Saturday, August 30, 2014

Volapük Conferences in the US — Their Short History

Let the Volapük speakers come!
Many of the places that there the sites of early successes of Esperanto in the first decade of the twentieth century were sites of successes of Volpük in the late nineteenth. Just as the first Esperanto conference in the United States was held at Chautauqua, New York, under the auspices of the Chautauqua Institution,[1] Volapük conference was held there as well.

Disclosure: I am not at all versed in Volapük. I have looked at it (as I have several other planned languages) and it was not to my taste. Nor have I (until recently) looked much into its history, so all I know about it is what I’ve read in the papers (the papers being those of a century ago that have been scanned and indexed on the web). However, I do find Volapük of historical interest, since it had a much more rapid rise than Esperanto (or any other planned language). It also flamed out just as fast.

There seems to have been a total of three Volapük conferences in the United States. (If I’m wrong about this, I would be grateful if some kind reader more aware of the history of Volapük in the United States would correct me.) The first was in Boston, and the St. Johnsbury Caledonian of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, reported on August 28, 1890 that
The North American Volapuk association is holding its first annual convention in Boston this week. A room at 20, 180 Washington street, contains many interesting things, among which are the following, all in Volapuk: collections of envelopes from different countries, copies of magazines, a copy of a humorous magazine published at Munich, copy of a Chinese Volapuk paper, postal cards from different countries, the different books, pamphlets, hymns, written letters and badges of the association.
This is the only Volapük convention to receive any notice in the New York Times. They did, however, include the umlaut.
Boston, Aug 21.—The North American Association for the Propagation of Volapük opened a three days’ convention here to-day. Twenty three States are represented and delegates are present from New-York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and other States.
The second conference ended on August 18, 1891, but the only report I have found of it was in the San Francisco Morning Call of August 30. It received a much longer article, quite sympathetic to Volapük. I suspect the author of the piece (identified as “Special Correspondence of The Sunday Call” and signed “V”) was one of the attendees of the conference, perhaps someone for whom the Call was the local paper.
Chautauqua (N. Y.), Aug. 18, 1891— The second annual convention of the North American Volapuk association, which has just completed its work here, has made evident several important facts. It has demonstrated that the language is no mere experiment, if a large and varied literate in every civilized country, a half-hundred newspapers published in half as many countries with an uninterrupted issue—in some cases of ten years—and a vocabulary so rich that it can express comprehensibly poetry, science, history and romance, are evidences of life and diffusion.

Even more, the opening exercises of the first of four public sessions were in the language itself. Colonel Charles E. Sprague, a well-known New York scholar and banker, as head of the American Volapuk Association, addressed his constituents in Volapuk, and routine business, involving parliamentary proceedings, and participated in by many persons, were all in this artificial language—a language sweet enough to be attractive even when not intelligible, and yet sui genieris enough to impress its distinctiveness upon one family with language-sounds.
Keep Colonel Sprague in mind; I’m coming back to him in a week.
A speaker with something to say followed Colonel Sprague and prudently chose English to suit the understanding of his attentive audience. This was Mr. Alfred A. Post of Boston, who represents as its chief the Volapuk movement in Massachusetts. His story was the the adoption of Volapuk by the Boston School Committee as an elective study in Boston’s Evening High School and of the numerous clubs and classes formed in various towns throughout the States for the study and use of Volapuk. The array of statistics on this line was a revelation.
Mr. Post was the (self-published) author of Comprehensive Volapük Grammar. In the introduction to that book, Post was already noting some changes to Volapük:
Young as is Volapük it has obsolete forms. It has rejected of as the feminine prefix to nouns; no longer uses the hyphen after the feminine prefix, or before the mode terminals except that of the subjunctive; has substituted an for el as the terminal to denote an inhabitant of a country, and has given special significant to iel in word formation. Such changes in the language justify a new grammar.
Back to the Call. After discussing some other talks at the convention and a display of Volapük materials, the article ends with:
It will not answer to shower ridicule upon Volapuk. As its friends earnestly affirm, it is not, and never was, intended to supplant, but only to supplement other languages, and with such a purpose it has its province, and the proceedings of the convention new terminated go to show that it will continue its world to a sublime fruition.
The third (and possibly final) conference received even less attention, as the only notice of the conference, held in Worcester, Massachusetts in October 1892, was in the December 18 Washington Evening Star. The article, “Volapuk and Postal Reforms“ attributes the postal reply card to the effort of Volapük speakers. The U. S. Post Office says of reply mail that:
With our postage-paid options, you only pay for the responses that come your way. Or use pre-addressed reply materials to reduce cost. You can also qualify for discounts if you’re anticipating high-volume responses and using automation-compatible barcodes.
No mention of Volapük. The Evening Sun viewed things differently:
How the Reply Postal Card Came to Be Adopted.
A link in the history of the introduction of the reply paid postal card is given in the following paper by Mr. Jacob Frech of this city, read at the third annual convention of the North American Volapuk Association, held at Worcester, Mass., in October last:
The article continues with a history of the reply-paid postal card (which I will not include here). If Mr. Frech is correct that the reply-paid postal card is due to the Volapük movement, then it did manage to have an effect that lasted long after the language had faded from the common memory.

