Rugby Librarian Margaret Percival and the 111-year-old Spelling Mystery

By George Zepp

A very recent listing on eBay of an old postcard called attention to Rugby’s second librarian at the still-standing-today Hughes Public Library, Margaret Percival.

She pledged with her signature in 1906 to use in her personal letters the “simpler spellings recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board.”

The what? Who’s heard of that? Mrs. Percival, who also enjoyed gardening, had signed her name to an enigma — for us anyway.

The answer to it, as happens these days, was close at hand.

The Simplified Spelling Board was hatched that very year of 1906. Margaret was in the vanguard of a movement that drew support from no less than national publishers, Supreme Court justices, authors (like Mark Twain of nearby Jamestown, TN, conception), U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, The New York Times and even Andrew Carnegie the wealthy industrialist.

Carnegie was so much on board he pledged the annual sum of $20,000 (a ton of money in those days) to promote the cause.

What was the plan? To shorten certain spellings so all could save time and effort on typing strokes, on penmanship (cursive writing, now vanishing into the hieroglyphics of the future), and on printers’ ink. Initially, in April 1906, 300 words were targeted. Some called that too many.

Like many innovations, its days were numbered.

“Altho” the idea was grand, the public didn’t buy it.

Carnegie himself soon lost faith. By 1915 he was wondering if taking just 12 words to reform would have been a better plan: “I think I hav been patient long enuf… I hav much better use for twenty thousand dollars a year,” he wrote in the new style his money funded.

Altho we don’t have any of Mrs. Percival’s personal letters in the Rugby Archives, we can wonder whether she kept her promise – for a short while anyway. She had been the Rugby librarian since 1884 when Edward Bertz left, and was followed by Helen Turner. She died in 1914 at age 81 and is buried in Jacksonville, Alabama.

“If every man and woman in Rugby had used their best endeavors as nobly as she has, Rugby would be a fair spot to look upon.” – Cornelius Onderdonk, Jan. 17, 1888 letter

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