Learning to Spell with Lucy…1890 ~Tanya Hanson

During my college days in Nebraska, a favorite pastime was picking up treasures at farm auctions. Upon opening one such bargain, an antique trunk, I found a spelling book a little girl had scribbled in many years ago.

Her spelling book, The Graded World Class Speller was written by Mortimer A. Warren and published by Taintor Brothers, Merrill and Co, NY, 1876. The curriculum was described as containing several thousand words grouped in classes, and arranged to form a progressive course in spelling.




Near as I can tell, her name was Lucy J. V. Bucher. (In my imagination, she is Lucy Joanna Victoria). I’m certain a parent inscribed this for her…(it looks fairly mature) but she was learning cursive.

This page in the back of the book, Chapter VI, is a “List of Words Whose Pronunciation or Whose Spelling I have Found Difficult” seems to have a mature penmanship first, hers to follow, for practice sake.

I suspect she was about nine in 1890. Apparently she lived in Thayer, Nebraska, one of the nine villages in York County (est. 1855) in the south eastern part of the state. I like to think her schoolmaster looked something like this, my great-grandfather who taught school for many years. Indeed, in his classes, boys and girls were separated on separated sides of the room.

Lucy likely attended a one-room school where five or six age and grade levels were given lessons at different times. When applicable, the same lesson might be taught to the entire class. Textbooks were purchased by families and often passed down within the family until the book was tattered and worn. Lucy’s book, copywrite 1876, might have been used and battered by older siblings. Hence its disreputable condition.  Lucy’s pencil might have been “yellow” by then. Originally pencils were left unpainted to showcase the natural wood, but yellow paint came into fashion about 1890 to showcase use of Chinese graphite. Older children used pen and ink, but sparingly.


I think Lucy would have looked like this. 

It’s fun trying to make a long ago little girl a bit more real. My five year old grandson has already resisted the concept of homework. He complained to his daddy about having to write his name ten times, explaining “You’re not my boss.” I wonder if Lucy felt the same, considering all the doodling in her practice pages,, and of course, the mysteries she left behind.

One scribbly page claims “Fred is go to mery Lily Boile.” (Another page claims “Martha is go to mery..” somebody also but I can’t read the name.) Anyway, did they? Marry, I mean,  a couple of decades down the road?

Perhaps the dearest things that fire my imagination are: “What is my doll name?” Mixed in with numbers and math.

And…the mysterious name Charlie Mix?…was she writing his name because he was her first grade school crush? Or was he, boringly, simply another kid who used the book?

I’m sure hoping for the former!


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20 thoughts on “Learning to Spell with Lucy…1890 ~Tanya Hanson”

  1. Love this, Tanya. You’ve brought little Lucy to life. Kids were kids at any time.

    I always hated spelling practice, but it’s served me well as a writer. 🙂

    Thanks for a fun blog!

  2. This is a wonderful post, Tanya! And what a treasure Lucy’s spelling book was. You certainly brought her to life.

    But now I wonder if Fred did marry Lily? 🙂


  3. Wow! What a find. I never find anything like this when I go to auctions. I’d love to know who Lucy was and how her life turned out. Have you tried putting her name in a search field on a genealogy site? I’m sure Nebraska has one. It would be so cool to learn more. Thanks for such an interesting post. You’ve started my brain whirling.

  4. hi Elizabeth, aw, thanks for the kind words. This was a very fun blog to write. I’ve had that ratty little spelling book for many years and am so glad I could put it to good use today! xoxo

  5. Hi Kirsten, thanks so much for posting today. It’s always so good to see you here. I too think Lucy’s little comments open up even more possibilities! It just intrigues me to hold something in my hand that is so old yet belonged to a real life person!

  6. Hi Linda, I did think about searching for her. I had gotten in touch with Thayer COUNTY Nebraska, but it seems the village of Thayer isn’t the same thing or place. The museum in Thayer County was interested in her name. I think I will look her up in the Thayer (in York County) rolls. Thanks for posting today! xoxox

  7. Hi Patty, so nice to see you here. Indeed this little book is one of my treasures. I enjoy thinking of all the might-have-beens and wonder if I’ll ever know for sure! Thanks for the post today!

  8. I grew up in Platte County, NE. We used Eaton’s True Blue Speller which I still have minus the cover. It was my dad’s and I inherited it so it was used a lot. I used it to prepare for spelling contests which were held at the county courthouse. We all had to stand in front and the courthouse was packed with parents so we were very nervous. The first contest I shamefully spelled toothache “t-o-o-t-h-a-K-e!! I was mortified! But I’ll never spell it wrong again!

  9. What a delightful post, Tanya. That spelling book provided a lovely little walk through history, even though through such simple words. Of course your vivid imagination helped. : )

  10. Good Morning, Tanya,
    I love old finds like the spelling book. I was intrigued about the pages of ‘X’s’. It reminded me of the pages of ‘O’s’ I wrote, getting ready to do cursive. Did anyone else have to do that? I would dream of circles, and my arm would be so tired. But my handwriting and my husband’s are very nice now.
    If you do the Genealogy thing, you can come up with some more ideas, too. Along with finding out who this little girl was…

  11. Hi Tanya – what a great collection of writings. It’s fun to imagine what Lucy’s life was like, whether she was a good student and whether she found spelling is easy or hard. Great post!

  12. What a treasure you found. It would be amazing going through a book like that and wondering who they were. What their life was like.

  13. Hi Nancy, thanks so much for posting today! I know you love old things as much as I do. I missed the word abscess in a bee once. I’m still not sure if I spell it correctly. Sheesh.

  14. Hi Robena, thanks soooo much for taking time from your busy writing day to visit us here! I had fun planning this post, that’s for sure. I couldn’t find any other copywrite dates for this book, so I guess it was reprinted again and again maybe.

  15. Hi Mary J, I do remember penmanship lessons, but I am sorry to say my handwriting has really degenerated these days. Too much computer I guess. I don’t remember practicing O’s myself, but when I taught kindergarten, the kiddies had to practice them and go counter clockwise. I hadn’t thought of that in years. Thanks so much for posting today. It’s always so good to see you here.

  16. hi Quilt lady, yeah I had a good time. I love looking at old photos, too, and trying to figure out who they were, or it’s a house or church, just why the picture was even taken, what importance it has. There’s an ancient pic of a homestead in my mom’s stuff…but nobody said whose or where it was. Wow. Lots of history lost there. Thanks for posting today. I always enjoy your responses to my posts.

  17. What a great find, Tanya! I love things like that, too. I have a booth at a local antique mall, and I love to shop for unusual old things. You’re so right–they do fire the imagination.

    Great post!

  18. Isn’t it just so amazing how times have changed. I love old books of any kind. My mother who is 90 has the most wonderful penmanship but I guess it’s a lost art. In this day and age, people rarely write much by hand.

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