Archive for the ‘Reading old documents’ Category

Deciphering Eighteenth Century Handwriting

Part of what attracted me to research in the era of the America Revolution was the excitement of handling and reading the actual letters of the participants and of the general public, with an emphasis on women. I was not only interested in the content but also in the handwriting itself, which I found to be a powerful manifestation of the writer, capable of establishing a personal connection between that writer and myself.

To read a letter one has to decipher the handwriting, to become familiar with the styles and customs which prevailed. In this regard I urge you to read the two topics listed in “About the Blog” on the right: “Letter-writing and More” and “Reading Old Documents”.

I recently came upon a series which concerns itself with “Deciphering the Handwritten Records of Early America” presented in “A State Archives of North Carolina blog.” Part I presents a section dealing with abbreviations, shorthand, and lettering which will be useful to anyone trying to read 18th century manuscripts. Names are often difficult to make out. These are the ones that appear in the article.

Note the use of colons and the practice of shortening names and words by removing certain letters, frequently all but the first and last, and using superscript for the last letter(s). Note, too, the use of an “X” for “Christ” in Christopher.

Often there was no indication of what letters were missing as in this sentence which was the standard closing of a letter: “I am sir yr most obt and hble servt” that reads “I am sir your most obedient and humble servant”.

One characteristic common to handwriting at the time was the persistent use of the ampersand—&—for “and” as you will have noted if you are a reader of the letters in my blog posts. I find that quite charming for some reason, perhaps because I am interested in typefaces and the versions of the ampersand in the different fonts, many of which are beautiful. Of course these differences are not generally evident in handwriting.

More in the next post.

posted October 20th, 2017 by Janet, Comments Off on Deciphering Eighteenth Century Handwriting, CATEGORIES: Letter-writing,Reading old documents

Research for “In the Words of Women”

The book Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jaytook approximately four+ years to research and write. In the Words of Women published in 2011 took six years, understandable because the scope was much broader than that of the first book and the research more challenging because many of the subjects were little known and obscure. On the other hand the research process was quite different for, in the space of time between books, libraries, historical societies, newspapers, and browsers like Goggle began to digitize their holdings and archives.
I was sceptical of the process at first with regard to manuscripts because I didn’t think the technology was good enough to produce legible copies. I was wrong. See for instance the Massachusetts Historical Society’s wonderful Adams Family Papers Historical Archive. The text of the correspondence between John and Abigail is clear, in part due to the legible handwriting of the pair, although you can consult a transcription if necessary. You can also zoom in on the pages and distinguish quite easily between a comma and a period, upper and lower case letters. Digitization of primary source materials allowed us to read them sitting at our computers.
There are, however, some drawbacks to this development. Digitization is a work in progress. Some institutions cannot afford the cost so there still is a large amount of material out there in manuscript form which still requires visits to libraries etc. Moreover holdings are often digitized selectively, based on someone’s judgment. Janice P. Nimura in her article in The New York Times Book Review titled “Under No Certain Search Terms” “Under No Certain Search Terms” points out another drawback: you get only the information that is relevant to the wording and focus of the search terms you entered in the browser. Nimura notes that “You find exactly what you’re looking for, and nothing that you’re not. . . . Search algorithms leave no room for serendipity, and without that, some of the magic leaks out of the pursuit of the past.” Do you remember browsing in the stacks and coming across other books of interest in the vicinity of the one you were looking for. Books that provide new information or details, or even a particular slant that you might not otherwise have discovered.
While digitization of sources relevant to the subjects of our second book was very useful and convenient, it did away with some of the excitement and pleasure of handling the actual letters, diaries and journals of the subjects, lessening the possibility of “research rapture” that scholars thrive on.

posted March 7th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Reading old documents,Research

Research Rapture

When Louise North, Landa Freeman and I assembled, selected, and edited the letters for our first book, Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005), we spent an enormous amount of time in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University which housed the bulk of the Jay Papers. Each of us focused on a particular person and received manuscript letters we requested, in file folders, three at a time. Sitting side by side at long tables we transcribed those we thought were especially interesting, at first with pencil on paper, later using early generation laptop computers. The puzzle of an undecipherable word was usually solved by a whispered conference as were decisions as to whether a letter was upper or lower case. Of course, we tracked down other materials and physically visited the libraries and historical societies where they were located. Our final selections were made in weekly meetings where we read promising letters aloud. (We were having one such meeting at my house on the morning of September 11, 2001, when having been alerted by a phone call, we turned on the television set and watched in horror the attack on the World Trade Center.)

