The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“Legible only to myself”: John Quincy Adams’s Shorthand

A line in John Quincy Adams’s 1788 diary is the earliest example of his use of English poet John Byrom’s shorthand system. The system replaces words with symbols to make writing faster and, eventually, easier. Six years later, Adams recorded in his diary that his youngest brother, Thomas Boylston, was attempting to teach himself shorthand and noted that he had once endeavored to learn the system, “but soon gave over the pursuit; not having a very high opinion of the utility of the art.”

Later in life John Quincy changed his mind about shorthand’s usefulness, though he did not strictly adhere to the Byrom system. The symbols, some of which are his own variations, appear in his diary more frequently beginning in 1810. John Quincy penned an entire sonnet in shorthand on October 30, 1826. He wrote, “I record it thus that it may be legible only to myself, or to a reader who will take the trouble to pick it out of the short-hand— If it were better poetry I would have written it at full length.”

Though it at first appears to be a page of scribbles, by using a combination of Byrom’s original structure and the hints John Quincy scattered throughout his papers, it is indeed possible to “pick it out.” The linear symbols represent consonants and digraphs; vowels are represented by dots, if at all. If a symbol stands alone, it represents a commonly used word.



Directly translated, the first line of the sonnet (above) reads, “Da f/v m fthrs brth I hl th y.” Once the vowels and commonly used words are filled in, we get “Day of my father’s birth I hail thee yet.” Let’s examine some of the symbols used here. The first symbol in the line is a “d.” If it stood alone, it would mean “and;” however, it is modified by a dot. The placement of the dot reveals what vowel it represents. From top to bottom, the dots represent A E I O U. Because it sits at the top of the symbol, we can read the letters as “da.” The word is “day.” For longer words, several symbols are combined. You can see the green that represented f or v in the second word is repeated in the fourth; in this case, it represents f. The next symbol, in blue, is the digraph th. The orange dash is r, and the yellow line is s. What is written is “fthrs,” obviously, “father’s.” The r and th are repeated in the following word, with a b at the front, “brth,”—“birth.” Note that even though the th arch is flipped upside down, the meaning remains the same.

Using past examples of John Quincy’s shorthand as a guide, you simply need to write out what you know, use context clues, repeat the process fourteen times, and you’ve picked out the sonnet!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 April, 2017, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS


This week's program schedule is heavy in the middle, with a seminar and a pair of public programs. Here are the specifics:

- Tuesday, 25 April, 5:15PM : Anna M. Blankenship of North Dakota State University leads a Modern American Society and Culture seminar, titled "Interreligious Responses to the Settlement House Movement, 1880-1924." This paper analyzes how Catholic and Jewish immigrant communities in New York City responded to the Protestant origins and agenda of their benefactors prior to the 1920s, when many settlement houses secularized activities in order to receive money from the Community Chest. Kristen Petersen of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 26 April, 6:00PM : Join us for an author talk with David Waldstreicher and Matthew Mason, author/editors of a recent book titled John Quincy Adams and the Politics of Slavery: Selections from the Diary. Within, the authors offer an unusual perspective on the dramatic and shifting politics of slavery in the early republic. By juxtaposing Adams' personal reflections of slavery with what he said - and did not say - publicly on the issue, the editors offer a nuanced portrait of how he interacted with prevailing ideologies during his consequential career and life. This talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the program at 6:00PM. 

- Thursday, 27 April, 6:00PM : "Eating Other People's Food" is the second installment of the Cooking Boston series. In this program, Alex Prud'homme, Laura Shapiro, Stephen Chen, and moderator Megan Sniffin-Marinoff discuss Americans' re-introduction to the food of the world in the second half of the 20th century. The expansion of the American palate that began with television chefs like Julia Child in Cambridge continued with restaurants across greater Boston and helped reshape the idea of dinner. This talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). A pre-talk reception starts at 5:30PM, followed by the program at 6:00PM. 

- Saturday, 29 April, 9:00AM : Civil Rights in America is a teacher workshop sponsored by the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and is made possible thanks to a grant form the Lincoln and Theresa Filene Foundation. This program is SOLD OUT and registration is closed.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 23 April, 2017, 12:00 AM

“All things are in common now”

Today is the 242nd anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolution. The MHS holds some terrific letters and diaries containing first-hand accounts of that famous day, not to mention related books, pamphlets, maps, and artifacts. We’ve also digitized select items over the years, and they’re available on our website with full transcriptions. My favorites are the letters of two refugees, Sarah Winslow Deming and Hannah Winthrop.


