Summer intern Corrine Luthy comments on the experience of reading handwritten historical documents.
When I was a kid, one of the games my sister and I loved to play was one we simply called “Office.” We would gather up some of my mother’s old legal pads and pens, our toy computer, an old rotary phone, and rearrange the dining room into a bustling place of business. One of the things I remember best about this game was the opportunity to sign my signature for one of the first times. It seems like there was a never-ending pile of papers just awaiting my beautiful, curly, barely legible name. Finally, I could put to use the cursive I had so patiently practiced in third grade.
Over the past couple of years, the exclusion of cursive writing in elementary school curricula has become a hot topic across the country. I have heard many in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations lament the end of civilized education now that cursive is no longer required in educational standards like Common Core. There is an argument that it has a place in modern education alongside the newer “arts” of keyboarding and electronic communication. How will we read the letters and documents of our ancestors if we don’t know cursive?
I’ve received firsthand experience with this as a digital cataloging intern for the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library this summer. While creating metadata for letters and memos from TR’s first term as president, as well as in my copyright research and metadata review tasks, I’ve developed a new relationship with cursive writing. As the summer has progressed, I’ve read correspondence in all different styles of cursive; some writers taking the time to meticulously form each letter, others scrawling so quickly that only the first letter of each word seemed legible.
In letters like the one from Senator Albert J. Beveridge to Theodore Roosevelt or the one from Sherrard Billings of the Groton School to the president, one can see the challenges and rewards in the art of cursive writing (or in this case, in the art of reading it). Each writer has his own dialect, his own brand, his own fingerprint in his individual style of writing.
Letter from Albert Jeremiah Beveridge to Theodore Roosevelt,1904. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
While I’m no expert at handwriting analysis, Beveridge’s personal note to his friend seems to have been written with speed, blending print and cursive and suggesting an informality that contrasts with Billings’ neatly-formed, wonderfully legible script. Some of these assumptions can be made simply from the contents of each letter, but there is a personality that exists in each man’s handwriting that is absent from typed communications. And while I enjoyed getting a glimpse at some of the president’s intimate relationships by reading material written to him, nowhere was the value of my third grade education realized better than in TR’s own handwriting.
Letter from Sherrard Billings to Theodore Roosevelt, 1904. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
It was in the scrawl of our 26th president that I came to appreciate the tedious repetition in the red and blue-lined workbooks I endured as an 8-year-old. I would even be willing to say that more of his personality was revealed to me in the way he forms his words than in the many portraits I had the pleasure of cataloging this summer. Writing was an everyday occurrence in the early 1900s, whereas photography was still a privilege and a formality and, to me at least, it’s revealing.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to M.R. William Grebe, 1902. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
I will be the first to admit that I have a tendency to romanticize and, as mentioned before, I am no expert in handwriting. But there is something about the ability to read the words of our nation’s leaders in their original context – knowing Roosevelt’s hand held the instrument that dispensed the ink that formed those flowing cursive letters – that does seem a little bit like an art.
There’s no doubt, the cursive camp has gained one more ally this summer.
Corrine Luthy is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She hopes to pursue work in archives and digital projects after graduation.