Archivists: where can I find samples of 19th-century script?
October 28, 2009 5:11 PM   Subscribe

As a part of my academic research, I'm digging into the Edison Papers, and finding (mostly handwritten) archival materials from the late 19th century. I'm embarrassed to admit I can barely read the cursive handwriting of Edison and his colleagues. Does anyone know where I might find samples of 19th-century script to help me learn how to read this archival material?

I know that there are various 'hands' that were popular in the past, and it looks like the papers are written with dip pens (according to my fountain-pen-nerd boyfriend). The script I'm struggling with looks most like the third column on this page of Copperplate samples, but even more stretched out.

I also found this tutorial by googling around, but I thought i might see if any Mefites with archival experience have any sources they prefer/tips for the Edison Papers specifically.
posted by Monsters to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is something that genealogists struggle with all the time, when trying to decipher old census records and the like. If basic background information on working with old script would be helpful, I'd suggest checking out some sites like this. Or, if you want a book, try this.
posted by cabingirl at 6:10 PM on October 28, 2009

Best answer: I don't have any samples, but I can offer a bit of encouragement: it gets a lot easier with practice.

It helps, too, if you can find a piece of writing where you know what he's saying--a letter that has been published in an edited collection, say--and use that to familiarize yourself. Also, taking phrases you can read (things like Yours sincerely, Wednesday October 28th) and using them to help you work out how particular letters get turned into (seemingly) indistinguishable squiggles--I found myself doing this a lot and it was very useful. In English the same technique should yield results even faster. You'll get the knack.

Oh--and learn to enjoy it! Very satisfying to feel that you're solving a puzzle.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:12 PM on October 28, 2009

I will echo lapsangsouchong -- practice is key, and it helps to think of them as puzzles.

I don't work on that century, but -- I find it useful to skim the document once and see if you can pick out words or letters. Or, failing that, simply notice that a single mysterious squiggle shows up in several places in the text. Look at that squiggle. Look at what surrounds it. Attempt to duplicate the penstrokes that created it. Go off and make yourself a cup of tea; go work on a totally different section of the text; come back and look at that same squiggle again. Relax your eyes as if you were looking at a Magic Eye painting; turn the document on its side, et cetera. Eventually, that squiggle will become a letter, and a word, and a sentence, and suddenly everything will make sense. (And then you move on to the next puzzle, and you are right back at square one again...)

Paleography is awful, really awful, indescribably awful when you start doing it. But it gets easier. Just keep chugging through the documents, increment by tiny increment.
posted by cabezadevaca at 6:36 PM on October 28, 2009

Practice makes perfect. While not every person may have had perfect cursive it's likely they repeat what they use. You will grow use to it. I think what lapsangsouchong suggested is a great way to learn those intricacies which will allow you to ultimately breeze through the writing.
posted by Atreides at 6:49 PM on October 28, 2009

Best answer: Former manuscripts curator here - 19th century hands can sometimes be difficult even for people used to dealing with them, so don't feel bad. My specialist area is earlier but you can find some samples here from penmanship books - that's the searchword you want to use to turn up contemporary examples of letterforms.

But it's not something where palaeographical training in the forms of letters is going to help you so much, as 'getting your eye in'. I looked at the digitised images linked on the Edison papers site, and they would do just fine for working on at home. Pick a document and start transcribing it letter by letter - just as the tutorial says. That's what helps. When you don't know a word, try and make out letters - compare the letter forms you don't know with letters from words you do know - 'Could that be an r? How did he form the r when he wrote 'charge' on the line above? You will initially struggle, but keep struggling because after spending a few nights trying to transcribe things will begin to click.

Also this was the sort of question I was happy to help with as a manuscript curator if I knew someone was trying to learn (and not just expecting me to read things for them) - see if one of the curators will glance at your transcription attempts and tell you what the words which you couldn't make out were.
posted by Flitcraft at 6:55 PM on October 28, 2009

I think has samples of handwriting to help its users decipher the PDF documents they find there. Sign up for a free trial and see what you find. You'll probably have to Google " handwriting" or the like, because using Search inside of Ancestry will get you records.

This might help.
posted by jgirl at 7:00 PM on October 28, 2009

This might help too.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on October 28, 2009

Response by poster: Your comments are both helpful and encouraging. Thank you very, very much!
posted by Monsters at 9:56 AM on October 29, 2009

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