The Elocution Movement

Pre Civil War Elocution 1800-1865

In the early part of the 19th century, as a result of the rise in manufacturing taking place in America ’s cities, there came to be a large group of urban Americans of the working and middle classes living in close proximity to one another. They formed a political group that lobbied for tax-supported education and for eliminating property holding as a requirement for men to vote. They also sought out ways to improve themselves and their children through religious study and self education. This period has been called “an awakening” (Menand, 2001). Menand describes it thusly:

The…awakening, which had begun in New England at the turn of the century, had spread westward, spinning off denominations as it went. Between 1776 and 1845 the number of preachers per capita in the United States tripled. Methodism, in the eighteenth century an insignificant offshoot of Anglicanism, grew to become the largest church in the nation: Mormonism, the Disciples of Christ, Universalism, Adventism, Unitarianism, the many Baptist church, and the African-American church—along with Transcendentalism and a number of spiritually based humanitarian movements, including abolitionism—all emerged in the same period. It was a sectarian frenzy (Menand, 2001, p. 80).

The many activities associated with the sectarian frenzy between 1800 and 1865 took place in churches, church camps, town halls, and in a new venue called lyceums. Lyceums were organized throughout the US ( New England, Mid Atlantic States, South, Midwest). They provided regular programs for those adults who wanted to educate themselves, to receive further training in their jobs, or to learn about the various sectarian movements. The formats for lyceum programs included: lectures programs offered in a seasonal series, courses (e.g., in elocution and mechanics), debates, discussion groups, reading curricula, entertainment (e.g., magicians) sermons by religious leaders, and speeches by leading political figures.

A number of individuals became professional lecturers during this time. Some worked with lyceum bureaus to secure engagements on lyceum lecture circuits. The bureaus included: James Redpath’s Lyceum Bureau— Boston, MA, James Burton Pond’s Lyceum Bureau (the New York, a branch of the Redpath Lyceum) and The Lyceum Company— Alexandria, Virginia.

Elocution and Elocutionists

The success of lyceums attests to the value Americans placed on elocution and oratory early in the 19th century. In keeping with this emphasis a number of individuals began providing elocution lessons for those interested in improving their own ways of speaking, reading aloud, giving oral presentations, or singing. Elocutionist was the name given to both those who performed orations themselves and those who taught others how to perform. These US specialists in oral presentation called themselves elocutionists, following the already established elocution movement in the United Kingdom.

Among the best-known Americans associated with the elocution movement in the first half of the 19th century were Ebenezer Porter and Andrew Comstock.

Ebenezer Porter, was a teacher of elocution and rhetoric at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. He was interested in elocution as a vehicle for “homiletics, preaching and public prayer.” He found his seminary students to be lacking in their oratory and elocutionary abilities, so he wrote a textbook to be used with them as well as with other students attending academic institutions. The book's aim was to improve their speaking skills.

Porter’s book, published in 1827, was called Analysis of the principles of rhetorical delivery as applied in reading and speaking. The first section contained chapters on various aspects of elocution including: reading, articulation, tones and inflections, accent, emphasis, modulation, and rhetorical action. Part 2 of the book considered “Faults of Rhetorical Action,” and Part 3 consisted of exercises for practicing the various aspects of elocution outlined in the first section. This textbook was very successful and came to be used later in many rhetoric classes at universities across the US.

Andrew Comstock was a physician and an elocutionist who worked individually with normal speakers as well as those who “stammered” and had “defective articulation.” Drawing upon James Rush’s phonetic alphabet, Comstock promoted his own phonetic alphabet to use to help his pupils and clients develop skills in oral reading and speaking. He transcribed text into the alphabet in order to make the sound-letter correspondence more transparent to his beginning readers. Comstock also gave instruction in the control of body movement, what he called gestures, during speech. His books on the phonetic alphabet and on elocution were very popular throughout the 19th century.

Comstock taught elocution to both children in adults in a setting outside the public schools. But elocution training was also made part of the curriculum in the newly forming public schools. Students in both lower and upper grades were taught how to speak the English language “with elegance and propriety” (Moore, 1802). Elocution books were written by Comstock and others to provide teachers with scientific information about the anatomy of speech as well as with practice and educational materials for improving their students’ speech and oral reading. For example, John Hamilton Moore’s 1802 book, intended for teachers of high school English had the following revealing title:

The young gentleman and lady's monitor, and English teacher's assistant: being a collection of select pieces from our best modern writers: calculated to eradicate vulgar prejudices and rusticity of manners, improve the understanding, rectify the will, purify the passions, direct the minds of youth to the pursuit of proper objects, and to facilitate their reading, writing, and speaking the English language, with elegance and propriety: particularly adapted for the use of our eminent schools and academies, as well as private persons, who have not an opportunity of perusing the works of those celebrated authors, from whence this collection is made: divided into small portions for the ease of reading in classes.

American elocutionists engaged in different activities. Some, like Porter and Comstock, wrote books. Some specialized, focusing on particular elocutionary practices. For example, there were those who set out to improve the oratory delivery of professional dramatists, (e.g., James Edward Murdoch), or of clergymen, (e.g., Reverend Edward Payson Thwing), and those who aimed to improve the enunciation and vocal expression of singers, (e.g., Clara Brinkerhoff).

Many elocutionists worked to incorporate the subject of elocution into the public school curriculum. There were elocutionary teachers in elementary and high schools, and teachers of rhetoric and elocution at universities. There were also elocutionists who offered adult education courses for those who were interested in improving their speaking and reading skills. At the Boston Lyceum, for example, regular classes were held during the year in elocution and debate, along with lessons in astronomy (the science considered most in harmony with divine creation) geography, history, French, and rhetoric and composition (Bode, 1956).

