Q & A with Executive Director, Christopher Dobbs

What is your professional background?

I have over 15 years in the history museum field as an educator, interpreter, supervisor and most recently director. As an undergraduate going through a history/pre-dental curriculum I went to work one summer for the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.  I was completely enchanted with museums – sharing and presenting history not from a book, but in a way that allows visitors to use all their senses.  After that summer, I was sold on history.  I completed my B.A. in History and then earned a M.A. in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Cooperstown, NY.  Prior to arriving at the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, I worked for Mystic Seaport as Associate Director of Education.

Tell us about the Noah Webster House.

The Noah Webster House is the birthplace of the author of the “first” American Dictionary of the English Language.  In 1970 the Noah Webster Foundation and the West Hartford Historical Society merged.  Today, the museum celebrates Webster’s role in helping to shape our national identity and the dynamic heritage that West Hartford has to offer.  Thousands of national and international visitors come to see the museum each year.  They come to experience part of America’s history on house tours, through a variety of adult and family programs, changing exhibits, and use of our archive.

Who was Noah Webster?

Noah Webster was born in the West Division of Hartford (now West Hartford) on October 16, 1758.  In 1774, at the age of 16, he went to Yale.  Following graduation Webster would become a school teacher, lawyer, political activist (some of his writings it is believed helped to influence the constitution), a newspaper editor, and even an epidemiologist.  However, it was his work as an educator and writer that brought him the most influence.  Today, most people equate Webster with the Dictionary.  The Dictionary was one of the last chapters in a life goal in which Webster wanted to help create a national identity through education. . . He believed that if the political experiment of the United States was going to survive, it needed to have an educated populace.  His “Blue-Backed Speller” – probably America’s most prolific text book ever – was designed to transplant European spellers and provide American school students with readings and writings by and for Americans.  Even the dictionary was more than just a book to define words – it was a tool for him to exert American cultural independence and also his religious and political beliefs.

Many people ask if Noah Webster lived his entire life here in West Hartford.  The answer is no.  Noah Webster lived and traveled many places.  Most notably, he lived in Hartford, New York City, then New Haven (where he lived in a house that had belonged to Benedict Arnold), on to Amherst – helping to found the college, and ending his years back in New Haven.  In the 1920s Yale was looking at demolishing his later New Haven house.  Fortunately, Henry Ford, an avid collector of Americana, swooped in and had it moved to Michigan to become part of his Greenfield Village.

Who owns the publishing rights to the Noah Webster name?

Merriam-Webster, Incorporated located in Springfield, Massachusetts now owns the rights to Noah Webster’s dictionary.  George and Charles Merriam had produced an edition of Webster’s “Speller” in 1839.  Following Webster’s death in 1843, the two brothers obtained the exclusive publishing and revision rights to the dictionary.  Ironically, Webster, the father of America copyright, was unable to license his own name.  Today there are many other “Webster” dictionaries, but there is only one “official” Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Are there direct descendants of Noah Webster alive today?

Yes, there are many relatives of Noah Webster.  However, as far as we know, the last lineal descendant with the surname was Rebecca Lynn Webster.  The daughter of William Eugene Webster, she never married and died in 1929.

What types of programs are offered at the Noah Webster House?

Over 10,000 children are served each year through dynamic school programs, birthday parties, Scout programs, and summer camps.  These programs examine colonial and regional history through hands-on historic exploration where students get to dress up like children from the past, cook over the open-hearth, and do debates over such issues as slavery and human rights.  The museum has a long-standing reputation for its high-quality youth programs. 

Over the past few years, our adult and family programs have rapidly expanded. They include theatrical programs such as West Hartford Hauntings, lectures and book discussions, award winning authors, Tavern Nights with hearty colonial style food and music, and less traditional programs such as wine tastings and singles nights.  As Hauntings proves, history is not DEAD.  It’s quite ALIVE at the Noah Webster House.

Tell us about the house itself?

The house is a very traditional center-chimney house from the mid 1700s.  When the Websters first lived there it had two rooms down and two rooms up.  Over time it was expanded which gave it the classic saltbox profile.  It is hard to believe, but when Noah Webster was growing up in the house it sat on a 90-acre farm. 

What types of historical documents are at the Noah Webster House?

The museum has a significant archive of West Hartford and Noah Webster related items.  Artifacts include hundreds of photographs documenting the evolution of the town and its people, family letters, diaries, newspapers, wedding dresses, and coverlets.  We have letters written by Noah Webster to family members, an extensive collection of his publications, and even items that he owned.  We also have significant items from West Hartford’s past such as a collection of Goodwin pottery (a prolific dynasty of potters who where located in the Elmwood section of town) and even an 1840s temperance banner.

Christopher Dobbs