Tales of a Diabetic Intern; Chapter 3: Reading Historical Letters (Cursive is Tough)

As I type this blog post, we are officially 5 days away from launching this year’s 100th anniversary online exhibit! Time really does fly when working at Banting House—this online exhibit is the culmination of my first 4 weeks here! At the beginning of a 4 week project, it usually feels like you have all the time in the world, but eventually (after you blink enough times) 3 of those weeks are gone and you’re heading into the final stretch.

This week will certainly be a busy one, as I execute all the plans and prep I’ve done thus far. Not to mention as I send out more social media posts with teases and clues for what this exhibit will be!

Now, you may have guessed it, but this week’s blog post is doubling as Monday’s teaser. So here it is, the first reveal about our upcoming exhibit:

LETTERS!

I can’t give away how many letters there are, nor can I give away the ways in which the letters will be used. Instead, I want to use this blog post to discuss how to read cursive writing in historical letters, using my own experiences from last week, when I transcribed every letter you’ll see in the online exhibit.

Reading old cursive is hard enough, but Banting House commemorates and presents medical history, so some of these letters aren’t just in old cursive—they’re in old cursive, and written by doctors! Here’s an example of one such letter:

So, most of this letter (and others like it) are somewhat legible. Like me, I’m sure most of you can follow along pretty well: “the family would be unable to continue treatment indefinitely” and so on. Sometimes words are a little hard to make out—the fourth word on the top row might look more like “he” to some—but usually you can use the surrounding words as context and infer what those harder words might be (the word “be” works far better in the context of the letter’s first sentence than “he” does).

Yet sometimes you come across a word like the one highlighted above. Any cursive aficionados reading this blog post may immediately know what that word is. But for some, it’s hard to determine.

When you come across words like this, the best thing to do is focus on each letter. Try to find a few that are written more clearly and see if that helps shape the word. For this word, it seems pretty clear to me that it ends in “tion.” I can also see a few “e’s and “a”s scattered in the first half. But the first letter looks like a “v” and that doesn’t seem to fit with the other letters I’ve isolated. So what now?

Well, this is perhaps the most helpful method when reading historical letters (at least it is for me). Find other words that you’ve already identified, and see if the shapes of letters in those words match the shapes of letters in the unknown one.

For example, if you look a little lower down on this letter, you’ll see the phrase “present time”:

The “p” at the beginning of “present” looks very similar to the first letter of the unknown word from before. Take a look:

So, we can infer that the unknown word starts with a “p.” This helps a lot because, if you look closely, you can see a similar letter shape pop up a few letters into our unknown word too, suggesting that letter is also a “p.” With that information, and the rest of the sentence as context, you can soon see that this word is “preparation.” This word fits perfectly in the sentence: “should the expense of preparation of the extract continue to be as high…”

Once you get started, transcribing old letters can be really fun! It feels like a puzzle, trying to decipher what these authors were writing. I’ll show you two other examples from the same author (and the same letter—and even the same sentence!):

These two words are especially tricky to decipher. The first highlighted word looks like it starts with a “p” and ends in a “da.” But I couldn’t think of a single word with those letters in that order. It sort of looked like “pride” to me—if the author forgot to add the “i” and wrote the “e” a little wonky.

So, what to do first? Well, if you look at the eighth and ninth words on the top line, you see the words “small dose.” The “s” at the beginning of “small” looks similar to the first letter at the beginning of the unknown word. So maybe it spells “s(blank)da”? What word starts with an “s” and ends in a “da”? My first thought was “soda,” but I wasn’t sure. So, I ended up searching the scientific compound on the first line (NaH Co3) to see what it stood for: Sodium bicarbonate, AKA baking soda. With that little bit of research, “soda” suddenly fit far better with the context of the paragraph: “For a time, NaH Co3 (baking soda) was given in small doses, not to combat the trivial acedosis, but to allow water retention and to prevent too great loss of weight. Recently, no soda has been used.”

But what about the second word? For the longest time, I thought this was a “9” and then a word. It seems to fit with with the sentence: “but the patient is allowed 9 (unknown) rations of table salt.” It seems right! But then what is the rest of the word? If that is a “9,” then the word looks like it starts with an “l.” It also looks like it ends in an “ous.” But the word just to the right of it (“rations”) looks like it ends in a very similar way. So, while looking like “ous,” this may just be how the author writes “tions.” As you can already tell, there are just too many options with this unknown word. So what is it??

Well, after at least half an hour, I came back to this letter and asked myself “what if this isn’t a ‘9’?” And so I looked again and found the word “great” 6 words in on the third line. The “g” at the beginning of “great” looks a lot like the “9” in front of the unknown word. So what if this words starts with a “g”? Then if you look closely at the “e” in “retention” (first word on the third line), it looks very similar to the second letter of the mystery word. So “ge-what?” After some more trial and error, I finally landed on the word “generous.” It works with the “ious” ending that I isolated earlier and it fits with the rest of the sentence: “no soda has been used, but the patient is allowed generous rations of table salt,” .

And that’s it! That’s a little taste of how to transcribe letters. Thank God for typewriters, or I may have still been transcribing letters today! But, then again, historical letters written in cursive are classic, beautiful, and open up historical research to decoding puzzles and solving mysteries.

Let me know in the comments here or on Banting House’s social media if you have any experiences with these kinds of historical letters!

Until next time!

Patrick

P.S. THE TEASER! Of course, today’s teaser is the involvement of letters in the online exhibit, but after reading through all of that, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a bit more (as a treat). From the same letter, if you can decipher this sentence, you may have a pretty good clue as to what this exhibit is about:

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