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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To/ Mrs. Richard Etta M. Ruggles
[Note on the last page Riggins’s use of the old-style long-s (“ſ”) in the words “kiss” and “Bessie.”]
» 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.