Sarah Winslow Deming (1722-1788) wrote to her niece Sally Coverly, possibly sometime in June, two months after the battles. In her 12-page journal-style letter, she recounted her harrowing flight from Boston after that “fatal” and “dreadfull” day. Early the following morning, she was told that British troops had closed all roads to carriages and that she was essentially “Genl Gage’s prisoner.” Nevertheless she persisted.

I then determined to try if my feet would support me thro’, tho’ I trembled to such a degree, that I could scarce keep my feet in my own chamber, had taken no sustenance for the day, & very sick at my stomack. […] ah! can any one that has not felt it, know my sensation? Surely no.

Learning that some carriages had gotten out, she, her husband John, and others borrowed a chaise and managed to pass through the British checkpoints without incident, but with no idea of their final destination.

We had got out of the city of destruction; such I lookt upon Boston to be, yet I could not but lift up my desires to God that he would have mercy upon, & spare the many thousands of poor creatures I had left behind. […] I was far from being elated with my escape. I remember my sensations but cannot describe ‘em.

Along the way, the Demings encountered other refugees, including many women and children.

A lad who came out of Boston wth us […] run up to our chaise wth a most joyful countenance & cry’d, Sir, Sir; Ma’m, here are the cannon – Our cannon are coming […] The matter of his joy was terror to me […] We met little parties, old, young, & middle aged, some with fife & drum, perhaps not an hundred in the whole, a kind of pleasant sedateness on all their countenances. We met such parties all the way, which gave me the Idea of sheep going to the slaughter.

Drenched from a downpour of rain, they stopped at the house of Rev. William Gordon in Jamaica Plain, a man they barely knew but who immediately offered them accommodation. As Gordon told Sarah Deming, “all things are in common now.” Deming’s husband rode off to return the chaise, which was needed to rescue other stranded residents, and she was terrified she’d never seem him again.

Read about the rest of her narrow escape here.


The letter from Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop (1727?-1790) to her friend Mercy Otis Warren was written around May 1775 and forms part of our online exhibit of their correspondence. In this letter, Winthrop described her flight from Cambridge the day of the battle, first to a house a mile outside of town.

What a distressd house did we find there filld with women whose husbands were gone forth to meet the Assailiants, 70 or 80 of these with numbers of Infant Children, Crying and agonizing for the Fate of their husbands. In adition to this scene of distress we were for Some time in Sight of the Battle, the glistening instruments of death proclaiming by an incessant fire, that much blood must be shed, that many widowd & orphand ones be Left as monuments of that persecuting Barbarity of British Tyranny.

The next day, in the aftermath of the battles, Winthrop and others were forced to move again, which she compared to Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But while Deming was making her way south, Winthrop fled north to the town of Andover, “alternately walking & riding.” The sights she saw along the way were gruesome.

What added greatly to the horror of the Scene was our passing thro the Bloody field at Menotomy which was strewd with the mangled Bodies, we met one Affectionate Father with a Cart looking for his murderd Son & picking up his Neighbours who had fallen in Battle, in order for their Burial.

Like Deming, Winthrop found asylum with a “very obliging” family. Her rural refuge in Andover was peaceful, a surreal juxtaposition with the historical moment in which she lived. Read the rest of her letter here.

For more information on the battles of Lexington and Concord and the people who experienced them, search our online catalog ABIGAIL or our website.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 8:51 AM

This Week @ MHS

After you recover from the Marathon why not take in some public progams here at the Society. Here is what is lined up for the week ahead:

The MHS is CLOSED on Monday, 17 April, in observance of Patriots' Day.

- Tuesday, 18 April, 2:00PM : Looking for something to do with the kids during vacation week? Come on in Tuesday at 2:00PM for Make Your Own Comic: The Jamestown Relief Mission to Ireland, a hands-on history program. After hearing from historians about the famine relief mission from Boston to Ireland led by Robert Bennet Forbes aboard the Jamestown, local comic book artists will help the young historians make their own historical comic depicting stories of Irish immigration. This event is open to the public free of charge though registration is required.