As for who wrote it, there were two men named Jacob Frech in Washington, D.C. in the 1900 census. One was a 33-year-old “butter sealer” (whatever that might be), born in New York. I’m going with the German-born 53-year-old government clerk. It is, of course, entirely possible that the younger Frech was the son of the older one, as the younger Frech’s parents were both born in Germany (which is where the older couple were born). As a coincidence, both men married women named Elizabeth.

There may be not only more articles out there (I do not, alas, have access to the Boston Globe archives), but more conferences upon which articles were written. Or perhaps there were additional conferences which attracted no notice in the press. If one were to track the existence of an annual Esperanto meeting in the United States on the basis of newspaper articles, there hasn’t been one held in years, despite that there have been many.

Update: I have found a couple more articles which make reference to the 1890 conference in Boston.  The write up in Der Deutsche Correspondent of August 28, 1890 is somewhat harsh:
Die Volapük seuche ist heute nicht mehr so groß, als sie vor zwei oder drei Jahren war, wo man von mancher halbflüggen Gans und manchem unreifen Hochschüler für ein ungebildeten Menschen erklärt wurde, wenn mann kein Interesse für die Volapükerei zeigte, aber unter den Amerikanern scheint die Manie doch noch im Wachsen zu sein. In Boston hat soeben ein Convent von Professoren der neuen Universalsprache, Volapük, getagt. Bostoner Blätter melden, daß sie sehr enthusiastisch waren und an ihre "Mission" glaubten. An den Fortschritten des letzen Jahres sehen wir nicht, daß der Sieg des Volapüks so nahe in Aussicht stände.
Which, with the help of Google Translate, works out to:
 The Volapük-disease is not as large as it was two or three years ago, when if you showed no interest in Volapük,  some half-fledged goose or immature high schooler would call an ignorant man, but the mania still appears to be growing in America. A convention of Volapük professors has just met in Boston. Boston papers report that they were very enthusiastic and believed in their "mission." By last year's progress, we do not see that the victory of Volapük is in sight.

  1. They were clearly big on planned languages at Chautauqua.  ↩

You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!


  1. Volapük still exists and is in use. Some people like to learn a strange language, after all.
    Modern Volapük was reformed in the early 1930s by the Dutch doctor Arie de Jong and was acknowledged as the legitimate Volapük by Johann Martin Schleyer's successor as "Cifal" and the Volapük Academy of those days. The chain of Cifals remains unbroken to this day, and there is a considerable literature in modern Volapük, a Volapük newsletter, several Volapük websites including Volapük groups at Facebook and Yahoo, etc.
    Have a look at:ükagased_pro_Nedänapükans

  2. Hermann, I'm aware that there are still Volapük speakers. Likewise, with an unbroken chain of Esperanto speakers, there's still plenty of forgotten history (as I'm finding as I plow through old newspapers). My question is whether Volapük speakers are likewise unaware of chunks of their history.

    1. Perhaps not every detail of early Volapük activities in far places may be part of official knowledge in Volapük circles. But, in fact, Chautauqua is mentioned in "Jenotem valemapüka Volapük" [History of the Universal Language 'Volapük'] by Johann Schmidt (1961):
      "Lamerikän älabon klubis: 4 in ‚Chicago, St. Louis, Worcester,‛ ed in ‚Chautauqua‛" [The United States had four societies, i.e. at Chicago, St. Lous, Worcester and in Chautauqua].
      If you agree, I'll post a link to this article of yours at the Facebook Volapük group. Thank you very much for your contribution.

    2. You can most certainly post links to this or any other of my articles to places where you think people would find them of interest. Please feel free to share.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...