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Archive for the ‘Paleography’ Category
Handwriting as art
Sunday, June 5th, 2016
Old Dutch and Malabar scripts.

Old Dutch and Malabar scripts.

I have in my possession a book published in Amsterdam in 1672. Its author is Philippus Baldaeus, a Dutch Calvinist missionary, and my copy is written predominantly in German. It’s a big book, whose title (translated into English) is A True detailed description of the famous East Indian Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel, and the island of Ceylon.

Baldaeus accompanied Dutch invaders to southern India and Sri Lanka and came back with a tale to tell. This volume—which my father (Germanic languages professor and literary translator A. Leslie Willson) used in researching a book of his own*—has a number of magnificent plates and a series of pages showing samples of the glyphs and letterforms then used in the ancient written language of the residents of Malabar.

Egyptian hieroglyphs (the British Museum).

Egyptian hieroglyphs (the British Museum).

The scripts are truly beautiful—both the exotic Brahmic glyphs of Malabar and the looping Dutch script that accompanies it. And they serve as just one example of handwriting as art.

The earliest writers of course used pictographs, then hieroglyphs (pictures representing sounds), which could certainly be considered art. As might the illuminated manuscripts created by Medieval scribes—but that’s not what I mean. I mean handwritten symbols, Latin and otherwise, whose shapes or execution or both represent art in a fundamental way.

Zapfino specimen.

Zapfino specimen.

By its very definition, calligraphy is a fine example. The pleasing, expressive sweeps of a calligrapher’s brush or pen can be admired for long moments, can conjure up moods or memories or magic. Calligraphy spans multiple language systems and cultures. In fact, some of the most popular fonts these days are essentially digitized calligraphy—from Zapfino, by late master type designer Hermann Zapf, to the work of contemporary lettering artist Laura Worthington.

Sign painters, poster designers, and graffiti artists also qualify—their hand-rendered letters and words are an unquestionably sincere form of accessible artistic expression. (I’ve received some wonderfully illustrated envelopes from such folks, which I have displayed prominently here and there.)

Detail from Mirabeau B. Lamar’s journal.

Detail from Mirabeau B. Lamar’s journal.

But leave it to me to carry the handwriting-as-art concept into an even broader realm: the shared experience of people who have written (and, in declining numbers, still write) routinely by hand. Those who have unique or fancy signatures, or who add special little extra loops or curls or flourishes to their regular script (or printing), or who take secret pride in the shapes of their Ps and Qs.

I have a strong appreciation for this kind of handwriting artist’s work. I know it when I see it. I’ve seen it amid the source materials for the pen fonts I’ve made of the scripts of historical Texans—the sweep of the D of Mirabeau Lamar (Lamar Pen), the little vertical cross Emily Austin Perry added to her H (Emily Austin), Sam Houston’s inimitable signature (Houston Pen). Another such font I’ve got cookin’ in the oven adds an interesting twist: the script in Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary, originally written in pencil, was later traced in ink by his nephew, Moses Austin Bryan (Emily’s son).

Detail from Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

Detail from Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

You’ve seen it, too, in the handwriting of certain friends or relatives. Perhaps they heard early on how neat their cursive was, so they took pains to make it more evocative. Perhaps they’re visual artists by nature, and it also carries over onto their notepads. Even sloppy scribblers have quirks curious and endearing. Witness the little crosses on the Zs of Viktorie.

Without question hand-done lettering communicates far more than mere words and sentences—e.g., the mind, age, mood, or proclivities of the writer. Perhaps, in this sort of innate expressiveness, all handwriting might stand as a form of art.

Note: If you know of an example of some particularly artistic penmanship, I’d love it if you’d comment with a link.

*A Mythical Image: The Ideal of India in German Romanticism (Duke University Press, 1964).


Miscellanea

» Award-winning penmanship doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with hands

» …and national penmanship competitions can also go to a lefty.

» And while were on the subject, here’s another young handwriting champion. Can there be hope for penmanship?

