“Willie” Elizabeth Robin: A Newsworthy Christmas

An 1885 newspaper article about how “Willie” Elizabeth Robin, celebrated Christmas in 1885 helped educate the public about deafblindness.

Portrait of “Willie” Elizabeth Robin, circa 1895

“Willie” Elizabeth Robin arrived at the Kindergarten for the Blind on December 20th, 1890 at the age of 6 years old. Born July 12, 1884 in Throckmorton, Texas, an illness left her deafblind at eighteen months old. Her education began with three objects: a hat, a fan and a ring. The letters were spelled in sign language on her hand and repeated with hats, rings and fans of all different kinds including a hat for her doll. Elizabeth mastered these words within a week. In a year and a half her vocabulary reached four hundred words. Much was written about her in Perkins publications and in the press, including how Elizabeth spent Christmas in 1895.

A Christmas story in the Sunday Herald

These stories could provide a means of educating the public about individuals with Deafblindness. The December 22, 1895 edition of the Sunday Herald (available on the Internet Archive) featured a Christmas story about Elizabeth that also explains adapted activities and objects. Spending holidays locally with Mr. and Mrs. Albert J. Whiting, the story mentions the hand knit gifts she made for family members in Texas and the “secret” gifts she will be receiving from Santa. One of these gifts is described as “a funny book with no pictures and with the stories printed in raised letters which are something like the frosting letters on a birthday cake.”

At the time this was written Elizabeth would be reading Boston Line Type, a Perkins produced system of printing for the blind using embossed roman letters, such as the example below.

Page from a book printed in Boston Line Type
The Blind Child’s Second Book, printed in Boston Line Type, and published in 1836.

Christmas morning

For those wondering how she knew when to get up Christmas morning an explanation of how Elizabeth tells time is provided: “She has a ‘Bee’ clock without any glass over its face, she winds every night and hangs on the post at the head of the bed. Any time she wakes, out goes the delicate hand to the face of the clock and so she feels the time, and this is the way she will know when it is Christmas morning.”

Christmas window displays

Elizabeth’s interest in familiar Christmas activities, such as window displays provides example of how this activity could be made accessible through audio description provided by those accompanying her: “She stopped in front of a big store on Washington street where Mary is coming into school followed by her pet lamb. Willie knew the story, and she wanted to be told just how Mary and the scholars and the teacher looked. ‘Is the lamb close behind Mary?’ she said, ‘And is he very white and soft?’ She wanted to know how many scholars there were and whether they liked the lamb, too, and the genuine girl showed in the next question, which was: ‘How old is Mary, and how is she dressed?'”

These human interest stories helped publicize the school and it’s students during what is customarily a time of giving. They could also, as this article did, provide information about how someone with deafblindness could enjoy activities this time of year with relatively simple accommodations. Christmas for Elizabeth was a relatable experience.

More resources

Suggested citation

Hale, Jen. “”Willie” Elizabeth Robin: A newsworthy Christmas.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. December 12, 2018.

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