There was an incredible sense of history in the huge stack of letters and documents of the Humphry Marshall family in Ann Arbor. We went through all of the items to see if they had particularly interesting bits of information on them or were from notable individuals. A large amount of Humphry’s recorded letters are business focused, there was a great stack of letters involving people from all around the world asking him for plants and offering compensation. What was surprising to me was that almost none of Humphry and Moses’ letters were personal. It was generally all news, politics, and business. In letters they revealed very little of their personal thoughts and feelings, and it would be easier to speculate about their characters if they were less formal. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call their tendency to use a Latinate, King James Version of English a problem with our research, the handwriting was definitely a problem.
People in the 18th century had different ideas about spelling and grammar and this combined with their version of cursive script can be difficult to decipher. Scanning a letter for potential relevance required intense and ultimately, exhausting concentration. This difficulty was compounded by the massive pile of materials we had to go through. Still, it’s hard to criticize their generally high level of beautiful penmanship, regardless of how indecipherable. It’s thought provoking that I might be one of the last generations to actually learn how to write cursive in schools. Marginal as my training was, I can only imagine scholars of the future will need to learn it as a foreign language. The Clements Library has particular protocols for sharing images of their collections publicly, so I can’t show those pictures but reproduced here are some typical examples from the CCHS collection.