» Perhaps not, as some are editorializing against cursive requirement in schools.

» Meanwhile, archaeologists have uncovered 2,000-year-old handwritten documents in the London mud.

Deciphering old handwriting
Monday, May 2nd, 2016

I am remiss for not having posted an entry here in so long. The fact of my finally finishing up the first true serif text-type family I’ve ever made is no good excuse (unlike, perhaps, my propensity to enter The Type Design Zone and not emerge for weeks at a time). Anyway, apologies.

But I have something to share today that I hope will make up for the delay: a dive deep into the quirks and peculiarities of 19th-century penmanship—or at least one man’s peculiar, quirky penmanship—that should give you an idea of how to go about deciphering old handwriting.  Or at least how I do it.

Address page of the Ruggles letter.

Address page of the Ruggles letter.

The penmanship in question appears in a digital scan of a three-page letter (see below) sent to me by an acquaintance who has an enviable collection of historical records and documents from the days of the Republic of Texas. I’d transcribed a handwritten narrative for him already, one whose puzzles were mostly problematic words and short phrases. But this new letter—despite its bold and graceful pen strokes—caught me off guard for its first-blush illegibility. I’ve had plenty of trouble deciphering old handwriting, but at first glance I can usually get a fairly good idea of who had written a thing, or what was being written about. The scan of this letter, with its alluring greenish tinge, seemed more or less inscrutable.

Eventually, though, I managed to puzzle out every word. Here’s how.

An important clue was the destination address on the outside of the folded letter. I’d already looked at the first page, at the date and salutation, but all I could quickly read in the author’s sweeping script was a date that looked like “May 21st, 1838,” the country of origin, “Mexico,” and a town that might’ve been Guadalupe. The outside address was stamped VERA CRUZ MEXICO and had an old notation in pencil that offered two quick corrections: 1) the date was in fact 1848, and the town was Tacubaya (a far cry from Guadalupe!). Upon close inspection, the address appeared to be:

Mrs. Richd Ella M. Ruggles
Fredericksburg, Virginia

Another puzzle. Was this a woman named Ella who was married to a man named Richard Ruggles? At least by now I had determined that the writer’s lowercase “a” looked like an “o” followed by an extra “i”-like stroke. And that the “d” had a very short ascender. After staring for a while I noticed a seemingly random horizontal stroke that told me her name likely wasn’t Ella after all—but Etta.

Daniel Ruggles.

Daniel Ruggles.

I took a peek at the last page of the letter, which the author had stylishly signed with the just his initials, “D.R.” So if this was a husband in Mexico writing a wife back in Virginia, his given name was clearly not Richard.

I pored for a while over the salutation, which—now that I could identify a few odd-shaped letters—I managed finally to work out: “My dearest Etta.” (I was now confident that was her name, from the way the cross of the “t” in “dearest” nearly missed the letter altogether, as did the cross of the double-“t” in Etta.)  I soon also had the first paragraph deciphered. Not that it held a lot of clues. Further on I could read a few words and phrases, among them “prospect of peace,” “treaty,” “the 19th inst. Friday,” and what appeared to be the phrase “Chamber of Deputies.” I saw that the author made peculiar “r”s that had a sort of extra squiggle at the end, figured out that those tiny, two-line shapes were ampersands, grew accustomed to his open, unusual “I”s—and realized he was likely in Mexico because of war.

It was time to poke around online.

By searching for “Mexico,” “war,” and “1848,” I confirmed that the Mexican-American War ended in that year. A treaty was signed in February, but U.S. troops didn’t entirely evacuate until August. So I searched for “Ruggles” and “Mexican-American War”—and first on the list of results was a Wikipedia entry for Daniel Ruggles (1810–1897), a Brigadier General for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. I learned that, before that war, U.S. Lt. Col. Ruggles had served in the Texas Campaign, and later, after a long life, had died in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

A search for “Daniel Ruggles” and “Richard Etta” got me genealogical records showing that Richard Etta (or “Richardetta”) was in fact the wife of Daniel Ruggles. I learned that Etta’s maiden name was Hooe, that her middle initial stood for Mason, that she and Daniel were married in Michigan in 1841, and that she died in 1904. I even got a look at the the Ruggleses’ headstone in Virginia.

