My Mother’s Attic

My Mother’s Attic - Part 1 - Elocution

Part 2Part 3

Several years ago, my mother was cleaning out her attic. She was very good at throwing things out but always hesitated when it came to books. When I visited her during this cleaning phase, she directed me to the latest stack and told me to take what I wanted. Last chance, she would say, before they get tossed or donated.

Most of the books were of no interest to me, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, for example, that always came to the house when I was growing up. Nestled among them, though, was what has come to be one of my prized possessions—The Ideal Orator and Manual of Elocution, edited by John Wesley Hanson, Jr. and Lillian Woodward Gunckel, published in 1895.

I couldn’t believe what I was holding. First, it looked truly amazing. The front is blue, embossed with the image of a young girl, and highlighted in black, pink, and gold. The back was embossed with the same image but set in deep red. There was a flyer advertising the book stuck in the back pages. It said, “Bound in best silk cloth, 522 pages, including 40 full-page illustrations, marbled edges, emblematic design on back and side in colors, only….$1.75.” Needless to say, they don’t print books like this anymore.

Beyond its appearance, the reason I was so amazed to have found this book was its topic. At the time, I had just completed my graduate work, and one of the classes I had taken focused on the history of elocutionary movement. Believe it or not, it was a really fascinating class. This movement developed in England and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its goal was to improve the skills of public speakers—initially lawyers and religious leaders, eventually everyone.

The movement was incredibly popular, especially in the US, and eventually led to the teaching of elocution in public schools in the early decades of the 20th century. These classes provided, as the title page of the book says, “Valuable Instruction and Rules for the Cultivation of the Voice and the Use of Gestures.”

“Where did this book come from?” I asked.

“I don’t know where that book came from, but I remember elocution classes in grade school,” my mother said.

“You took elocution in grade school?” Not quite believing the connection between her education and mine.

“Yes, I hated it. We all hated it. It was awful,” she said.

I knew exactly what she meant.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about why my mother hated elocution classes and what that has to do with your business presentations.

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