THROWBACK THURSDAY: Brief History of Shorthand

Shorthand wasn’t always just for secretaries and court reporters, according to Leah Price, author of an essay about the subject in the London Review of Books. Before the 1870s, it was used more for writing down one’s own thoughts or discreetly noting the conversation of others. Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton and Charles Dickens used it, as did legions of spirit-rappers, teetotalers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, anti-tobacconists,  and other members of a counter-culture of early adapters  who generated something of a shorthand craze in mid-19th-century Britain. shorthand-stenography-alphabet-15266215
Isaac Pitman, creator of the Stenographic Soundhand  method still used today, made arguments that don’t sound so different from the tweeting techno-evangelists of our age. When people correspond by shorthand, he declared friendships grow six times as fast as under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand. 

As in today’s Internet-enabled subcultures (and yes, there does seem to be such a thing as a shorthand-themed Listserv ), Victorian shorthand enthusiasts found each other through magazines that included a mix of new articles and translations of Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes stories and other literary works ” a startling notion, though perhaps not entirely different from consuming Chekhov in Hungarian, sign language or Kindle-ese.

Today, Victorian shorthand editions of the Bible, A Christmas Carol  and other works languish unread in library basements. So what turned shorthand into one of the world’s disappearing literary languages?

Price points to the rise of the typewriter, as well as demographic shifts that turned clerical labor into women’s work. By 1901, she writes, one speaker at a stenographers’ club argued that it was degrading for a strong, healthy man to be occupied all day long in using the pen upon what was little more than copying words.  At the same time, stenography came to seem less a newfangled source of identity and freedom than a practical skill that helped you land a job.

If this sounds a bit like the arc traced by more contemporary technology, that’s Price’s idea. At the end of her essay, she evokes the mountains of unread shorthand documents piled up like so many old floppy disks.

On shorthand Listservs, she writes, the most poignant postings ask for help decoding a grandmother or an aunt’s diary. 