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In the time before typewriters: 19th Century Student Essays

September 01, 2009

While playing housekeeper in the archives vault recently, I came across an unprocessed collection of essays written by former Penn Law students.  What I found particularly interesting about this collection is that most of the essays date back to the late 1800s, in the time before typewriters – let alone spell check, computers, and EndNote – were widely used.  Word processors were human.

Browsing through these essays, which number about 125, I was struck by the manner in which they were forged.  I can’t remember the last time I drafted an essay in longhand, can you?  And the penmanship would make this chicken-scratch expert blush.  If I can barely draft a shopping list that doesn’t resemble a tablet of mystical runes, will the next generation even know how to put pen to paper?

At times students really went all out on the design of the title pages, often using calligraphy, colored inks, and ribbon.  Here’s a representative example:




And you think plugging in Bluebook citations is a struggle?  Try writing out footnotes by hand.




The handwriting looks the same, only smaller!  Cute.

Truth be told, processing this collection was pretty complicated.  These essays were kept together by a range of fasteners: staples, paperclips, string, and scotch tape.  Most of these had to be removed because, over time, these fasteners can get rusty or toxic and damage what’s really important, the essays.  Archivists of the future, I apologize for ever using brads.




Beyond the anachronistic nature of the technology, I was also intrigued by the variety of topics covered in these essays.  As far as I can tell, none of the authors went on to fame and fortune.  (Although, there does appear to be material from locally famous attorneys, such as George Biddle, namesake of the Biddle Law Library.)  This collection provides a fascinating window into what Penn Law students were thinking and writing about long ago.

If you’re interested in taking a look at these essays, a sampling of them is currently on display in the Biddle Law Library’s reference area.  For additional information about the collection, check out the finding aid, e-mail me or stop by the Archives.