History Through Deaf Eyes – A Language Shared by Hand and Heart

Laurent Clerc arrived in Hartford in 1816 and brought with him the sign language of Paris, a city with a large Deaf community. He taught this visually sophisticated language to Gallaudet and other teachers.

Students at the school brought other sign languages with them-from New York City, Philadelphia, and a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard, which had an unusually large population of deaf people at the time.

Out of this mix came what was called “the natural language of signs,” known today as American Sign Language.

“The heart claims as its peculiar and appropriate language that of the eye and countenance, of the attitudes, movements, and gestures of the body.”

~ Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

The “Old Hartford School” is one of the early buildings of the American School for the Deaf, now in West Hartford, Connecticut.

American School of the Deaf old ASD Building Portrait of Charles Willson Peal and Eliza Boardman Clerc

In this portrait by Charles Willson Peale, Laurent Clerc’s wife, Eliza Boardman Clerc, is showing her daughter Elizabeth’s name sign “E.”

Upon arrival at school, students were usually given a name sign that often incorporated the first letter of their name, or identified a distinguishing feature such as round cheeks, a sharp chin, or a dimple. Name signs were often students’ first introduction to signing.

American School of the Deaf lithograph of the Lord’s Prayer in ASL data-src=

Lithographs were used to teach prayers. Many prayers were signed in unison.

Gallaudet University Archives

Gift in memory of Ellen Shepardson Gallaudet Fabian Barry, 1991.

Artist: J.T. Randolph Photo of sculptures of each hand signed letters.

Collection of Maryland School for the Deaf

Photograph by Richard J. Schoenberg