Andrew Comstock


Andrew ComstockAndrew Comstock, a physician and professor of elocution at the Vocal and Polyglot Gymnasium in Philadelphia, invented a phonetic alphabet to be used for teaching his students to speak better. His alphabet was also used to transcribe documents, such as the New Testament and to help children learn phonics. Comstock’s influence was widespread. Mace, 1994, describes him as influencing “almost all practicing elocutionists and vocal art teachers” (Mace, 1994, p. 2).

Comstock advertised his services as “A system of elocution, with special reference to gesture, to the treatment of stammering and defective articulation.” He argued that people who stammer must first learn the elements or oral language, including the articulatory positions of individual sounds.

The pupil “should be required to exercise his voice in the most energetic manner upon all the elements singly, till he can utter them without hesitation. He should also utter them in various combinations, not only according to the laws of syllabication, but in every irregular way. The vowels should be exploded from the throat with great force, and they should be sung, as well as pronounced with the rising and falling inflection, through every interval of pitch within the compass of the voice.” (Comstock, 1841, p. 156).

The pupil, Comstock argued, should also be provided with practice drill on the elements of “pitch, time and force.” Then, after the pupil becomes master of the elements of language, he “may commence speaking and reading.” These three elements he attributes to the conceptual model of speech developed by James Rush, an early American phonetician.

In this beginning stage of therapy the “teacher and pupil should speak should speak in a deliberate manner, with a full, firm tone of voice, and in a very low pitch. Then the pupil should commit to memory a short piece that requires explosive force; for example, “Satan speech to his legions.” This memorized piece should be pronounced in concert with members of the class. This unison speaking was carried out “several hours daily” to “cure” their stammering (Potter, 1882, p. 56).

Following the choral speaking, the pupil should give the speech to the class by himself. “To prevent the pupil’s stammering…the teacher himself should play an accompaniment on the violoncello violin, organ, drum or some other instrument. At first the notes should be made very loud…[and then] they should gradually be made softer and softer, and, finally, the accompaniment omitted altogether” (Comstock, 1841, p. 156).

Also, in order to “diminish nervous irritability” that causes stammering, Comstock recommended daily exercises “to invigorate all the muscles of voluntary motion (Comstock, 1841, p. 155). He said that “in some cases it may be necessary to have recourse to tonics (such as electricity), anti-spasmodics, bathing in salt water, frictions over the whole surface of the body” (Comstock, 1841, p. 155).

Samuel Potter, a physician reviewing stammering therapies of the time describes Comstock thusly (Potter 1882, p. 56): “Comstock, a Philadelphia physician, taught a system of elocution with special reference to the alleviation of defects of speech. With the modesty of the true teacher, characteristic of the institutions of that city, and in marked contrast with the blatant assertion of others, he did not claim to have cured even a majority of his cases. His method is described by one of his pupils as the exercising of the voice by reading aloud in unison with others, for several hours daily.”

In an article that appeared in a journal called The Voice, one of Comstock’s former students, C. C. Ellis criticized Comstock’s method. He first described the method as presented in Comstock’s book: Comstock’s Elocution and Model Speaker (1871), and then criticized it for being too superficial, focusing too much on symptoms and not enough on the “mind.”

Ellis depicted Comstock’s 570 page Elocution and model speaker book as having the following:

  1. directions are given for the proper postures of the body, arms, head, face, eyes, shoulders, and the lower limbs.
  2. 270 engravings and diagrams
  3. special attention to gesticulation
  4. hints are given for the correction of defective articulation
  5. with a compete speaker and reading book by Professor Philip Lawrence.

Comstock’s Writings

Comstock, A. (1837) Practical elocution. Philadelphia: Kay and Brother.

Comstock, A. (1841, 1846). A system of elocution with special reference to gesture, to the treatment of stammering and defective articulation. Philadelphia, PA: E. H. Butler & Co. (Edgar Alan Poe’s says of this book: This is, in many respects, an excellent book, although the principle claim of Dr. Comstock is that of having cleverly compiled. His method of representing, or notating, the modulations of the speaking voice, is original, as he himself states, but there is little else which can be called so. Originality, however, is not what we seek in a school-book, and this has the merit of tasteful selection and precision of style (Poe, Review of New Books, from Graham’s Magazine, March 1842, p. 192.)

Comstock, A. (1841, reprinted in 1977). A system of elocution, chapter vii, Stammering. Journal of Communication Disorders, 10, 153-158.

Comstock, A. (1846). Treatise on phonology: Comprising a perfect alphabet of the English language. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler and Co.

Comstock, A. (1847). The phonetic readers: consisting of a selection of pieces, classical and moral, in prose and verse, in both the old and the new alphabet; to which is prefixed a system of vocal gymnastics. Philadelphia, E. H. Butler & Co., 1847.

Comstock, A. (1847). The phonetic speaker: consisting of the principles and exercises in the author's system of elocution, with additions; the whole in the new alphabet. Philadelphia, E. H. Butler & Co.

Comstock, A. (1848). New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, translated out of the original Greek, and with the form translations diligently compared and revised. In Comstock’s perfect alphabet. Philadelphia : A. Comstock.

Comstock, A. (1853). Comstock’s juvenile reader, No 1. Philadelphia : The author.

Comstock, A. (1853). Comstock’s phonetic reader, No. 1. Philadelphia : The author.

Comstock, A. (1854). A system of vocal gymnastics, a key to the phoneticon. Philadelphia : The author.

Comstock, A. (1857) Autobiography of A. Comstock, M.D. in trochaic verse. Philadelphia: C. G. Henderson.

Comstock, A. (1859). Phonetic speaker: Consisting of the principles an exercises in the author’s system of elocution, with additions; the whole in the new alphabet. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler.

Comstock, A. (1871). Comstock’s elocution and model speaker…by Andrew Comstock; to which is added a complete speaker and reading book of gems by the best authors in prose and verse (by Philip Lawrence). Philadelphia : T. B. Peterson.

Writings about Comstock

Ellis, C. C. (1880). A former pupil’s recollections of observations on the cause of stuttering.The Voice, 2, #2, p. 21.

Mace, R. F. Matthias Alexander’s visit to New Zealand, April to December 1895. Retrieved on December 10,2005 from