the House of Representatives joined in on the fun.

In May 1913, the National Press Club issued a challenge to the House and the Senate to provide their best spellers for a competition held in conjunction with the organization’s annual ladies’ day celebration. Congress accepted the request, setting the stage for a historic showdown in the nation’s capital. On June 5, 1913, Members of Congress and the press squared off for the acclaimed title, “Best Speller in the United States.” Nearly a thousand people came out for the “old fashioned spelling bee” which received national attention. Fourteen Members of Congress (9 Representative and 5 Senators), from Massachusetts (Representative Ernest Roberts) to California (Representative Julius Kahn), competed against 14 newspaper reporters at the National Press Club Spelling Bee. President Woodrow Wilson, his daughter Eleanor (Nell), and much of the presidential Cabinet, including Secretary of State and former Nebraska Representative William Jennings Bryan, attended the social affair in the ballroom of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Secretary Bryan kicked off the festivities with an enthusiastic reading of an “Ode to the Printing Press.” Afterwards, the audience watched a film created in honor of the occasion, “The Rising Generation of the Fourth Estate,” and a series of talking moving pictures. President Wilson’s Secretary of Agriculture, David Houston, a former college professor and university chancellor, served as the bee’s “schoolmaster” and “pronouncer.” Houston used the legendary American “blue-backed” speller throughout the competition. The contenders breezed through the first round with words like “beans,” “poker,” and “moose.” But as the degree of difficulty intensified, Members and reporters were swiftly eliminated for misspelling a slew of words, including “cantaloupe,” “mnemonic,” and “daguerreotype.”

A New York Times reporter covering the event commented that “the spelling bee buzzed back and forth between newspaper men and statesmen, until it narrowed to three contestants”: Ira Bennett, Washington Post editor, Senator Miles Poindexter of Washington, and Representative Frank Willis of Ohio. Bennett performed well until he fumbled on “bdellium.” An intellectual battle ensued for congressional bragging rights. The Representative and Senator spelled a dozen words. Ultimately, Senator Poindexter misspelled, “hydrocephalus,” (he added an extra “o”) and Representative Willis won the coveted title of America’s top speller. The Ohio Congressman enjoyed widespread notoriety, receiving accolades from well-wishers around the world for his flawless spelling.

Undoubtedly disappointed by the outcome, the press nonetheless applauded the prowess of the three finalists. In an evening with much excitement and fanfare, the Baltimore Sun summed up the spelling bee best when it wrote, “statesmanship triumphed over journalism.”

Sources: New York Times, June 6, 1913; Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6, 1913; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 1913; Indianapolis Star, June 6, 1913; Washington Post, June 6, 1913; Indianapolis Star, June 29, 1913; Baltimore Sun, June 6, 1913.

Categories: Practice & Customs