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Unlocking the Secrets of German Handwritten Documents

(This post is by David B. Morris, German Area Specialist, European Division)

The “digital question” is familiar to librarians the world over: “Has it been digitized and can I get it online?” Library users want access to resources that they can download, search, print, and share. Meeting this demand poses special challenges when the resources are originally in handwritten form. While sophisticated machines can scan printed materials and automatically recognize their characters, handwriting must be read by human eyes, and transcribed and keyed into digital files by human hands. To further this goal, the “By the People” project at the Library of Congress makes thousands of images of handwritten documents from the Library’s vast manuscript collections available online. Using a crowdsourcing platform, participants can transcribe the texts directly on the site and create a digital version of the document that can then be tagged, searched, and shared.

Be a “virtual volunteer” with “By the People.”

The first step in this task is to decipher the handwriting. In America, Great Britain, and western Europe, handwriting shared a more-or-less standardized format, the so-called Latin style, over long periods. Despite the decline of penmanship in school curricula and our growing reliance on keyboards for “written” communication, most people with a bit of practice can still read handwriting in this widespread style. For the same reason, Spanish or French handwriting is usually legible even for those not versed in those languages. For example, the following French excerpt is from a letter by French ambassador Louis-Marie Turreau to Secretary of State James Madison in 1806. Thanks to the Latin style, most of the characters will still be familiar to non-French speakers after over 200 years.

From The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress: Turreau to James Madison, October 8, 1806. In French. Manuscript Division.

With German manuscripts the challenges of transcription are altogether different because German-speaking Europe did not adopt the Latin style until well into the twentieth century. This outlier status of German handwriting often presents an insurmountable barrier to transcribing and unlocking the secrets of these texts. For example, suppose you are one of the 44 million Americans with German ancestry and are researching your family history. You might encounter a document with handwriting like the sample below left:

Wm. Oland Bourne Papers: Left-hand Penmanship contest (1866). Excerpt from a letter in German by Joseph MasiusManuscript Division

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This excerpt is from a letter in German by Joseph Masius, a German immigrant who served in a New York regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War. (German-Americans generally opposed slavery and made up the largest immigrant group in the U.S. forces.) Masius submitted his letter as part of a penmanship prize competition organized for veterans who had lost their right arm and were learning to write with their left hand. He recounts his entire experience in the Civil War, including the Peninsular Campaign, the Battle of Antietam, the injury that led to his amputation, and his employment as a postal clerk in New York after the war. Such documents can be treasure troves for genealogists or historians—but only if they can read them. Masius writes place and personal names in the Latin style, but the rest is in a form that is illegible to most people (including most German-speakers) today.

This form is known as die deutsche Schrift (the German script) and reflects the unique evolution of handwriting in German-speaking Europe. War, political fragmentation, and the absence even of a standardized German language meant that Germany developed a national handwriting style far later than its western neighbors or the Anglo-American world. But the rise of literacy and social mobility in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries soon revealed the need for some sort of standard. Here Prussia’s cultural, political, and economic dominance played an important role. Its efforts to promulgate a standardized handwriting alphabet in its public schools found broad use elsewhere in Germany. With the establishment of the German Reich under Prussian leadership in 1871, die deutsche Schrift soon became standard throughout German-speaking Europe. The alphabet was modified and refined in the early twentieth century, but retained the basic forms Masius uses in his letter. It is shown below, taken from a modern manual on the style. Section A shows the lowercase and section B the uppercase letters.

Fritz Verdenhalven, “Die deutsche Schrift: The German Script: Ein Übungsbuch,”
(Exercise book) 2d ed., Neustadt an der Aisch: Verlag Degener & Co (1991), p. 22. Used with kind permission of the publisher.

The overall style is sharply angular compared to the curvilinear Latin script. The loops in letters like a, d, g and q are open. The e is not a loop at all but a group of strokes that resembles an n. The is practically identical with the Latin f. The s has two forms in the lower case: an up-and-down stoke and a loop with a back-flip tail resembling a backwards Latin d. The c is little more than a stroke, especially in the common combinations ch and sch shown fourth and fifth from last in section A. Among the capitals, B, C, and L seem nearly identical at first glance.

