Spoken Performance

Dublin Core


Spoken Performance


Americans participated in activities and events based on reading and speaking over the course of their lives. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, children were taught to read by reading out loud at home and in school. Textbooks defined reading as a spoken act, and some Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, almost never read silently. Schoolboys and girls as well as college students studied elocution books called “reciters” and performed orations, poems, stories, dialogues, and playlets in public exhibitions.

Temperance advocates adapted this ubiquitous pedagogical technique to serve their reform agenda. Tracing the editors of recitation collections, as well as the contributors, illuminates a network of temperance activists interested in the spoken and written word. Many reformers were Protestant religious leaders or church members, and temperance publishing was linked to a robust system of religious publishing that achieved the mass distribution of tracts, Bibles, periodicals, devotional books, and Sunday school materials. Unlike famous commercial temperance dramas, many recitations, dialogues, and playlets were written by women, featured female protagonists, addressed women’s specific concerns, and were performed in all-female settings like WCTU meetings. Some collections were aimed at child readers or listeners, while others were intended for adult performers and audiences.

Educating children was an essential component of temperance activism. Reformers believed that it was easier to prevent children from becoming addicted to alcohol than it was to “reclaim the fallen.” They aimed to train boys to become responsible voters, politicians, religious leaders, and medical doctors who would act in the interest of temperance. Girls also needed proper moral instruction, because in addition to their future roles as wives and mothers, reformers argued that “girls and women make good workers” in temperance organizations. To achieve their educational goals, temperance advocates established youth groups for boys and girls, including the Band of Hope, the Loyal Temperance Legion (under the auspices of the WCTU), and the Young Abstainer’s Union.

Spoken performance was a key aspect of the curricula of temperance youth groups and Sunday schools. Growing demand for “attractive and suitable recitations” led temperance activists to compile collections of temperance poetry, prose, and dialogues for children to perform. Editors also inserted more general works by the “best” authors in an effort to introduce children to selections they believed possessed literary merit. These collections feature pieces by canonical and popular authors, as well as social reformers, platform speakers, religious leaders, politicians, and amateur writers. Many WCTU members became poets, short story writers, novelists, and playwrights in an effort to replace “immoral” fiction and plays with “wholesome” alternatives for child readers and audiences.

Speech education did not end upon graduation from school or college; adults continued to hone their speaking skills informally and socially through literary societies and voluntary associations. Oratorical skills were deemed crucial for men seeking careers in law, ministry, and politics. Women were also encouraged to become capable speakers. While they were usually expected to perform in semiformal occasions, many women ascended the rostrum as academics, reformers, lecturers, and interpretive artists. Some used their training in elocution to call for the expansion of women’s public role. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Schools of Oratory and elocution departments in universities flourished, with a student body populated overwhelmingly by women.

Temperance women comprised the largest group of female orators in nineteenth-century America. The WCTU provided many women with their first and only chance to speak in public. For women who did not have the opportunity to attend a School of Oratory, the WCTU offered a space where they could learn this new skill in the company of other women. National WCTU President Frances Willard repeatedly advised members to overcome their discomfort and inhibition concerning speaking by performing as often as possible in public meetings and at conventions. The WCTU established a lecture bureau which arranged tours for female temperance speakers. Women often used temperance speeches as an opportunity to discuss woman’s suffrage and other issues that concerned women and children.

WCTU members believed that speaking was more effective than print for promoting the causes they believed in. “The leaflet,” they argued, “cannot substitute, and should not supplant, the lecture.” Yet, both men and women temperance advocates relied on printed materials to hone their speaking skills. They consulted “reciters” to practice public speaking and to choose selections for performance. Furthermore, reformers believed that speeches, dialogues, and fiction were more persuasive and accessible for mass audiences. They experimented with different forms of print and performance that drew on various speaking and dramatic genres.

Collection Items

Recitations and Dialogues for Bands of Hope
This book is the second volume of selections for young people to recite at Band of Hope meetings. It contains solo recitations and dialogues for children and adolescents of both genders. A “Temperance Debate for Senior Members,” “Abstinence or…

The Onward Reciter
The Onward Reciter is a product of the Band of Hope movement in Northern England, specifically Lancashire and Cheshire. Most of the selections were written by “Temperance compositors,” but the book also contains “selections of a more general…

The Temperance Speaker
The Temperance Speaker represents an American-produced contribution to the vast offerings of juvenile temperance “reciters.” It was published by the National Temperance Society and Publication House (NTS), which was founded in 1865 in Saratoga…

Julia Colman
Julia Colman (1828-1909) was the superintendent of literature for the WCTU from 1875 to 1890, and she also worked with the National Temperance Society. She contributed to temperance periodicals and wrote hundreds of tracts, pamphlets, and leaflets,…

Juvenile Temperance Manual
The Juvenile Temperance Manual is a guidebook for adults seeking to provide temperance instruction for children in day schools, Sunday schools, and youth groups. In the introduction, Colman outlined methods and literature suitable for various age…

The National Temperance Orator
The National Temperance Orator is one of the many “reciters” compiled by Lizzie Penney for the National Temperance Society, for which Penney also wrote children’s stories. The collection contains prose, poetry, and dialogues for performers of both…

Dialogues on Drink
Benjamin Ward Richardson was a British physician who advocated total abstinence from alcohol. He was also a prolific writer of biographies, plays, poems, and songs, and he combined his interests in medicine and literature in Dialogues on Drink.…

The Temperance Platform
The Temperance Platform, again compiled by Lizzie Penney, was intended for an older audience. Penney claimed that the book was created “In answer to a widespread and urgent call from prominent workers throughout the country for a book of Speeches and…

Professional Women Lecturers
Linnie Carl of Portland, Oregon served as the Field Secretary of the Young People’s Branch and as a National Lecturer for the WCTU. Carl was a temperance lecturer and dramatic reader who performed in schools and colleges and at public meetings across…
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