Armed with this additional background info (which helped also with the seemingly incongruous mention of “Saut on Ste Marie”) and a sense of context, I set to work transcribing Daniel Ruggles’s letter home to his wife, Richardetta. It took nearly two hours, but I got it done.

Deciphering old penmanship can be a puzzle, for sure, but a puzzle that—thanks, ironically, to the digital technology that might ultimately doom handwriting altogether—often promises a circuitous journey through interesting times gone by.


Below are the scans of the three pages of Ruggles’s letter, each followed by my transcription of that page. (Click any page image for a larger view.) I hope and expect you’ll find its contents surprising and fascinating.

The Ruggles Letter, page 1.

The Ruggles Letter, page 1.

Tacubaya, Mexico
May 21st 1848

My Dearest Etta,

I have an opportunity to send you a line tomorrow morning early and write you, although I sent day before yesterday one with most things of importance noted.

Today however I can confirm in some measure this report in relation to the prospects of peace & it is therefore I write so soon again— as I am well aware that you are looking for every peaceful sound or show of hope as well as myself.

We have a well authenticated rumour that the Chamber of Deputies confirmed the Treaty 54 in favor to 32 against on the 19th inst. Friday last & sent it to the Senate at 8 o.c. p.m. on that day—this comes from Genl. Butler & is believable.

There is no doubt about the favorable actions of the Senate—and if our information is correct peace is certain.

The Ruggles Letter, page 2

The Ruggles Letter, page 2.

Every preparation has been made for the marching of our Troops towards the coast.

I shall write you now almost daily as I have means of sending letters.

There is some excitement here about a tragic affair of robbery and murder for which Lieut. B. P. Tilden of the 2d Infantry and two volunteer officers from Pennsylvania. Lieuts. Hare & Dutton, have been sentenced to be hanged on the 25th inst. This is the same Lieut. Tilden we saw at the Saut on Ste Marie.

It is said that another officer of the 2d Infy is suspected as an accomplice. The details will soon be published & ring throughout the Union like a bolt of thunder.

Here in the midst of great events these trials have not excited so much interest as was anticipated.

The particulars are voluminous & I must therefore refer you to News as they will appear in the papers. All feel sad for Tildens poor wife, & friends.

The Ruggles Letter, page 3

The Ruggles Letter, page 3.

Well I have nothing more to write nor have I time if I had.

Love to all the Family—kiſs Ed & Tip for me & Roy & Beſsie & all the children do write me very often.

Particular remembrances to all our friends & kind remembrances to the Servants.

Remember me in your prayers—dream of me & kiſs me in your heart.

Ever thine
D.R.

To/ Mrs. Richard Etta M. Ruggles
Fredericksburg
Virginia

[Note on the last page Riggins’s use of the old-style long-s (“ſ”) in the words “kiss” and “Bessie.”]


Miscellanea

» Turns out 400-year-old handwriting is even trickier to read—and can result in surprises.

» Speaking of transcriptions, Norfolk County, Mass., has digitized 250,000 old deeds—including a few historic ones.

» For its 500th anniversary, The Royal Mail is urging UK residents to dig out old handwritten correspondence.

» Going back way farther: handwriting from 600 B.C. suggests widespread literacy—and an older Old Testament.

» And although it might be delaying the inevitable—the teaching of cursive penmanship ain’t dead just yet.

Handwritten History: Mustering the Tenth of Foot
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015
Military Scribe, a vintage handwriting font.

Military Scribe.

