Jay Spills the Beans on the Spelling Bee

By Jay Hemphill

Inspired by the many local spelling bees occurring annually across the United States, the Tony Award-winning 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee follows an eclectic group of mid-pubescent participants as they compete for total spelling bee domination. With the forthcoming IU Summer Theatre (IUST) production of Spelling Bee, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the origins of the National Spelling Bee.

Diana Hull of Akron, Ohio, steps to the microphone to open the 22nd annual National Spelling Bee in 1949. (Photo: Courier-Journal archive photo)

The first National Spelling Bee was organized by the Louisville Courier-Journal, in collaboration with eight other newspapers, in 1925. Although the National Education Association held a children’s spelling contest in 1908, the competition did not contiue and the idea was not revisited until 1925. The organizer of Kentucky’s statewide grade-school spelling bee, the Louisville Courier-Journal invited other American newspapers to sponsor students in a countrywide bee, with the purpose of “helping students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.”

During the first “Bee”, more than two million children competed in local spelling bees, much like but not as musical as the one portrayed in The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee. By the summer of 1925, the spellers had been narrowed down to nine contestants, each sponsored by one of the participating newspapers. Just like today’s competition, the final round was held in Washington D.C., a dream destination for the characters in Spelling Bee. The first ever national spelling bee champion was 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser of Louisville, Kentucky, who later returned to the city of his earlier triumph and lived in the DC area until his death in 2011 at the age of 97. Young Frank correctly spelled the word “gladiolus”, winning a cash prize of $500 and a visit with President Calvin Coolidge.

The Bee proved to be an extremely popular event, and soon the number of participating newspapers and spellers boomed. Over the decades The Bee has experienced steady growth, with the number of contestants doubling in the 1980s. In 1994, The Bee formed a partnership with ESPN to provide live broadcast coverage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals. Over 1 million people tune in to watch the Finals. Such prominent media coverage has undoubtedly contributed to the ever-increasing public interest in The Bee, which now reaches 11 million student spellers every year.


(Sources: Official National Spelling Bee website, spellingbee.com and EW Scripps Co. Website, scripps.com)

  • Although a honey bee is used in the offical National Spelling Bee logo, the “bee” in spelling bee refers to a gathering of people for a specific purpose, i.e. a quilting bee.
  • National Spelling Bee champions have met with the current President since its beginning in 1925.
  • On Nov. 30, 1939, Scripps acquires the National Spelling Bee from the Louisville Courier-Journal.
  • Merriam-Webster began an affiliation with the bee in 1958, with its Webster’s Third unabridged dictionary emerging as the official arbiter of a word’s spelling.
  • Since its beginning in 1925, The Bee has been held continuously, except during the World War II years of 1943 – 1945.
  • Spelling Bee co-champions were declared in 1950, 1957, 1962, 2014 and 2015. This occurs when neither speller is able to correctly spell the final word.
  • Texas is the state with the most National Spelling Bee winners, with 11 champions.
  • Indiana has had three National Spelling Bee champions.
  • Of the champions, 52.1% have been girls and 47.9% were boys.
  • In 2015, Vanya Shivashankar spelled the longest winning word “scherenschnitte,” and in 1984, Daniel Greenblatt won with the shortest winning word to date, “luge.”
  • In 2017, 5-year-old Edith Fuller becomes the youngest to ever qualify for the national finals.
  • The winner of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee will receive an engraved trophy, $42,500 in cash, reference libraries from Merriam-Webster and Encyclopedia Britannica, plus trips to New York and Hollywood to appear on Live with Kelly and Ryan and Jimmy Kimmel Live!.


(Source: Official National Spelling Bee website, spellingbee.com)

1925: The Louisville Courier-Journal organizes the first national spelling bee.

1930: NBC broadcasts the final hour of competition on the radio.

1941: Scripps-Howard Newspapers takes over ownership of the program.

1943: The Bee takes a three-year hiatus during World War II.

1946: The Bee resumes and is first broadcast on television on NBC.

1950: After hours of head-to-head spelling, Colquitt Dean and Diana Reynard are declared the first co-champions.

1974: A taped version of the finals appears on PBS.

1975: Hugh Tosteson of Puerto Rico becomes first spelling bee champion from outside the 50 states.

1987: A record 185 participants forces Bee officials to eliminate the practice round of spelling.

1991: CNN provides live coverage of the finals.

1994: The Bee begins broadcast partnership with ESPN.

1998: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica becomes first international speller to win the Bee.

1999: Spellbound documentary films the national spelling bee.

2002: The Bee implements a written test for the first time.

2006: The championship finals air live in primetime on ABC.

2013: The Bee adds vocabulary to the written test.

2017: The Bee celebrates its 90th year.

Hemphill.jay2018Jay Hemphill is a graduate student in IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance. Most recently seen in the 2018 Machinal, Look for him this summer in IUST’s productions of Our Town and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

We are fortunate to have Jay as a member of our marketing team this summer, and look forward to seeing him on stage as he continues in the MFA Acting Program over the next two years.

Sources: ESPN.com, spellingbee.com, scripps.com, merriam-webster.com

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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