By Olivia B. Waxman
May 31, 2017

In the years since 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser correctly spelled gladiolus (a type of flower) during the first National Spelling Bee on June 17, 1925, the tournament has blossomed into a much-watched annual tradition.

That also means the words have gotten harder (hello, “gesellschaft), as the Internet has made it easier to look up words and, thanks in part to a prime broadcast slot on ESPN, competition has gotten more intense.

So what were the spellers asked to spell the very first time around? A spokesperson for Scripps National Spelling Bee tells TIME that they do not have any records of the full list of words from 1925; though a list of winning words exists, the organization has only started keeping track of full word lists over the last decade. However, the words that knocked out the 1925 finalists were listed by TIME the following week. Here they are:

“G-L-A-D-I-O-L-U-S.” Loudly, brightly, firmly, confidently, 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser of Louisville, Ky., spelled it right. Then he stood quivering with excitement, choking back a grin, while the auditorium — a Washington, D.C., one — crackled loudly with applause for the first national spelling champion, victor over two million foes by the harrowing margin of a single vowel. Frank eagerly accepted his prizes, a gold medal and $500 in gold which his father, a millhand, said Frank would save towards college. Elimination bees in different cities had thinned out the competitors to nine state champions, who laughed to hear the cinchy words they began the finals with — “catch, black, grant, warm.” First to drop out was Almeda Pennington of Houston, Tex., who slipped up on “skittish.” “Scittish,” Almeda spelled it. Mary Coddens, the little Belgian girl from South Bend, Ind., was next. She has spoken English only five years, but never faltered until she mixed “cosmos,” the universe with “cosmas,” a flower. Loren Mackey, the bass-voiced Oklahoma boy, followed Mary out. “Propeller” did for him.

The downfall of Patrick Kelly, 10-year-old orphan from New Haven, Conn., was tragic. Patrick had arrived in Washington with 21 textbooks on grammar and spelling, including a “dictionary” by Patrick Kelly, containing over 4,000 words hard to spell. Somehow he had overlooked “blackguard,” and when the word-giver pronounced it, “blaggard,” Patrick said, “Huh ?”, and then spelled it just the way it sounded. Every one liked Patrick.

Dorothy Karrick of Detroit went down after “statistician,” and Mary Daniel of Hartford, Conn., after “valu-ing.” Helen Fischer of Akron, Ohio, missed “moribund,” the last word before “gladiolus.”

That $500 prize in 1925 would be the equivalent of a little more than $7,000 now, adjusted for inflation. Today’s first-place winner is awarded $40,000 cash, among other prizes.

For anyone wondering what becomes of America’s top spellers after those 15 minutes of fame, TIME’s History section caught up last year with eight former champions.


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