Reading a recent column in The New York Times Book Review titled “Under No Certain Search Terms” by Janice P. Nimura brought back memories of our research experience. Nimura speaks of “‘research rapture’—the rare and ecstatic moment when you slip the bonds of the present and follow a twinkling detail into the past.” I know it well. A letter written by Sarah Jay to her mother that made its way across the Atlantic from Spain to Elizabethtown, New Jersey in 1780, containing the news that the child she had recently given birth to had died produced tears on first reading, and still does today. Marveling over a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to John Jay from Paris in 1789 describing the various wines he was sending him after a tour of French vineyards, I could barely wrap my head around the thought that both men had touched the page I was reading. John Jay always noted on the top left corner of the reverse side the date on which he received the letter and when or if he responded to it. It was difficult to call a halt to the research process, as anyone who has written a thesis or book will admit.

Our experience in producing our next book, In the Words of Women, was rather different. I’ll write about that in the next post.

posted March 3rd, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Jay, John,Jay, Sarah Livingston,Primary sources,Reading old documents


Perusing the contents of newspapers from the colonial period is fascinating, in fact, addictive. I am fascinated by what may be called “classified ads” like houses to let or for sale, offerings by shopkeepers, rewards offered for the apprehension of thieves and slaves, and the return of stolen goods. Arrivals and departures of ships are listed, as well as information about tides. In the Boston Gazette of January 22, 1770, you will learn that four whites and one black were buried. And there were twelve baptisms in various churches. Advertisements for auctions or public vendues abound. Do you find anything disturbing about this one?

At Ten in the Morning,
Will be Sold by PUBLIC VENDUE,
At the Auction Room in Queen-Street,
A Variety of House-Furniture—amongst which are,
Chest of Draws and Tables, Mahogany Desk and Book Case, Bureau, Feather Beds, Looking-Glasses, Leather-bottom and other Chairs, ——a great variety of China and Glass Ware, all Kinds of Kitchen Furniture, consisting of Copper, Brass, Iron and Tin Ware, very good Pewter, &cc. &cc. A Negro Man about 40 Years of Age, and a Negro Girl about 20. ——Also, a few Dozen of Sterling Madeira, &cc,
One large and one small Dutch Sley, one Curricle, and one Chaise without Wheels, which will be put up at XII o’clock,

The casual treatment of slavery is revealing and rather startling: the sale of a Negro man and girl sandwiched between offerings of pewter and madeira!!!

The advertisement can be found HERE.

“A Lady’s Adieu to her Tea Table”

Despite the fact that the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party has passed (December 16, see “A Pernicious Article of Commerce”), I could not resist posting this poem “A Lady’s Adieu to her Tea Table” that appeared in the Virginia Gazette, January 20, 1774. I discovered it on The City University of New York, La Guardia Community College website: “Women’s Leadership in American History,” which is supported by The New york Times and J. P. Morgan Chase. It was the basis for a lesson plan for 11th grade Social Studies. It would also be suitable for English classes. As a former teacher of 11th grade Social Studies who is totally committed to the idea of using primary source materials in history classes, I appreciate how interesting a couple of periods could be discussing the context and various elements of the poem.

Farewell the Tea Board, with its gaudy Equipage,
Of Cups and Saucers, Cream Bucket, Sugar Tongs,
The pretty Tea Chest also, lately stor’d
With Hyson and Congo and best Double Fine.
Full many a joyous Moment have I sat by ye,
Hearing the Girls’ Tattle, the Old Maids talk Scandal.
And the spruce Coxcomb laugh at – maybe – Nothing.
No more shall I dish out the once lov’d Liquor,
Though now detestable,
Because I’m taught (and I believe it true)
Its Use will fasten slavish Chains upon my Country,
And LIBERTY’s the Goddess I would choose
To reign triumphant in AMERICA.

I hope teachers among the readers of this blog will use the student handout and this document which are on pages 7 and 8 of the Leadership packet. Be sure to take a look at the other lessons using primary sources. A treasure trove of ideas, documents, and plans!

posted January 2nd, 2014 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Lesson plans,Primary sources,Reading old documents,Resistance to British

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