Historians solve puzzles by reading multiple clues. Their job is to interpret information gleaned from manifold sources—archaeological discoveries, ancient books, newspaper archives, boring old handwritten records—and come up with as accurate a narrative as they can of a particular time, place, event.

Sounds like a rather dry, academic pursuit—but is it really?

Heck, my devoted ma spent time as a historical librarian—and even I have only yet begun to appreciate the allure. Turns out those old handwritten records aren’t as boring as they might first appear.

Take my latest historical typeface, just released—a font I call Military Scribe. The inspiration came from a group of digitized military records from the 1770s sent to me by a friend and correspondent: muster rolls of the Tenth Regiment of Foot, a unit of British soldiers who fought on American soil in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

Compact, legible 18th century script.

Compact, legible script.

Muster rolls. Lists of names of Englishmen, surrounded by dates and contractual boilerplate. Routine records written at a desk in an office somewhere by obscure military clerks who knew how to wield a pen.

I had about fifty pages to work with, spanning 1774 to 1779 and drafted by at least three or four different scribes. Right away I decided to concentrate on the work of one penman in particular—a clerk from the earlier part of the period with a particularly legible, compact hand—with some help from the script of another who wrote with a little more flair. The former seemed to take his job seriously, wrote legibly while cramming a lot in; the latter I took for a bit of a dandy, someone who might’ve stopped to admire what he’d written.

Fancier 18th century script.

Fancier script.

What I do involves looking very closely at strokes and curves and shapes while also contemplating things at arm’s length. Mired in this kind of study, I can’t help but get a feel for the personalities of these people. And then the mind plays a sort of trick, and the years sort of slough away, and “history” starts to seem like a year or two ago.

First are the names of the men of the Tenth of Foot. A few sound old and peculiar, like Bartholomew Haycock or a soldier named William Frapwell, but I think I met Frank Cooper and John Marshall at a party. Then come the verbs that appear next to the names—“transferred,” “discharged,” “sick,” “deserted,” “died.” You start to get a feel for the time and place and people.

18th century dittos

18th century dittos.

Invariably you learn things. From the rosters of the Tenth of Foot I found out that the British spelling of sergeant was “serjeant” until about a half-century ago. I also learned that, in handwritten history, the term “ditto” was as serviceable 240 years ago as it is today—and that “do” was an acceptable abbreviation. In fact, I learned so many new abbreviations for names that I included a few in the font.

But one name in particular caught my eye, a captain named Mundy Pole. I’d never heard the name before and had to make sure I was reading it right and googled the fellow—and come to find out he played a role in the famous events of April 1775 in and around Concord, Massachusetts.

Mention of Capt. Mundy Pole on a muster roll.

Mention of Capt. Mundy Pole.

“Captain Mundy Pole of the Tenth Regiment with one hundred men had been detailed by Lieut.-Col. Smith for guard duty at the South Bridge. He was also instructed to destroy any public stores that he might find in that vinicity.” —The Battle of April 19 1775, by Frank Warren Coburn (1912)

[My listing of Capt. Pole is from later that year.]

And this discovery got me researching other old accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—one of the most interesting coming in the latter pages of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s copy of General Gage’s Instructions of 22d February 1775. Captain Pole is mentioned there, too. Check it out.

Historical re-enactors still faithfully recreate this expedition of the Tenth of Foot—the grenadiers and light infantry units who were among the first to come face to face with the “rebel” militias and Minutemen of inland Massachusetts, scene of Emerson’s “shot heard round the world.”

But no one writes muster rolls by hand anymore, I’m pretty sure.


Miscellanea

» Beautiful old love letters in a box.

» Century-old chalkboards found preserved in Oklahoma.

» The power of a handwritten letter from Dad.

» “Computers have downgraded the second of the three basic Rs.”

» A calligraphy artist credits early handwriting practice.

» Fountain pens are still a thing

» …and so are new pen designs.

Military Scribe font

Military Scribe font


Abigail Adams American Scribe Botanical Scribe Douglass Pen Emily Austin Houston Pen

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