Despite his disability, Masius’ penmanship is quite good, but the following excerpt from the Abraham Lincoln Papers in the Manuscript Division is a clearer example of German script. It is a poem by J. Charles Sparr written in 1864 in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Charles Sparr to Abraham Lincoln, 1864: Poem in German. Manuscript Division. “By the People,” Letters to Lincoln.

Sparr writes the title in Latin script, but uses his native German script for his poem. It is an elegant and well-schooled hand. Few examples of die deutsche Schrift are as clear and legible as this one. But the confusion it can cause for those unfamiliar with the form is apparent in a word like Hoffnungsstrahlen (“rays of hope,” at end of the first line) where the n’s and u seem to run together in a long trail. Note also the two different forms of s. Even a word which is the same in English, like Winter in the second line, seems strange because of the German e. Sparr’s poem contains a unique feature: at the end of nearly every line on the first page, he has placed a capital letter. Read from top to bottom, these spell out “Rochester, N.Y.” and “Washington, D.C.” Sparr was a councilman in Rochester.

Unknown to Abraham Lincoln, 1861: In German. Manuscript Division, Abraham Lincoln Papers. “By the People,” Letters to Lincoln.

Unfortunately, not all German script is as legible as Sparr’s or even Masius’. Below is the first page of an anonymous letter written to Lincoln by a German-American farmer from Minnesota. He first addresses Lincoln as “Sir,” thinks the better of it, then writes “Exelens!”

The farmer tells a harrowing personal story and begs the president for help. Unable to pay his debts in Minnesota, he travelled south to find work in Louisiana. In an unguarded moment he voiced his support for Lincoln, then was whipped, nearly lynched, and run out of town. Writing from Cairo, Illinois, he pleads with Lincoln to pay for a ticket so he can make his way back to his wife and family in Minnesota. Despite his rudimentary education shown in his misspellings and grammatical errors, the farmer had acquired a consistent German script that remained with him after immigration and years of life in the United States.

One of the most fascinating examples of German script in the Library’s collections was not written by a German at all but by Mary Church Terrell (1864-1954), the path-breaking African-American activist and cofounder of both the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The daughter of one of the South’s first black millionaires, Terrell was one of the first black women to attend Oberlin College, where she earned degrees in Classics and Education. In the late 1880s she spent two years in Europe. Her diaries from this period reveal her to be an assiduous linguist. Below is an example showing the last entry she wrote while in France, in French with Latin script, followed by her first Berlin entry, in German script.

 

 Mary Church Terrell Papers 1888-89: Image 39. Manuscript Division. “By the People.” Mary Church Terrell: Advocate for African Americans and Women.

Terrell has an excellent command of both the language and the script, most likely acquired while at Oberlin. Her experience shows that even non-Germans learning German outside of Europe were taught the German script as an integral part of their study.

The unique evolution of German handwriting came to an end with the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Despite its chauvinistic obsession with all things German, the Nazi government in 1941 proclaimed that schools must use the Latin-based alphabet in handwriting instruction. Subsequent Allied occupation further weakened die deutsche Schrift in favor of the Latin style. Because of this historical rupture, most native German speakers born after around 1930 find it difficult or impossible to read older documents like those above. In fact, it has been estimated that fewer than 1 percent of Germans today can read handwriting from before 1900.

The post author getting acquainted with the intricacies of die deutsche Schrift.

To address this knowledge gap, a small number of institutes in Europe and America conduct courses in which librarians, archivists, and scholars learn to read and write die deutsche Schrift so they can understand the materials essential for their work. The leading such institute in the U.S. is the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Using its rich collections of materials produced by the Moravians, who fled religious persecution in Germany and established settlements in North America in the first half of the eighteenth century, students read and transcribe handwritten documents in the German script spanning over a hundred years.

Attending this course with the Library’s support has allowed me to help the Library share with users worldwide the story of  Masius’ sacrifice for his country, Sparr’s paean to Lincoln, a bankrupt farmer’s plea for help from the president he risked his life to defend, and the observations of a pioneering African-American woman in nineteenth-century Berlin. These are only a fraction of the many handwritten documents that participants are invited to transcribe in the “By the People” project, but unlocking the secrets of German handwriting brings us that much closer to answering the digital question with a resounding “Yes!”

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