Homewood House Exhibit Looks at Written Word of Early
During the early 18th century,
great value was placed on penmanship. The exhibit includes
letters written by, to and about Charles Carroll Jr. of
PHOTO BY HIPS/WILL KIRK
By Abby Lattes
The significance of the handwritten word in
early-19th-century Baltimore, including the teaching of
handwriting, writing accouterments and examples of
correspondence and other written materials, is the subject
of ... as I write to you ... , a focus exhibition that
opened last week at
House. The exhibition remains on display through March
31 at the historic house museum, former home of Charles
Carroll Jr., and a series of related educational programs
will be offered throughout the exhibition's run.
The title of the exhibition comes from a letter dated
June 15, 1814, in which Carroll tries to explain to his
brother-in-law, John Eager Howard, why his handwriting is
looking sloppy. " ... as I write to you ... ," he begins,
going on to tell Howard that he is at his desk, in his bed,
propped upon one elbow. If he sounds a bit defensive,
perhaps a little too eager to offer a reason for the
letter's appearance, it is because he knows that Howard
would otherwise assume his scrawl was a result of
Through Carroll's letters to his family and friends;
those written to him by his wife, father and other
relatives; and those written about him by other members of
Baltimore society in the early 1800s, we know much about
the details of his daily life. In fact, everything we know
about Charles Carroll Jr.--from the clothing he purchased
from England, to his family's opinions on his excessive
drinking and the cost of his home's construction, to the
parties he attended in Baltimore--comes from the contents
of letters and other handwritten documents from his time.
"Today, when we can create virtual documents, make
videos, photographs and phone calls, it is easy to forget
that 200 years ago, the handwritten word and face-to-face
conversation were the only means individuals had to
communicate with each other," said Catherine Rogers Arthur,
Homewood's curator. "Today, when a hand-addressed envelope
arrives in the mail, it is a rare occasion--and usually the
first thing we open."
To illustrate writing's significance in the early
1800s, the exhibition includes examples of pens, inkwells,
paper, wax seals, written treatises on handwriting
instruction and the traveling writing desk of Charles
Carroll of Carrollton, the father of Charles Carroll.
Written documents on display include copies of
correspondence contemporary to Homewood; copy books filled
with school lessons that belonged to Harriet Chew, Carroll
Jr.'s wife; and inventories of possessions belonging to the
"There is a voyeuristic element to reading the
personal correspondence when you are not the intended
recipient," Arthur said, adding that "some of the letters
are boldly marked 'burn this letter' across the top of the
page. Other letters were sealed with wax to ensure privacy.
"Clearly, the writers never imagined that we would be
poring over their documents today to glean information
about the lives of the Carrolls and their friends," she
said. "Just as we delete our e-mail and like to believe it
is 'gone,' it's not. Apparently, it has always been
difficult to determine a letter's fate once it's out of
Also investigated in the exhibition is what Arthur
calls "the ceremony of letter writing," including
salutations, closings, sealing methods and even paper
folding. What occasions warranted letter writing and which
people knew how to write are also examined. "During this
period," Arthur said, "there were professional writers
whose employment depended not only upon the speed and
accuracy with which they wrote but also upon the writing's
legibility." There was great value placed on penmanship, a
fact illustrated by instructional books on the topic from
this period and the penmanship exercises in Chew's copy
Arthur said she hopes the exhibition will give people
a new appreciation for the handwritten word. "There's much
we take for granted today about communication," she said.
"Our pen runs out, and we buy a new one. We don't have to
chase down a turkey or goose, grab a feather, sharpen it
with our penknife and then mix more ink. Because of this
ease, perhaps we don't take as much care with our words as
the Carrolls and their contemporaries did. But we should be
grateful for their care, as it their written words that
bring them to life for us today."
In conjunction with the Homewood House show, an
exhibition titled Pen in Hand: Ciphering & Deciphering the
Handwritten Word will be on display at the Milton S.
Eisenhower Library throughout the spring semester to offer
additional insight into the handwritten word and writing
Using objects from the library's manuscripts
collection, the display describes paleography (the
investigation of historical handwriting), with close
attention paid to 19th-century handwriting and the
formation of letters. Objects associated with writing,
including manuscripts in a variety of sizes and materials;
parchment and laid paper; and pens, inkwells and ink
scrapers, are among the items displayed. Johnson's
Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Webster's A
Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), the
first dictionary to include American spellings, are also
Winston Tabb, dean of university libraries and the
director of the historic houses, said, "The library display
expands upon some of the themes addressed in ... as I write
to you ... and is a wonderful example of how the library
and the historic houses can combine their resources and
knowledge to better serve the Hopkins community and the
For more information, call 410-516-5589
D.C. Excursion: Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words and
Binding the Nation
Wednesday, Jan. 18, 8:30 a.m. to approximately 5
The bus, which leaves from and returns to Evergreen House,
4545 N. Charles St., makes two stops: the Library of
Congress, to see the exhibition Benjamin Franklin: In His
Own Words, which celebrates the tercentenary of Franklin's
birth, and the National Postal Museum, where Binding the
Nation is devoted to the early history of mail service. $60
members; $65 nonmembers. Lunch on your own.
Pre-registration required; 410-516-5589.
Dramatic Readings: "Your Affectionate Father"
Friday, Jan. 20, 6 to 8 p.m.;
Saturday, Jan. 21, 1 to 3 p.m.,
Theatrical readings from Carroll family letters tell the
story of Homewood House's construction and illuminate the
relationship between Charles Carroll Jr.; his wife, Harriet
Chew Carroll; and his father, Charles Carroll of
Carrollton. Following the readings, Madeira and tea will be
served in the wine cellar. $20 members; $25 non-members.
Pre-registration required; 410-516-5589.
Poetry Reading: "Seasons of Love"
Tuesday, Feb. 14, noon to 1 p.m.,
Valentine's Day readings by John Irwin, the Decker
Professor in the Humanities, from his poems published in
Seasons of Love (JHU Press). Guests may bring lunch to eat
in the wine cellar following the readings; refreshments
provided. Free with museum admission.
Odyssey Class: ... as I write to you ...
Understanding Manuscript Materials
Wednesdays, March 1 through April 5, 6:30 to 8 p.m.,
Taught by staff from Homewood House Museum and the
Eisenhower Library, this class examines historic manuscript
materials in order to explore handwriting, writing
implements and papers of the period. Call the Odyssey
Program office at 410-516-8516 to register.
Exhibition: Pen in Hand: Ciphering & Deciphering the
Library hours, spring semester, MSE Library
A display on the MSEL's main level offers additional
insight into the handwritten word and writing materials.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS.
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