Category: 19th century deafness

Teachers: Miracle Workers Through the Years

While seeking an interesting topic for schooldays and teachers, I googled movies about teachers. I found a lot of them I liked, but one in particular resonates with me because the story is profound and amazing and true.


The Miracle Worker is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903).  American playwright William Gibson wrote a play for a 1957 Playhouse 90 broadcast.  The original Broadway production opened at the Playhouse Theater in October 1959 and won the 1960 Tony Award for Best Play. Anne Bancroft who won the 1960 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her role as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller recreated their stage roles in the movie.


I never see either of them without remembering their performances in this movie. Recently I watched the Hallmark movie, Homecoming, with the still-beautiful Anne Bancroft. Okay, I confess, Mrs. Robinson flitted before my eyes for a second there, too.


Television remakes were done in 1979 and 2000. many of you might remember the Melissa Gilbert version, where Melissa plays Helen and patty Duke plays Anne Sullivan.


At the age of nineteen months Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing during an illness, historically surmised to be  scarlet fever or meningitis. Pampered and spoiled by her parents from then on, Helen got her way by hitting, kicking, and throwing tantrums. Giving their daughter one last chance before she is institutionalized, her parents send for a teacher from the Perkins School for the Blind. Annie Sullivan was once blind herself, but after nine operations on her eyes gained sight. Against all odds, Annie determined to break through Helen’s world of darkness and silence.


One of the most moving scenes is when Helen finally understands the connection between the finger spellings and the objects they represent. Teacher and student show Helen’s parents what she has learned. There is much excitement and hugging, after which Helen pokes Annie, asking for her name. Annie spells t-e-a-c-h-e-r.


Helen pats the pocket on her mother’s dress, asking for the keys she put there. Helen takes the keys and offers them to Annie, a sign that Helen is finally willing to welcome Annie as her teacher. We are moved by the overwhelming emotions of each person. Helen who has lived in a frustratingly dark  and silent world, unable to communicate has just found a way to connect with the world. Annie has finally given Helen the keys to rich and fulfilling life. And while Helen’s mother is grateful to Annie and joyous for Helen, she must feel like the outside now.

In the final scene, just before bedtime, Helen comes into Annie’s room and kisses her cheek. They rock together for a while, as Annie spells out i-l-o-v-e-h-e-l-e-n. This is a teacher who will forever be remembered for her persistence and tough love. It blesses me to know teachers like Annie are still helping special needs children. It takes a special gift and a willing heart to commit to children in similar circumstances.

If you haven’t seen The Miracle Worker for a while, give it a watch. If you’ve never seen it, treat yourself.

Huh? What Did You Say?



A Victorian lady opens her fan and holds it aloft.  A gentleman bows graciously, cane in hand.   Across the dance floor a handsome man watches, his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. A matronly chaperone hugs a vase full of flowers. All are hiding something.  Ah, but what could it be?


Would you believe hearing aids?




During the 19th century hearing aids came in all shapes and forms—yes even flower vases.  Parasols, umbrellas, muffs, reticules, opera glasses and hats also were designed to hide a person’s hearing problems.


One plantation owner ordered a water canteen hearing device that he could wear on horseback while supervising workers.





Speak Up, You Hear?

Martha’s Vineyard had one of the earliest deaf communities in the United States.  It is estimated that in the late 19th century 1 in 155 were born deaf on the island and the problem traced back to a single British ancestor.


A group of friends sitting around a hearing vase. 


An article in the Texas Daily Herald written in 1892 describes how one man was able to converse with deaf-mute children in sign language learned from Indians.  It’s interesting to note that some similarities exist between Indian sign language and the current system used today by the deaf community.


Not everyone believed in sign language. Some people like Alexander Graham Bell, whose mother and wife were deaf, believed that deafness was something that should be eradicated.  Fearing that social clubs and deaf people marrying one another would contribute to a deaf society, he tried to suppress the teaching of sign language. 


Measles, smallpox and malaria often caused deafness, but so did certain occupations; Boiler makers and blacksmiths suffered hearing lost as did many military personnel. Artillery fire and wartime wounds sent many soldiers home deaf.




Some hearing aids were designed to be hidden in beards or hairpieces.









Deafness and the Civil War


William Martin Chamberlain had been deaf since five from measles, but he faked hearing and talked his way into the Union army.  His deafness was discovered during combat and he was discharged.


The Confederate Army seemed to be more tolerant of its hearing challenged soldiers and used them to good advantage.  Benedict Oppenheimer (don’t you just love that name?) claimed that his company always picked him to fire the cannons because he was already deaf.


Following the Civil War Capt. Allen G.P. Brown founded the “Silent Army of Deaf Soldiers, Sailors and Marines.”   It was through the efforts of this organization that deaf soldiers and sailors were able to secure an increase in pensions.  (Unfortunately, war time hearing loss is just as prevalent today).


Reading about all these deaf soldiers one has to wonder about gunslingers of the old west.  How many of our early western heroes were deaf (or would have been had they lived long enough)?  Those ten gallon hats could have been hiding more than we know.


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Updated: January 19, 2012 — 3:29 pm