- Thursday, 20 April, 9:00AM : Boston to the Rescue: Robert B. Forbes & Irish Famine Relief is a full-day teacher workshop open to K-12 educators and students. Participants will explore the history of earliy Irish immigration to Boston and the tensions divided Catholic immigrants and Protestant New Englanders in the 1830s and 1840s. Registration is required at a cost of $25 (free for students). Please e-mail or call 617-646-0557 for more information or to register. 

- Thursday, 20 April, 5:30PM : Lauren Meyer of Yale University presents this weeks History of Women and Gender Seminar, "Sadie Alexander, Black Women's Work, and Economic Citizenship during the New Deal Era." This argues that Sadie Alexander, the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics and a successful practicing lawyer, offered an alternative, black feminist definition of economic citizenship that shifted discourses on the relationship between race, gender, labor, and the meaning of citizenship. Martin Summers of Boston College provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Saturday, 22 April, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS Tour is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine Migration and Opportunity.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 16 April, 2017, 12:00 AM

Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, April 1917

Today we return to the 1917 diary of Gertrude Codman Carter. You may read the previous entries here: 

Introduction | January | February | March

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “paleography” as “the study of ancient writings and inscriptions.” This practice however, and the word to describe it, are increasingly used to refer to the practice of deciphering handwritten manuscripts in an age when typescript is what many of us encounter on a daily basis beyond the scribbled shopping list or note to self in one’s planner -- unless you, like many of us, have abandoned the print version in favor of Google calendars or a planner-like app. The art of slow reading, when making sense of a densely-handwritten letter might take the better part of a day in the archive’s reading room -- and often an intimate familiarity with the writer’s hand -- is a skill that we must increasingly practice with intent rather than one that we develop passively through everyday exposure.

Gertrude’s diary and letters are no exception to this rule, and in the spirit of this rough-and-ready transcription project I have undertaken for the year, I often find myself inserting [illegible] in the place of partially or wholly impenetrable words that by the end of a year spent in Lady Carter’s company might well seem perfectly understandable. Another solution to [illegible] manuscripts, one that we are often called upon to assist with in the MHS reading room, is crowdsourcing: enlisting a second, or third, or an entire list of social media followers to cast their eyes over the scribblings that befuddle a researcher and see what we can decipher as a group.

In the spirit of demonstrating the labor of paleography, I offer in this month of April the rough-and-ready transcription of Gertrude’s scattered April 1917 entries alongside the phrases that confounded me at first and second pass. Think you have an idea of what a word may be? Leave a comment below or let us know on Twitter @mhs1791!

* * *

2 April.

Paid bills.


3 April.

[left blank]


4 April. Great day!

10.30 Meeting at the [illegible] Road.

11.30 Theater meeting with the model. Everyone pleased. A splendid meeting.

[Pilgrims?] at home.

President Wilson’s grand speech. America enters the war.

Mr. Fell rang to tell me how pleased he was to hear it.


Here the diary skips to April 19 and continues on.


19 April.

[illegible] stonework.

G[odettes?] to dinner & Mr. Fell. He sang a heartrending little song called “Somewhere in France”. How terrible it must have been for Mrs. [Water?]worth.


20 April.

Band at the Savannah Club

Had an offer for 501 which was depressing & yet I don’t dare refuse $18,000 ($15,000 on mortgage at 4 ½ %). I cabled 5% or $20,000 which was very clever (so Charlie said in his letter) - I got the 5%. This was some time ago.


21 April.

I [damaged text] sale of 501.

4.15 Dinner party at [illegible]. An amusing chat with Laddie. He can be quite fun.


22 April.

To church.

To Erdiston in the afternoon.


23 April.

Consul again.

4 Miss Packer re: Savannah beautification

Later Mr. Carpenter. Jolly chat.


24 April.

8.30 Miss Packer

Laddie Challum motored me out to Caledonia. He has a nice little Ford car, a ripper at hills.


25 April.


[illegible] to auction

Procession of Civic Circle around its various outposts & then meeting.


Here ends the April 1917 entries remaining in the diary.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary or letters yourself, in our library, or have other questions about the collection please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 14 April, 2017, 2:54 PM

older posts