Artifacts in the Perkins Archives illuminate 185 years of blindness history

Four interesting items to check out

Inside pages of embossed book

The first embossed book created to teach students who were blind to read.

November 28, 2014

A climate-controlled room in the lower level of Perkins’ Howe Building holds 185 years of the history of Perkins and blindness education. Archivist Molly Stothert-Maurer, who has a master’s degree in library science, oversees the collection of fascinating items. Here are four interesting pieces that shine a light on some of the major milestones in the historic march of progress for people who are blind.

The first embossed book for the blind

In 1786, Valentin Hauy opened the first school for the blind in Paris, L’Institut National des Juenes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Youth). To teach his students to read, he created the first embossed book for the blind, with raised letters that could be read with fingertips. It wasn’t very successful, as the binding process flattened down the text too much to be useful. But it did raise awareness of the need for books for people with visual impairment, so it was a step in the right direction. Perkins is fortunate to have two copies of this historically significant book.

The book is called “An Essay on the Education of the Blind” and was printed in Paris. An interesting side note: Louis Braille, who would later create the raised-dot system of reading and writing that bears his name, came to L’Institut National des Juenes Aveugles as a student in 1819.

The face of Perkins, restored

Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins was the wealthy Boston merchant whose name adorns Perkins School for the Blind. A member of the first board of trustees of what was then called the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind, Perkins invited the school to move into his mansion on Pearl Street in downtown Boston. Later, he allowed the school to sell his home and use the proceeds to buy a larger building in South Boston.

A portrait of Col. Perkins came to light in the archives in the past year, looking a little worse for the wear. It was sent out to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, where it was cleaned and restored to nearly its original luster. Thanks to the restoration, you can now see the details in Perkins’ hair and face as well as the outline of his torso and clothing.

The portrait is a daguerreotype, which is a metallic plate used in an early form of photography.  It’s covered by glass and cased in leather with a red velvet cushion lining the inside cover. The actual size is 6 x 5 inches.

Green eye sash covers used by Laura Bridgman

Laura Bridgman was the first student with deafblindness to be educated at Perkins, proving director Samuel Gridley Howe’s belief that intelligence wasn’t dependent on the ability to see and hear. While at Perkins, she became the first deafblind person to learn language, allowing her to read and communicate.  She became famous around the world after Charles Dickens told her story in his book, “American Notes.”

Bridgman lost her sense of sight, hearing, taste and smell to scarlet fever when she was 2 years old. She spent much of her life at Perkins. To cover her unseeing eyes, she wore green fillet bands, strips of green cloth lined with white cloth that tied around her head. Several of these bands, circa 1845, are in the archives collection.

A letter written in French by Helen Keller

Helen Keller and Perkins Director Michael Anagnos enjoyed prolific communication through letter writing. Keller painstakingly learned how to write square hand: block-like letters using a writing frame. One letter in particular stands out, and that’s one she wrote in French when she was just 9 years old.

It’s not the content of the letter that makes it unusual – she writes about her mother’s flowers and her little sister and other everyday goings-on. But it’s fairly impressive that a child who just a few years earlier was unable to communicate at all, who was deaf and blind, was now writing in a foreign language. It’s a testament to Perkins’ belief in the ability of all children to be educated, regardless of their disability. And it’s a lovely glimpse into the early life of this very famous little girl.

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Read more about: Deafblind, Perkins History