Historicist: The Canada Spelling Book
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Historicist: The Canada Spelling Book

The Toronto-published school-book that pioneered copyright law in Upper Canada.

Page from {a href="http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/schoolhouse/008003-119.01-e.php?&item_id_nbr=44&&page_sequence_nbr=1&PHPSESSID=rmi2h7ea7rcf822jo5noo3hgo1"}The Canada Spelling Book{/a} (A. Davidson, 1845).

In the early 19th century, before the establishment of formal, publicly funded education in the Canadas, most schooling took place in private homes, after church on Sundays, and in the few schoolhouses that existed. In the absence of regulation or standardization, schoolmasters used whatever school-books were most easily available. Most often they were imported from the United States, and sometimes from Britain, leading to criticism that school-books—believed to have a formative impact on not just learning but also the moral development of children—contained little Canadian content. American textbooks frequently, it was reported at the time, exalted American-style republicanism and vilified the British monarchy.

Writing to a government official in 1828, Alexander Davidson, a prominent Methodist and educator in Port Hope, complained that “unless some proper elementary books be got into general circulation, common school education will continue to be little better than a mere farce, and an useless expenditure of public money.” Seeking to fill this gap, Davidson set to work on a school-book that reflected Canadian realities and sensibilities, eventually resulting in the publication in Toronto of The Canada Spelling Book (H. Rowsell, 1840), the first book copyrighted in Canada.

Of Northern Irish extraction, Davidson immigrated to Upper Canada with his wife in 1821. When land granted to him in Douro Township proved unfit for farming, Davidson became a schoolteacher.

Left: Page from The Canada Spelling Book (H. Rowsell, 1840).

He soon discovered that abysmal state of affairs regarding textbooks in Upper Canadian schools—with over half the school-books being American in origin. Davidson “often had occasion to notice the great diversity of elementary books in use,” as he later put it in the preface of his book, “and how exceedingly inappropriate many of them were to the subject for which they were professedly designed…those of the United States are the most numerous. While spelling books from England are to us necessarily defective not being suited to our scenery and other localities, those of a foreign origin are liable to more serious objections.”

By 1829, Davidson had compiled his own Upper Canada Spelling Book, advertising it in the religious periodical, The Canadian Watchman, throughout the summer of 1830 in an effort to raise enough capital to have the book engraved and printed. He figured he needed 1,500 subscribers but had only 500 by the following spring. His efforts to secure government backing for his speller proved fruitless.

It seems, legal historian William Renwick Riddell writes in Ontario History (1929), that Davidson did not seek to simply sell his manuscript to a publisher but was determined to retain control over his work.

At the time, there was no copyright law in Upper Canada, making protection from others reusing your work an area of law that was murky at best. As early as January 1831, Davidson’s petition requesting “protection in the publication of a Provincial Spelling Book in such way and for such period as to the House may appear reasonable and proper” was introduced in the Legislature, although it does not appear the issue was debated any further and no protection was forthcoming.

With his speller on hiatus, Davidson’s first publication was Sacred Harmony (Toronto, 1838), a well-regarded and frequently reprinted tune-book produced under the auspices of the Methodist Church.

Right: Page from The Canada Spelling Book (H. Rowsell, 1840).

It provided both introductory instruction in musical theory and composition as well as an assortment of British and American songs and a couple of numbers—including one entitled “Toronto”—composed by Davidson himself. By this time, Davidson was living in Niagara-on-the-Lake, acting as postmaster, operating a bookstore, engaging in local politics, and eventually editing and publishing a local newspaper.

The outbreak of the 1837 Rebellion, and the anxious years that followed, renewed the public’s concern about the outsized cultural influence of the United States and republicanism on the colony. Once again debate swirled about the origin and content of school-books to which the province’s nearly 15,000 students were exposed.

It was in this atmosphere that Davidson returned to his speller, succeeding at publishing it in partnership with Henry and William Rowsell, who operated a printing office from their popular and prominent Toronto bookshop. The Canada Spelling Book (H. Rowsell, 1840) sold for 1s., 3d., or about $3.28 today.

