Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

Talking Gloves

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Image

A replica of the talking glove used by Alexander Graham Bell to teach George Sanders and, later, to communicate with Helen Keller. This image is reproduced by courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Introduction

In 1873 Alexander Graham Bell was employed to teach George Sanders, a five year-old congenitally deaf boy. As part of his instruction of Sanders, Bell used the ‘talking glove’ found in the 1680 book, Didascalocophus, or the Deaf and Dumb Man’s Tutor, by George Dalgarno (1628-1687), with slight modification. The letters of the alphabet were written on a glove in specific places on the glove’s surface. A sighted person would then spell words by touching the appropriate letter on the glove.

Because of his success with this method of communication with George Sanders, Bell employed it when he met with Helen Keller in Washington in May of 1888. Keller, who was anxious to utilize any method that would allow her to communicate with others, was quite interested in this technology. On 15 May 1888, Anne Sullivan wrote to her former teacher at Perkins Institute for the Blind, Sophia Hopkins, to tell her that when the then-former Governor of Maine, Dr. Alonzo Garcelon, asked Keller what she would like to have as a present, Keller responded with “‘Some beautiful gloves to talk with.” Sullivan continues, writing that the “Doctor was puzzled. He had never heard of ‘talking-gloves’; but I explained that she had seen a glove on which the alphabet was printed, and evidently thought they could be bought. I told him he could buy some gloves if he wished, and that I would have the alphabet stamped on them” (Keller 261-62).

While she could understand the potential the glove presented as a method of communication, Sullivan was also concerned by the accessibility of communication she saw with the glove. Dorothy Herrmann quotes an undated letter from Sullivan to Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins School for the Blind, in Helen Keller: A Life. In this letter, Sullivan is reluctant to have Keller use the talking glove as she saw its potential to allow anyone the ability to communicate with Keller, giving Sullivan little control over what Keller was exposed to:

I cannot bring myself to the mental state, where I can feel contented to allow irresponsible and unreasoning persons to have easy access to my darling’s pure and loving little heart. I am sure that while I stay with her, she will never have occasion to feel the solitude of her life, and when I go, the glove, I doubt not, will add greatly to her enjoyment. But until then I am determined to keep my beautiful treasure pure and unspotted from the world. (quoted in Herrmann 71)

In the end, although Keller herself was, initially, enthusiastic about the glove, it became inconvenient, as she grew more skilled at fingerspelling. Keller expressed her thoughts and opinions so rapidly with fingerspelling that the glove became slow and awkward for her. Indeed, the talking glove, or alphabet glove as it is now commonly called, is still used today by deafblind individuals, but, according to the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland, it “is a cumbersome communication method, but it works well when no other system is available.” 

As early as 1868, Bell had been involved in teaching deaf students how to speak through his father’s system called Visible Speech. However, rather than challenging Bell’s beliefs that the deaf could be integrated into American society through articulation, the alphabet glove was a part of his larger method of instruction intended to achieve this goal. Bell envisioned that the introduction to language through the alphabet glove and other tools would eventually lead to his students being able to lip-read and speak. While Keller did go on to realize Bell’s problematic oralist agenda and eventually learn to speak, Sanders was not able to master articulation[1]. Sanders was, nevertheless, skilfully educated by Bell at least in part through the use of the alphabet glove. Bell’s success in instructing Sanders, who would go on to attend The National Deaf-Mute College in Washington, D.C. in 1882 and work as a printer, added to Bell’s growing reputation as an accomplished instructor to the deaf. Additionally, Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Greene Hubbard were so impressed with the alphabet glove and Bell’s success in educating George that they became major investors in Bell’s phone company. Building on the reputation that came from his use of tools such as the alphabet glove in his teaching and the proceeds from his invention of the telephone, Bell became one of the most influential figures in the oralist movement, a movement that sought to suppress sign language in favour of speaking and lip-reading and would have, and still has today, significant negative ramifications for deaf communities throughout the world.

Note

[1] In a forced emotional scene in the 1939 The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, George Sanders is depicted as being able to eventually say “father” while his father, Thomas, weeps with happiness. 

Primary Source Text

“The moment he evinced the independent desire to communicate with others by written words, I felt that the time had come to give him a means of forming written words for himself by teaching him his letters and a manual alphabet.”

“For this purpose I adopted the plan, recommended by George Dalgarno, of writing the alphabet upon a glove. This glove I presented to him one morning as a new plaything He put it on his left hand, and then went to the card-rack, as usual, and presented me with the word for some object he desired; we shall suppose the word “doll.” I then covered up the word with the exception of the first letter, “d,” and directed his attention to the glove. After a little searching he discovered the corresponding letter upon the glove. I then showed him the letter “o” on the card, and he soon found it on the glove; and so with the other letters.”

“After a little practice of this kind he became so familiar with the places of the letters that he no longer required to search, but pointed at once to the proper letter upon the glove. Every time he required a card from the card-rack I made him spell the word upon his fingers.”

“In communicating with me it was unnecessary for him to wear the glove, as we both remembered the places of the letters. I kept up the practice of writing to him, as before, but required him to spell the words upon his hand while I wrote them on the board. He soon became so expert that he could spell faster than I could write, and often finished his sentence by guessing what I was going to add before I had written more than two- thirds. When this stage had been reached I often used the manual alphabet with him, instead of writing. I took his hand in mine and touched the places of the letters upon his hand. He did not require to look; he could feel where he was couched. He recognized the words in this way, however rapidly I spelled them upon his hand. As I had five fingers, I could touch five letters simultaneously, if I so desired, and a little practice enabled me to play upon his hand as one would play upon the keys of a piano, and quite as rapidly.”

“I could also give emphasis by pressure upon the fingers, and group the words together as they would be grouped in utterance, leaving pauses, here and there, corresponding to the pauses made in actual speech.”

“The more I used with him this means of communication the more I rejoiced in the fact that I had decided to employ an alphabet addressed to the sense of touch, instead of sight. It left his eye free to observe the expression of my face and the actions and objects which formed the subject of our conversation.”

Source

Bell, Alexander Graham. “Upon a Method of Teaching Language to a Very Young Congenitally Deaf Child.” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb. XXVII (1883): 124-139. 

Date

1883

Further Reading

  • Clark, Harold T. Talking Gloves For The Deaf and Blind: Their Value to Men Injured in the Present War. Cleveland, Ohio, 1917.

  • Dalgarno, George. Didascalocophus, or the Deaf and Dumb Man’s Tutor. Oxford: Printed at the Theater, 1680. 

  • Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1998.

  • Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Contributor

Nadine LeGier

Collection

Citation

“Talking Gloves,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed August 18, 2017, http://nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/61.

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