Note: This blog post is an update of a post originally published on August 7, 2013.
Valentine Haüy (1745-1822) lived in France at a time when people who were blind were often beggars or exhibited for ridicule and entertainment. Upset by this, he developed educational techniques that he applied to seventeen-year-old Francois Lesuer, blind from birth, in hopes of educating him (Illingworth, 5, 7-8). Finding success, in 1784 Haüy exhibited his student to audiences in Paris to generate interest in his cause (Illingworth, 5). That same year he established the National Institution for Blind Youth in Paris with twelve students. Renamed the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in 1785, the school was the first to educate pupils who were blind and the inspiration for founding the Perkins School for the Blind in 1829. At the Paris school, Hüay was able to successfully teach his students how to read but to do so required innovation.
Two years after opening his school, Haüy would become the first person who was successful in developing a system of reading for people who are blind by embossing paper with tactile letters (Illingworth, 6-7). Printed in 1786, Essai Sur L’ Education des Aveugles, by Valentin Haüy is the first embossed book printed for use by the blind. Translated in English, An Essay on the Education of the Blind was created by using a traditional printing type, cast in reverse that was pressed against the back of heavy paper to create embossed Roman letters (McGinnity et al, “First Embossed Book for the Blind”). The embossed letters are sans serif with decorative flourishes on their ascenders and descenders that resemble cursive script but whose letters are generously spaced apart.
The book begins with a dedication to Louis XVI of France and was presented to the King in Versailles in 1786. Haüy’s students provided demonstrations of their abilities but were not provided the assistance Haüyhad hoped for (Illingworth, 5). The title page also explains the value of this tactile text for providing educational and consequently employment opportunities for people who were blind. The title page translation, courtesy of the American Printing House for the Blind, is as follows:
AN ESSAY on the EDUCATION OF THE BLIND;
An Explication of the different Means, confirmed by successful Experiments, to render them capable of Reading by the Assistance of Touch, and of printing Books, in which they may obtain the Knowledge of Languages, of History, of Geography, of Music, &c. of performing the different Offices necessary in mechanical Employments,
DEDICATED TO THE KING,
By M. HAUY,
Interpreter to his Majesty, the Admiralty of France, and the Hotel de Ville, of the City of Paris; Member and Professor of the Academical Office for Writing, in which Ancient and Foreign Characters are taught to be read and ascertained.
Printed in the Original by BLIND CHILDREN, under the Superintendance of M. Clousier, Printer to the King, and sold for their Benefit at the House where they are educated, in the Street called Rue Notre Dame des Victoires.
Under the Patronage of the Academy of Sciences.
News of his success spread outside of France and In 1806, Haüy started the school for the blind in Berlin, followed by a school in Russia in 1808. Back in Paris the school would educate a young Louis Braille who later became a teacher there. As a 15-year-old student in 1824, he developed the braille system. He would publish his book Procede pour écrire les Paroles, la Musique, et le Plain-chant au moyen de points (Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots) outlining a dot system in 1829, the same year that Perkins was incorporated.
Perkins is fortunate to have copies of both books in its collections. Several sample pages of Huay’s book, along with transcriptions in French are available on the Perkins Archives Flickr site. Selections from Braille’s book have also been photographed and transcribed in French on Perkins Archives Flickr site.
Illingworth, W. H. History of the Education of the Blind. Archives.org. Accessed November 23, 2020.
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Books for the Blind. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.
Hale, Jen. “First embossed book for the blind.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. November 23, 2020.