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Friedrich Fröbel, Frank V. Irish and Gertrude Stein


What could a 19th century German crystallographer, an American grammarian, and an expatriate American poet possibly have in common?

Until this afternoon [Saturday, 27 August 2022], I had only known the first sentence of the following quote from Gertrude Stein. The remainder is even more engaging — not to mention being typically Stein, in that she often makes more sense when spoken aloud, rather than simply read in “the mind’s ear”:

“I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. I suppose other things may be more exciting to others when they are at school but to me undoubtedly when I was at school the really completely exciting thing was diagramming sentences and that has been to me ever since the one thing that has been completely exciting and completely completing. I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves. In that way one is completely possessing something and incidentally one’s self.”

I quote it here at length from the “Taos Journal of Poetry & Art” blog, which I recommend. And, not incidentally, would anyone like to diagram it?

diagram from Clark’s Practical Grammar (1853)

The period 1830–1880 was rife with systems to provide visibility to the abstraction of grammar. Beginning with Barnard’s Analytic Grammar with Symbolic Illustrations (1836), S. W. Clark’s A Practical Grammar (1847), and Reed & Kellogg’s Graded Lessons in English (1875), the scene was set for Frank Irish to offer Grammar and Analysis Made Easy and Attractive by Diagrams in 1883-1884. [link] It’s nigh unto impossible that any architect coming to practice in the 1880s had not been exposed to such visualization of grammar as part of their elementary education. And after the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, it was increasingly unlikely that they had likewise avoided Friedrich Fröbel.

[Not incidentally, try diagramming that paragraph above by Stein!]

From: Rom´e de L’Isle, Essai de Cristallographie (1772)

To an architect wannabe, the link between Fröbel and Frank Lloyd Wright is clear in standard Wright studies. The German educator’s quest for the underlying organizing principles of the universe served as the basis for Fröbel’s invention of kindergarten in 1830. And Wright’s mother’s discovery of the Fröbel display at the Centennial Exhibition led to his exposure at the advanced age of nine. Wright himself extolled its influence decades after the fact — a rare instance of the egocentric architect giving credit to anyone.

Staying focused on Fröbel, but backing away to reveal the larger context, it is evident that he was one aspect of a larger mid-19th century focus on the geometric discipline of all natural science, biological and otherwise. Bart Kahr, a chemist at NYU, reminds us that

“Froebel’s background in crystallography infused every aspect of his conception of kindergarten, especially the self-actuated learning devices or “gifts” that were the centerpiece of his curriculum. Froebel kindergartens spread rapidly throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Crystal engineering was thus a primary occupation of millions of children in the first several kindergarten generations.” [link]

Some years ago I had the notion that Fröbel had been part of the larger 19th century world of the physical sciences, especially the emerging science of particle physics. The word “valence” struck me as having a lateral connection with architectural design — the use of spatial and Venn diagrams during the early programming phase of most projects, for example — and the affinity of one type of space to be near another. I checked the OED many years ago and (as my increasingly faulty memory serves me) the earliest use of “valence” in this sense of sub-atomic particle affinity was in a science journal about 1884. Today I stumbled on a language blog with some additional observations:

“The original source was Latin valentia meaning ‘bodily strength, vigor’ or ‘capacity, endowment’. According to the OED, in the 15th century it was  borrowed into English as valence meaning ‘an extract or preparation (of some herb) used in medicine’. In the 17th century, it appeared as both valence and valency, meaning ‘valour, courage’ or ‘might, power, strength’. In the late 19th century, both valence and valency were used (along with quantivalence and atomicity) to translate German Quantivalenz, meaning ‘The power or capacity of certain elements to combine with or displace a greater or less number of hydrogen (or other) atoms’.” [link]

Not only do these several ideas — sentence diagramming, kindergarten, and particle physics — reinforce one another, it’s my growing contention that a fourth, albeit tangent, idea circa 1880 is the Akron-Auditorium church: an architectural phenomenon utterly dependent on the concurrent notions of cellularity, affinity, and hierarchic subordination of component parts. “In that way one is completely possessing something and incidentally one’s self.”

[Further reading on the history of crystallography can be found here.]

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