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The Antique Penman
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Posts Tagged ‘Texas history’
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.

Sharpening the Penknife: A Letter from 1837
Thursday, November 5th, 2015
Portrait of a Man Trimming His Quill (Rembrandt, 1632).

Portrait of a Man Trimming His Quill (Rembrandt, 1632).

Do you know the term “penknife”? Did you know that a penknife—far from the small folding pocketknife we might think of today—once had a razor-sharp, fixed blade and was used for shaping (or reshaping) the tips of quills into nibs for dipping in ink? In fact, a number of artists through history thought this small task of writers and record-keepers noble enough to preserve on canvas.

But mostly the sharpening of pens happened much as the pruning of fingernails—a small, routine, uncelebrated chore peripheral to important business at hand.

Important business at hand (moving house and office) has kept me from updating this little penman’s journal for several weeks. My apologies. But I’ve thought of something you might like to read: a letter from 1837, written by Emily Margaret Austin Perry—after whose hand I made the font Emily Austin. In particular, a letter she wrote home to her husband, James Franklin Perry, on 19-21 June 1837, while away from Peach Point Plantation, Texas.

Emily Margaret Austin Perry.

Emily Margaret Austin Perry.

Below are scans of her letter’s four pages, each followed by a literal transcription of the words it contains.

Emily’s letter gives a snapshot view of Texas and the South in that year. Her penmanship gives a hint into the kind of focused, determined woman she was. (Like most letter-writers of the period, Emily cared less about spelling than about getting her point across.) And despite the startling evidence that the Perrys were slave-owners, her words do tend to support the assertion of Rutherford B. Hayes (who visited Peach Point Plantation in 1848) that Emily was “an excellent motherly sort of woman, whose happiness consists in making others happy.”

Note: The “B” in “E. M. B. Perry” stands for “Bryan,” after her first husband, James Bryan, who died in 1822.

 

Page 1 of a letter from Emily Perry to her husband, James, from 1837.

Emily Austin Perry’s letter, page 1.

Lexington June 19th 1837

My Dear Husband

I have just received your truly welcome letter, which was a source of great pleasure to me by 7 June N. Orleans—for I had began to feal great anxiety to hear from you; I hope long before this comes to hand, you will have arrived safe at home; my Health is very much as it was, but think it will improve, when my mind is more at ease; about the Children; Eliza gives me a great deal of Trouble, she is so very rude and impolite; that she keeps me in a Fever all the time; and with all; so very hard to manage; —I shall start her to School to morrow; to a Mr. Ward; (on trial) he is an Episcopal Clern he, several years ago resided in St. Louis. I know his Correcton very well; and he is well calculated to manage such a Disposition as Eliza’s it is uncertain wheather he will receive her as a Boarder If I can git her into Mr. Wards Family for a year Mrs Holly thinks that it will be the best School in the State, he has agreed to receive her, on trial; for a short time; and if Eliza Should happen to please him, prohaps I may prevail on him to Board her, for a Year—, She has taken one Lesson in Dancing, & I have Spoken to a musick-master to teach her in that branch I find that Eliza will require so much attention; (for her Head is not well) and is in want of so many articles of Clothing; that I have concluded to remain with her un till I go to Missouri, & have given up my trip to Pennsylvania; for indeed, I am tiard of travling & long to be at Home

Page 2 of a letter from Emily Perry to her husband, James, from 1837.

Emily Austin Perry’s letter, page 2.

Guy will leave in a Week for Kenion Collage; in Company with a Mr. Waddel and two other Young Lads, that are going to the Same School. Mr Waddell is a Gentleman that I became acquainted with on board of the Steam-Boat; he is going on to Washington City. I have consented to let Austin go with him; he leaves his Family in this Place; he expects to be gone Six Weeks; I think the Journey will be of great advantage to Austin; besides having an oppertunity of travling with a Gentleman of information & Talence—the greatest wish that I have in this world, is that my Children should have every advantage that I have the Power of giving them—I am Sorry that Col. Bees Draft was not paid, but am not disapained; for their never was the like Seen, nothing taulked of but the Hard Times; the Clergey are proclaiming from the Pulpit the distress of the Country—&C.&C.—I have by me at this time a bout Seven Hundred Dollars; Austins & Guys expences will have to come out of it—their is still five Hundred Dollars to draw on the Letter of Credit; in Louisville; If you can sell any of my land, do so; for I wish very much to Buy me a Negro Girl, when I return I shall remain hear un till the first of September; but you will know of my movements, for I shall write every Week—and you must do the same, and in the meantime; if their is no likelihood of the Countrys being invaded again, make every exertion to have the two Rooms Put up by the time I return, for I expect to bring quite a Family back—I hope you will have the Garden well attented to, & the Yard inclosed as we spoke of—do not neglect having the Graves Poled in & let Simon White-Wash them; if you do not have them painted I also wish you to make a trip into Coles Settlement, and attend to the Land in that part of the Country—You must be very industrious and have every thing under way as fast as possible; for I wish you to meat me in New Orleans, by the first of November—for I wish Austin to spend a Winter in that City in Some, business House; before he

Page 3 of a letter from Emily Perry to her husband, James, from 1837.

