Digital Commonwealth

Laura Bridgman Collection

Perkins School for the Blind

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This collection includes portraits, photos of textiles, personal items, and selected writings of Laura Bridgman from 1841 to 1889 at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, South Boston (now Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts).

We are grateful to Dartmouth College Rauner Special Collections Library for generously allowing the use of images from their collection here.

Historical Background
Fifty years before Annie Sullivan traveled to Alabama to begin teaching Helen Keller, another girl who was deafblind began to receive an education. Laura Dewey Bridgman, who was born December 21, 1829 in Hanover, NH, was the first American with deafblindness to receive a significant education with formal language.

Just after her second birthday Laura was stricken with scarlet fever and two of her sisters died from the same illness. When she recovered she had lost her vision and hearing, as well as most of her sense of smell and taste, and it was many months before she regained her strength. She developed rudimentary sign language, but communication with her family was extremely limited. A pat on the head signaled approval, while a pat on the back signaled disapproval; pulling her meant to "come" and pushing meant to "go." Laura did her best to help her mother with household chores, and even learned to sew and knit, but her family was not able to provide her with the attention and the stimulation that she craved.

Education
In 1837, Samuel Gridley Howe, the first Director of Perkins School for the Blind, learned about Laura and invited her to become a pupil at his school in Boston. At that time, children who were deafblind were considered "hopeless" and did not receive a formal education. Howe resolved to change that and Laura arrived at Perkins in October 1837, at the age of seven. He set out to teach her using tactile means, which had not yet been tried with students who were deafblind. He showed her common objects and taught her that each had a name, using embossed type and fingerspelling to teach her the English words. She learned to write using a writing frame, and she wrote regularly in journals during her school years, later developing an extensive correspondence with a wide range of family and friends. She learned the full range of subjects, including mathematics, geography, and history. Her formal education ended in 1850, at the age of twenty, although she remained at Perkins until her death in 1889.

Legacy
Laura became very well known when she was a student at Perkins, and people often traveled great distances to see her. Charles Dickens visited her at Perkins in January 1842 and later wrote about this in his American Notes. Many years later, Kate Keller read this account of Laura Bridgman and it inspired her to contact Perkins to find a teacher for her daughter, Helen. Anne Sullivan had in fact known Laura Bridgman quite well, as the two of them occupied the same cottage at Perkins, and it was Bridgman who taught Sullivan the manual alphabet. Bridgman's legacy is clearly visible in the education of Helen Keller and indeed in deafblind education as a whole.

Additional Information
To listen to an audio commentary on Laura Bridgman and the Deafblind program at Perkins, please visit the Perkins Archives website, and click on "The Deafblind Program" (fourth on the list).

Perkins has digitized four volumes of scrapbooks related to Laura Bridgman and they are available to browse online through the following links:

Scrapbook Volume 1, 1838
Scrapbook Volume 2, 1876
Scrapbook Volume 3, 1903
Scrapbook Volume 4, 1903

More information about Laura Bridgman is available on the Perkins History Museum website.

Visit perkinsarchives.org for more information about the Perkins Archives.

Rights and Permissions: Dartmouth College Rauner Special Collections Library has generously allowed use of images from their collection here. Please contact them directly with any questions about images from their collection.

Use of the images from the collection of Perkins School for the Blind requires written permission. For more information, please contact the Research Librarian at hayes.library@perkins.org.

Locations in this Collection: