First use of the term "spelling bee"
The Knickerbocker
United States ()

A "spelling bee" is a competition in which the aim is for contestants to correctly spell as many words as they can in a given time. Historically the term "bee" is thought to have originated in America, where it was used generally to describe a gathering of people who had assembled for a particular task, such as "quilting bee" (making a quilt), "apple bee" (apple picking) and "raising bee" (the construction of a barn or other building). Although spelling contests are thought to date back to at least the early 1800s, the earliest documented use of the term "spelling bee" was in the April 1850 edition of The Knickerbocker literary magazine. It is alluded to in a review of the book The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey: "Those who have attended a ‘spelling-bee’—and what reader who ever went to a district-school in the country but has attended them?—will call to mind a familiar and pleasant scene while perusing the annexed extract."

Another early reference to spelling bees appears in the 16 Sep 1871 issue of Harper's Weekly: "One of his peculiar gifts was good spelling—a great feature in the days when 'spelling bees' were known, and the rivalry between schools was as sharp and as exciting as the present boat-racing between Oxford and Cambridge."

The first nationwide spelling bee competition took place on 29 June 1908 at the Hippodrome Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. It was won by 13-year-old Marie C Bolden of Cleveland who was the only entrant in her state team to correctly spell all of her words. The story caused quite a stir at the time, sadly not because of Bolden's spelling ability but because she was African American.

The longest-running spelling bee is the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was established in 1925 and has run ever since (bar a few exceptions such as during war years and in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic).