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Detour

Where Noah Webster learned his first words

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — The American dictionary may literally be Noah Webster’s defining legacy, but visit his boyhood home and you quickly discover that the country’s most famous lexicographer did much more than write a book of words. He was a leading man in the country’s creation story.

When the guns fell silent at the end of the Revolution, the states were independent, but hardly united. Like a minuteman with a musket, Webster wielded words in a quest to forge a nation. “There may have been a revolution on the battlefield, but Noah Webster was really at the forefront of a cultural revolution,’’ says Christopher Dobbs, executive director of the Noah Webster House.

Concerned that American schoolchildren were learning from British textbooks, Webster published his “Blue-Backed Speller’’ in 1783. Overshadowed today by his monumental dictionary, the seminal textbook sold an incredible 100 million copies and taught generations of children American spellings and pronunciations rather than British ones. His 70,000-word “American Dictionary of the English Language’’ (1828), the product of 27 years of labor, continued his quest to standardize his country’s language.

Joshua Kendall, author of a new Webster biography, “The Forgotten Founding Father’’ (Putnam Adult), says, “Webster had a remarkable knack for getting Americans to think of themselves as Americans rather than as transplants from Britain or some other foreign land. His flood of published words, which also included thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and about a dozen other books on a wide range of topics, helped America establish its national identity.’’

Before exploring the 18th-century farmhouse where Webster was born in 1758, visitors to the Noah Webster House squeeze behind child-sized desks in a replica one-room schoolhouse to watch a brief film about its namesake. The lesson is clear: Even in an era of spell check and Hooked on Phonics, Webster’s efforts to create a distinct American language, culture, and education are still a part of our daily lives.

Then it’s a journey to the past as guides lead visitors through the four period-furnished rooms of the red saltbox house where Webster lived until he went off to Yale at 16. It’s a peek at what life was like on a Colonial farm. You can watch guides demonstrate weaving on a loom and try your own hand at carding wool or making a spark with a flint and steel. Befitting of the home of the father of the dictionary, you may also pick up some period words to add to your vocabulary, such as “dottle,’’ the remnant of tobacco in the bowl of a pipe, and “tussy mussy,’’ a fragrant flower bouquet.

The museum features a hands-on activity space for children with exhibits connected to Webster’s early life. Children can unearth reproductions of artifacts in a mock archeological dig, don Colonial kitchen costumes, and explore a model of the 90-acre farm and a map of West Hartford as it looked during Webster’s childhood. Interactive displays, such as a magnetic crossword puzzle, also allow for plenty of wordplay.

Museum exhibits, which include some of his personal effects, make it clear that Webster (who died in New Haven in 1843 at 84) — a schoolteacher, prolific author, early abolitionist, epidemiologist, state legislator, founder of Amherst College, and a strong advocate for copyright law — was a true Renaissance man. He even edited his own version of the Bible and investigated possible links between deforestation and climate change.

“Noah Webster is just a bundle of surprises,’’ Dobbs says. And clearly a man who cannot be adequately described by his standard abridged definition.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.

If You Go

Noah Webster House
227 South Main St.
West Hartford, Conn.
860-521-5362
www.noahwebsterhouse.org
Thu-Mon 1-4 p.m.; closed on major holidays. Adults $7, seniors $5, ages 6-18 $4.