Emily Austin Perry’s letter, page, 3.

commences for himself—If Mr. Sumvill Should want lots in Quintonna, to commence business, I wish you to let him have them, I wish you to attent to the Mattegorda Property—do write to me often and let us have all the News; for their are dreadfull stories in the News-Papers about Texas; (I say Stories for I believe them all Lies.) it is stated that the Armey & Country is in a State of Starvation & confusion; no money; and that the Speculaters have taken up all the land in the Country that is worth having; and that their is no doubt but what the Mexicans will invade Texas this Summer; & all this does not give me any uneasiness, I mearly mentioned it to let you see that Lies are told about that Beautifull Country—I have heard from Missouri Mr S. Woodson is Dead, hes left Widdow & Seven Children, almost destitute—Alfred is doing very little—If I have any money to Spare, I should like to assist poor Marie; her eldest son, I named & called him after our lamented Brother; I am told he is a very Smart Sprightly Boy—I should like very much to take him to Texas; if his Mother is willing, & you approve of it; and think we can do, any thing for him; Mrs. Alfred has taken one of the Daughters & Honey Bates a Son—As to changing the names of our Son’s You know that I spoke of it last winter; that I wish’d Austin to assume the Name of his Grand-Father, & as Little S. F. Austin is now Dead, it would be the greatest Pleasure in the World for our Son to take the name of his departed Uncle; & I have the Vanity to think that he will represent his Uncle with much more credit that his poor Little neglected namesake would have done—I am living with Mrs. Holly, she is very kind indeed, & is very pleasantly Situated; Henery’s Daughters are Beautifull Girls, and do great credit to their Father & Texas; they are boath anxious to return to their adopted Country;—I hope in a few years our Wild Rude little Daughter will be as interesting as the Miss Austins—remember me affectionately to Cousin Henery, tell him we are all looking for him with much impatience the Children all join in love to you & Joel; tell Joel to write to me; do not neglect our Dear little Sons; O! how often do I think of Henery I hope you have been to see them; my Paper is full. Adieu God bless you all your Wife E. M. B. Perry—

Page 4 of a letter from Emily Perry to her husband, James, from 1837.

Emily Austin Perry’s letter, page 4.

June 21st
I hope you will have my Horses well attended to, also the two Poneys; for they will all be wanted when I return Home with the Girls & if Mrs. Holly visits Texas, she will want a Horse to ride—If you should have Carpenters, imployed, I wish you to have a Necessary House built; in the Back Yard, in the corner of the Fence by the Lane, and on a line with the Hen-House, it can set over the Dich; these City Dames will think it Horrible to run into the Woods.—You must examin the Draws in the Secretary & see that the Bugs does not cut every thing to peaces, also two Large Trunks in the little Bed-Room & the things that I left in the Band-Box’s—I told Milley & Clarissa about them, but you had better attend your self & see that they seen them all—in Building if you can find a place to Stick a Closset in do so for these are so convenient, and will do a way the use of Trunks, they are such a Harber for roches; I wish you to have a Safe made, it can stand in the little Passage where the rooler Towels, are have some throughs made to set the legs in to hold Water—I wish Clarissa to put up as many pickles as she can; she must make the Brine of raine Water; attend to my Vinegar Cask don’t let it all leak out—I hope you will be able to send me some more funds; If you could see Col Love, it would be a good opportunity for he will visit this place, his Daughter is living with Mrs. Holley & is quite a fine Girl; I should be highly pleased to have him for a Neighbour, prohaps Joel could sell his Lots in Brazoria to him—Their is a report that the Mexicans are marching on Texas with a large Force; & the greatest part of their Armey is composed of Forin-Troops; who are goin to Drive every Texan out of the Country—I wish you to send your Nephews a number of the Telegraph and Velasco Herreld; they know very little a bout Texas; and the Lies that are continually published does great injury to the Country;—Remember me to the Mr Borders I hope you will have the Town Plots Drawn off I wish very much I had braute one of Quintonna with me; Robert & Thomas Balding would be very glad to see one—if you should conclude to Sell any of the Lots this Summer send a Plot to New Orleans—; I also regret that I have not some Deeds of Land with me; for if I should run out of Funds I could sell Some Land—Adieu, One more for I expect your patience is exaused; remember me to Mrs. Henry & Daughter, & to all my neighbours Guy is in Town with me; Austin has gone out, to see Mrs. Blackwell she sent her second Brother in for him; a very Handson Smart Young man I expect to make her a Visit as soon as I git Eliza Fixed for School—Do not neglect writing to me, and let us hear all the News; so that we may know the trouthe—; remember me to all the negros; Old Mary & Sarah I hope to God you may all keep your Healths this Summer—that is all that gives me any uneasiness; —I wish to have the Frunt and Back Yard devided off—Dont show this Scrawl to any one for I am fearful that you will find some trouble in reading it—
Once more your truly attached Wife
Emily

(My copy of this letter came courtesy of the Briscoe Center for American History, Barker Texas History Collection.)


Miscellanea

» These days if you want to write a letter with a fine ink pen, you could spend $1,000.

» That old library card catalog has pretty much gone extinct—and with it instructions to use legible cursive.

» Another argument about how handwriting is good for the brain.

» And the value of penmanship won rousing support in a Taunton School Committee candidate’s forum.

» This young lad’s in the finals of a UK handwriting competition.

» But on the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, there’s some shaming going on.

» A century-old love letter with a “twirly” style of writing turns up under some Irish floorboards.

» Finally, here’s a little how-to—you know, in case you need to brush up on your handwriting skills.


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

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