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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 9, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 16
Homewood House Exhibit Looks at Written Word of Early 1800s

During the early 18th century, great value was placed on penmanship. The exhibit includes letters written by, to and about Charles Carroll Jr. of Homewood House.

By Abby Lattes
Historic Houses

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 Homewood 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 drunkenness.

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 Carroll family.

"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 your hands."

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 books.

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 materials.

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 included.

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 public."


Related Programs

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 p.m.
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.,
Homewood House
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.,
Homewood House

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.,
Homewood House

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 Handwritten Word
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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