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Cora Crocker

Learning how to knit, crochet, embroider, and more at Perkins prepared Cora Crocker to work at the Woolson House Industries and, ultimately, support herself.

Portrait of Cora Crocker, a Perkins student with deafblindness, wearing a long white dress and leaning against an ornately carved wooden chair. Portrait studio backdrop has a classical column at the top right.

The curriculum at Perkins has always been designed to prepare students for independent living and participation in their communities. Cora Crocker’s post-graduate life illustrates how her time at Perkins prepared her to be employed and, ultimately, support herself as an adult with deafblindness. 

Childhood

Cora Crocker (1885-1958) was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Described as a “slight girl with a vivacious expression,” Crocker lost her sight and some of her hearing following an illness, reportedly “acute conjunctivitis and measles,” at the age of 7 (Advertiser, 1902). When she entered Perkins in September 1896 as an 11 year old, she was only able to remain for approximately three weeks because of failing health (Herald, 1907). Crocker returned to live with her mother and in the Pittsfield Almshouse. Three years later, Crocker had become totally deaf (Transcript, 1907). 

Returning to Perkins

In January 1901, John Vars, a “blind representative” from the Perkins Institute for the Blind “called upon Cora Crocker” at the Almshouse and presented her case to Perkins (Journal, 1/18/1901). The administration at Perkins agreed to admit Crocker as a student later in the month and on February 21, 1901, a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper reported that “[Governor] Crane has signed the papers for the admission of Cora Crocker to the Perkins Institute…in Boston, and she will be taken there in a few days.” (Rep., 2/1901). 

Upon her return to Perkins the following April, Crocker had a “special teacher” assigned to her, which was typical for Perkins students who were both deaf and blind. Crocker lived in Eliot Cottage on the South Boston campus and “seemed delighted to be at the school again, and inquired for many old friends,” in particular Edith Thomas (Globe, 1901). The June 15, 1901 Boston Globe article noted that Crocker was “an unending source of entertainment to her fellow pupils and teachers” and that she made doll’s dresses in her free time. In February 1902, the Boston Advertiser declared her “One of the Most Interesting Pupils Ever Educated at Perkins Institute for the Blind.”

At Perkins

The 1902 Annual Report included a report from her teacher, Amelia Davis, who was a member of the Radcliffe College class of 1900 (Globe, 1901). Crocker had an “alert and eager attitude,” but was “unwilling to make any effort unless she fully understands the advantage of it” (108). She despised the manual alphabet, a way for people who are deafblind to communicate by having someone sign the alphabet in their hand. It was hard for her to learn the manual alphabet because of her age. At 14 years old, she was older than the typical student learning the manual alphabet as most learned it in childhood. Davis explained that “clever guesses and quick divinations of meaning have suited her far better than that laborious talking with the hand” (110). 

Because Crocker had maintained her ability to speak, she communicated primarily by asking questions. People would respond by nodding or shaking their head, or shrugging their shoulders. Crocker became so adept at asking questions that “she almost never failed to find out all that she wanted to know,” and, Davis added, “there was almost nothing which she did not want to know” (109). 

Crocker learned to write in square hand, which is aptly named as the letters had a square and angular look. Typically, the writer placed a sheet of paper upon a pasteboard or metal guide with horizontal grooves. The paper was creased into the grooves and each letter was produced within the grid formed by the grooves and the left finger. After the right hand drew the letter, the left forefinger covered it immediately when the pencil moved on to produce the next letter. A finger’s width separated words. Crocker also learned mathematics with block and figures pinned on a cushion. Davis described Crocker’s formula for subtraction: “Three – one run away – two left.” (110)

In addition to traditional academics, Crocker learned knitting, crocheting, sewing, and embroidery which were part of the standard curriculum for Perkins students.

At the Woolson House

After leaving Perkins 1906, Crocker entered the Woolson House Industries to learn handweaving in 1907. The Woolson House was a recreational and work center for women who were blind, located at Harvard and Inman Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her success during an experimental probationary week proved, according to the Boston Herald, that she would “soon be able to earn her own living and become independent of the wealthy New York woman” who had been supporting Crocker financially (Herald, 1907). Indeed, in October 1912, a Pittsfield Journal headline declared that “Cora Crocker is Self Supporting.” 

Crocker began weaving plain scarves, but by December 1915 was exhibiting “some handsome braided rugs, perfectly alike on both sides” at the Woolson House’s holiday gift show (Transcript, 1915). When she moved to more advanced designs and colored threads, patterns were provided to her in braille (Herald, 1907). 

At the Woolson House, Crocker communicated with the forewoman, Agnes Walberg, and the manager, Frances Lewis via the manual alphabet, which Crocker had mastered by the time she left Perkins. In fact, despite Crocker’s initial feelings about the manual alphabet, the Boston Herald wrote that “Her answers were also spoken so rapidly, sometimes so fast as not to be understood” (Herald, 1907). She was “bright and quick to understand what is wanted of her, and what she is doing at the loom” and “quick to detect faults in her work,” reported the Boston Transcript in October 1907. 

Marriage

On January 3, 1921, Cora Crocker and Edward W. Frisbee (1856-1937) were married at the Park Street Congregational Church in Boston, Massachusetts. Reporting on the wedding, the Boston Post wrote that the ceremony had required multiple interpreters and noted that the couple would be “unaccompanied on their honeymoon trip” to Western Massachusetts. Frisbee was “deaf mute” and worked as a “lay reader” at the Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He had attended Gallaudet University, graduating in 1879 (Gallaudet University Archives). 

Works cited

Recommended citation

Coit, Susanna. “Cora Crocker.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. March 17, 2023. 

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