Elocutionists and Communication Disorders

A handful of elocutionists practicing in the early 19th century saw communication disorders as within their scope of interest and practice. For example, in his “Analysis” book, Ebenezer Porter had a two- page section on “impediments” in which he recommended that stammerers practice on a difficult word by repeating its segments again and again for weeks or months.

While Porter did not carry out these therapies himself, Andrew Comstock did. His therapy for stammering, for example involved a number of treatments including having his pupils do sound drills based on his phonetic alphabet, and having them recite memorized passages aloud.

Elocution after the Civil War: 1865-1890

Post-War America involved a period of restoration, in which pre-war institutions were reestablished. This included the recovery of the Lyceum movement, which had virtually disappeared in America during the Civil War, (but see a letter home from a civil war soldier, to see that lyceums did not disappear entirely) and the emergence of the Chautauqua movement.

The Chautauqua movement was a widespread phenomenon, involving not only the large cities, as had the lyceums, but the small towns through the Northeast and Midwest. The Chautauquas included a several day program offering including lectures, courses, concerts, and other types of entertainment. The post war platform speakers were just as well known as their antebellum counterparts. Maxwell, in his discussion of them in America, describes them thusly:

At the height of its popularity, tent Chautauqua could offer a week-long sequence of programs for each town on its docket. There would be performances by lecturers, humorists, actors, interpretative readers, musicians, or magicians. Usually about half of a Chautauqua program consisted of music. One could expect Swiss bell ringers, orchestras, glee clubs, string quartets, oratorio artists, and ethnic bands. Grand opera stars such as Alice Neilson and Madame Schumann-Heink toured with Chautauqua. There might be a dramatic presentation by a group like the Ben Greet Players, a demonstration of sculptural technique by Lorado Taft, or some magic and ventriloquy by the young Edgar Bergen.

The backbone of Chautauqua was the lecture, however. Religion, temperance, and politics proved to be the most popular subjects. Before radio became a valuable campaign tool, politicians found touring with circuit Chautauqua a useful way to gain national exposure. Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover did so. In the early years of this century, the Progressive Movement owed much of its success to the forums provided by Chautauqua. Robert La Follette, William Jennings Bryan, Joseph Folk, and Hiram Johnson toured the circuit in an effort to undermine the "standpatters."

In parallel with the nation’s interest in oratory, the elocution movement continued to thrive after the Civil War. By 1887 there were 1646 elocutionists in the country (Werner, 1887, p. 126). Included in their ranks was Alexander Graham Bell, who opened a School of Vocal Physiology in Philadelphia, in 1872. These practitioners added to the growing body of knowledge and activities associated with the widespread interest in proper elocution. The following three are exemplary of the group of practicing elocutionists who open their own private elocutionary practices in the second half of the 19th century.

Alfred Ayres, a pseudonym for Thomas Embly Osmun, was an elocutionist and an instructor of dramatic art, with a thriving practice in New York City. One of his main emphases was to study and provide a record of the correct pronunciation of words—a science that he and others called “ortheopy” and that is now called lexicography. Ayres wrote several well known books in the field of elocution, critiqued methods used by drama schools that did not emphasize elocutionary practices, and wrote a regular column called “How to pronounce” for the monthly periodical Werner’s Voice Magazine.

Lewis Baxter Monroe. Lewis Baxter Monroe was an educator who was appointed the first head of the Boston University School of Oratory in 1872. Prior to his appointment, Monroe was a supervisor of reading in the city of Boston. Monroe authored readers used as part of interpretive reading training in public schools. He was also a renown platform reader, doing presentations in lyceums and Chautauqua’s in New England. Monroe worked to change the emphasis in elocutionary practices from an exaggerated display of elocutionary technique to a more naturalistic way of speaking, focusing on the communication of ideas.

Samuel Silas Curry along with his wife Anna Baright founded a private elocution school in Boston in 1879. The school, called the School of Elocution and Expression, had on its board very prominent public figures of the day, such as Henry Hudson, Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander Melville Bell, Charles W. Eliot, William Dean Howells and Joseph Jefferson (Blanchard, 1953, p.626). Among the students in attendance were Smiley Blanton and Sara Stinchfield Hawk, who were to become pioneers in a later developing field of speech language pathology. The School of Expression later became Curry College, a liberal arts undergraduate college that still exists in Milton, Massachusetts.

Post war elocutionists and communication disabilities

A number of new teachers of elocution set up shop after the civil war. They advertised their different specialties such as training in singing, acting, oral recitation. Some of these elocution teachers, such as Walter K. Fobes and Leo Kofler, advertised that they offered instruction for those with communication disabilities, usually focusing on “stammering.”

Alexander Graham Bell exemplified the elocution teachers of this period. He opened a school in 1872 in Boston Massachusetts for improving speech of the deaf, of stuttering and articulation. He called it the School of Vocal Physiology and used his father Melville Bell’s Visible Speech approach for teaching speech to people with all kinds of speech difficulties. His specialty, besides being an elocutionist and inventor, was to teach with those who were deaf to develop oral communication.

Late in the 19th century, elocutionists began to organize themselves into a professional group. A journal, The Voice, devoted to topics on elocution and speech correction, was established in 1879 by Edgar S. Werner, the National Association of Elocutionists was founded in 1892; and a number of university programs were started to train people to become elocutionists. It was this budding professional group that was to spawn the field of speech correction a couple of decades later.


Bode, C. (1956). The American lyceum: Town meeting of the mind. NY: Oxford University Press.

Menand, L. (2001). The metaphysical club: A story of ideas in America. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Werner, E. (1887) The Voice, Vol 8 # 8.