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A Dictionary for Blind Musicians

After opening its tattered brown cover, all I could see, at first, was an apparently blank white book, but then I realized that it was printed without ink, that the text was embossed — type behind the page had been pressed into the paper to produce raised letters. It was a book for blind people. In fact, it was A Dictionary of Musical Terms for the Use of the Blind (1884), compiled by Professor David D. Wood (1838–1910), who was organist at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, for nearly fifty years and a blind person himself. 

Scuffed leather binding of A Dictionary of Musical Terms for the Use of the Blind
Spine and front board of the binding

Madeline’s copy of Wood’s book doesn’t represent the first edition, which was published in 1867 in Philadelphia; Madeline’s copy was printed at the American Printing House for the Blind, in Louisville, Kentucky. The copy has been rebound, but it’s not the “fine” or “near fine” book one expects to find in a collection like Madeline’s. Madeline acquired it, I think, because she realized how rare it is. 

As far as I can determine, the first edition is currently held only by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the British Library, though library catalogues published around 1900 indicate that it was once more widely available. I find no trace of the second edition, and I’ve discovered online that, should I want to acquire a copy of either edition, I’d be out of luck. Madeline seized the opportunity to collect it, regardless of the copy’s condition, because embossed dictionaries for blind people are a rare kind of book to begin with, with copies of them rarer over time. 

Nowadays, when we think of books for blind people we automatically think of Braille, the raised dot alphabet invented by Louis Braille (1809–1852) by 1824. Braille had attended the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles, or the School for Young Blind People, founded by Valentin Haüy (1745–1822), who published the first embossed book for blind students in 1786. Braille’s invention solved the difficulties of reading raised-letter texts. Braille was available as an alternative to embossing long before publication of Wood’s dictionary, but it crossed the Atlantic on a slow boat and didn’t become predominant until the twentieth century. 

A Dictionary of Musical Terms for the Use of the Blind. Compiled by Prof. David D. Wood, Organist of St. Stephen's Church, Philadelpia.
Title page

Haüy’s script contributed to the difficulties, and American advocates for the education of blind people designed more straightforward lettering. One of these, proposed by Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876) — physician, abolitionist, first director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, and husband of the poet, abolitionist, and women’s suffragist Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910) — became known as “Boston Line,” which used only lower-case letters. Both editions of Wood’s dictionary were instead embossed in “Kneass’ Improved Combined Letter,” which used both upper- and lower-case letters, and thereby hangs a tale. 

The Kneass script was designed by Napoleon Bonaparte Kneass, Jr. (1843–1898), who was born into a prominent Philadelphia family — his uncle, William Kneass (1780–1840), was the second Chief Engraver of the United States Mint — and was himself a blind person. He was the original publisher of Wood’s dictionary, sponsored by the National Association for Publishing Literary and Musical Works for the Blind, as well as the Kneass Philadelphia Magazine for the Blind, the first issue of which also appeared in 1867. Apparently, design ran in the family. 

Image of the book's preface with embossed letters.
The book’s preface

Here’s the unexpected and very significant fact: Kneass was also an occasional composer, which means that whatever his dedication to publishing for blind people, he had a special interest in publishing a dictionary for blind music students. Besides the Kneass Philadelphia Magazine for the Blind, he launched the Kneass Music Journal for the Blind, also in 1867, which makes the year something of a watershed in the history of published resources for blind people in the United States. 

Wood had been an assistant music teacher even when he was still in school, at the Institute for the Instruction of the Blind, but then for some thirty years at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, and also at the Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind — his experience taught him that blind music students, like sighted music students, needed a dictionary of musical terminology. It seems obvious that Wood and Kneass knew each other — how many blind composers lived in Philadelphia at the time? How many blind publishers of music were there? Kneass’ first cousin, Anna Justina Magee, also born in 1838, was a devoted parishioner at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and heard Dr. Wood at the organ every Sunday. Perhaps Napoleon Kneass also attended St Stephen’s, but I have not had a chance to investigate that possibility yet. 

The American Printing House for the Blind was established in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1858. In 1871, the National Association for Publishing Literary and Musical Works for the Blind, the original sponsor of Wood’s dictionary, began its financial support for the American Printing House, and leading educators of blind people met in Philadelphia in 1876 to appeal for Federal support for the American Printing House. This complex of Philadelphia connections may explain how the American Printing House ended up publishing the second edition of Wood’s dictionary and why it adopted the Kneass script. 

List of word definitions including final entries for G, including "gusto" and beginning entries for H, including "Hallelujah" and "harmonic."
One page of entries, end of G and beginning of H

It may stretch the imagination, but William C. Dabney, once President of the American Printing House, describes the nineteenth-century competition among embossed script as no less “violent as those of the Kentucky Hatfields-and-McCoys.” The strife subsided only after a uniform system of Braille was adopted in 1918. Once accepted as the standard, Braille led to loss of investment in embossed printing plates and stocks of embossed books, which explains why, after the 1884 edition of Wood’s dictionary, there were no more embossed editions of it in any of the available scripts. So, publication of the dictionary was discontinued, but for several decades it was implicated in the fraught history of education of and publishing for blind Americans. 

While Wood wrote his dictionary for a very specific audience, with a very specific purpose, that specificity underscores the general importance of dictionaries, even perhaps their necessity — every specialized vocabulary requires one, and everyone, specialist or generalist, needs one. 

Sources: In preparing this post, I have benefited greatly from William C. Dabney, “American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. (1858–1961),” The Filson Club Historical Quarterly 36.1 (1962): 1–17; Vanessa Warne, “Blindness and Design: Kneass’ Philadelphia Magazine for the Blind (1899),” Accueil 84 (Fall 2016) [available online]; and John F. Ditunno, Jr., and Chris S. Formal, “Anna Justina Magee: A Woman of Determination and Vision” (2021) [available at the Thomas Jefferson University Digital Commons]. 

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