Davidson’s book introduced pupils to the rules and usage of the English language with basic lessons on the alphabet, pronunciation charts, and grammar lessons—all utilizing the British spelling—but also included prayers for each day of the week, and emphasized virtues like industriousness. Illustrated with crude woodcuts, all lessons focused on Canadian locales and circumstances as examples. Davidson placed particular emphasis on using instruction in literacy to inculcate moral lessons. “Education unconnected with religion,” he wrote in the preface, “is vain if not injurious.” For example, in a rather liberal era with regards to alcohol—Riddell notes—Davidson emphasized the evils of drink. The speller’s lessons outlined that alcohol often resulted in “sickness, bloatedness, inflamed eyes, red nose and face, gout, jaundice, dropsy, palsy, epilepsy, apoplexy, melancholy, idiotism, madness, death” and carried the punishments of “debt, black eyes, rags, hunger, jail, whipping post, stocks, gallows.”

Once again Davidson sought the extraordinary action of the Legislature to extend copyright protection to his volume. Unlike Upper Canada, Lower Canada had had a copyright act. Now that the two provinces had been united, Davidson’s petition prompted the Legislature to establish new copyright legislation. The new Act, which established copyright protection of 28 years as long as the applicant deposited two copies with government and paid a token fee, received Royal Assent on September 18, 1841. “As Davidson was the moving cause for the passing of the Act,” Riddell argued,” it was but natural and seemly that he should be the first beneficiary—and so it was.” The copyright for The Canada Spelling Book was registered on December 1, 1841.

Page from {a href="http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/schoolhouse/008003-119.01-e.php?&item_id_nbr=44&&page_sequence_nbr=1&PHPSESSID=rmi2h7ea7rcf822jo5noo3hgo1"}The Canada Spelling Book{/a} (A. Davidson, 1845).

The school-book was a critical success. In The Church, the Reverend A.N. Bethune called it “a very positive inculcation of the duty of loyalty, and of that great obligation upon which loyalty and every other sound principle is founded—religion—is diffused throughout the work; so that the good subject and the conscientious Christian, may safely place it in the hands of his children.” Other religious leaders and newspapers concurred and hoped that it would be widely endorsed and adopted by the government to replace all foreign textbooks. The volume was reviewed positively in New York’s Albion. The Commercial Herald heralded that “this book, unlike the School Books which have deluged Canada from the United States, is adapted to our situation, our own institutions, our own feelings, and our own interests.” There was, James H. Love wrote in Social History (November 1982), “considerable pressure for official recognition and approval for their exclusive use.”

But when Egerton Ryerson, appointed as Superintendent of Schools after the Legislature sought to establish a publicly funded system of schools in the 1840s, sought to standardize school texts, he rejected Davidson’s speller. Davidson tried to convince his friend—who shared his concern about the usage of American textbooks and who had even publicly praised The Canada Spelling Book—to adopt his school manual, but failed. In part, Ryerson wanted to avoid ugly questions of patronage. And once he had chosen to recommend the Irish National Series school-books, Ryerson did not feel that he could endorse any other publications.

An angry Davidson wrote in 1846: “Colonial School Books originated with me; and I published the Spelling Book at my own expense and risk…the National School Books do not interfere with my Spelling Book because there is no regular Spelling Book among them.” But still he could not convince the government to back his book.

Nevertheless, The Canada Spelling Book proved to be a resounding success. By 1847, after several reprintings, Davidson had sold 43,000 copies; by 1856, he’d sold 130,000. In 1865, Davidson’s book was being used in 367 Upper Canadian schools—even without official endorsement—but that paled in comparison to the 3,099 schools utilizing the Ryerson-endorsed Irish National equivalent. Davidson subsequently produced additional educational books, which he called the Colonial School Books series, as he lived out his days as a prominent citizen of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Davidson died in February 1856.

Additional sources consulted: Sarah Brouillette, “Books of Instruction in Upper Canada and the Atlantic Colonies,” in Patricia Fleming, Yvan Lamonde, eds., History Of The Book In Canada: Beginnings To 1840 (University of Toronto Press, 2004); James H. Love, “Nationalism and Multiculturalism in Canadian Education,” Journal of Canadian Culture (Fall 1985); Mark M. Orkin, Speaking Candian English: An Informal Account of the English Language in Canada (Taylor & Francis, 1971); Eric Ross, Full of Hope and Promise: The Canadas in 1841 (McGill-Queens, 1991); and J. Donald Wilson, “Common school texts in use in Upper Canada prior to 1845,” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of Canada (1970).

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