Writing on Historical Writing

We recently enjoyed an opportunity to collaborate with Texas Christian University. We have been digitizing our archives, and often the papers we’re working with are difficult to decipher due to age, condition, media, and orthography. The students in Dr. Theresa Gaul's American Literature seminar class transcribed our 200-year-old Andrew Bulger Papers, and they made some interesting discoveries. A selection of the students blogs will be posted to the museum’s feed over the next few days.

This first post is by Diana Bueno, a doctoral student in English studying American women’s writing and pursuing a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies.

–Jon Frembling, Archivist, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

As I sit here writing this blog post, I have the benefit of recent technology: a laptop, a word processor, and the especially useful “backspace” key, among other things. In reading this post, you will have very little sense of my writing process – you won’t know how many times I rewrote this sentence or what kind of computer or software I used.

Thirty years ago, I would be using a different kind of technology to draft this post: a typewriter, a ream of cheap wood-pulp paper, typewriter ribbon, and a bottle of White Out. Thirty years before that, I’d be at my desk with a fountain pen and ink reservoir, a bottle of ink, and perhaps some fine stationery. With these writing technologies, my writing process, writing instruments, and the kinds of paper and ink I used could be discerned.

As a researcher in an archive, touching the actual manuscript pages, feeling the grooves where the pen scratched the paper, seeing up close the blots and smears where the author’s pen flew across the page (or where it hesitated), smelling the slightly metallic scent of the ink, noting the folds and creases in the paper, all bring the author’s work to life, much like seeing a painting in real life brings insights that seeing a reproduction can’t. Experiencing these tactile, physical parts of the manuscript makes it is easy to imagine you’re Andrew Bulger, alive 200 years ago, preparing to write: huddled by the flickering fire, bent over the small, angled wooden desk inside your modest cabin, manuscript pages lit by the light of a lantern. Outside, winter winds howl and rattle the windows, but you’re focused, reflecting on your past, ready to put pen to paper. But what sort of pen? What kind of ink and paper?

bulger001.jpg^ [Paper binding for the Andrew Bulger manuscript], Andrew Bulger Papers, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Writing in the early to mid-nineteenth century, Bulger likely would have used both quill pens and dip pens. Metal dip pen nibs date back to ancient Egypt, when they were made of copper and bronze. However, they were not the writing instruments of choice until Bulger’s time, around 1822; until then, long, hollow feathers from geese and turkeys were trimmed and filed to a calligraphic point, with a split channel down the center to facilitate ink running down to the page in a controlled line. With the advent of metal nibs, pens became mass-produced, cheaper, and easier to work with, since they didn’t require sharpening and breaking in like quills. Dates on some of his manuscript pages suggest that Bulger was writing after 1825, so it is possible that he composed at least some of his manuscript with a metal dip pen—certainly this instrument would have been more durable and transportable for a traveling governor and military man.

The ink he would have used, made with iron salts and tinged brown, could get messy, making it a challenge not to spill or drip. Bulger seemed particularly sensitive to the illegibility that repeated cross outs and revisions could create in the course of drafting, because rather than crossing words out and writing in the margins, he often crossed out whole passages or simply stopped and began again—or, interestingly, he would cut up a fresh sheet of paper and paste it over the offending lines, using the blank space to start again. This attention and diligence with regard to legibility suggests that Bulger was hyper aware of the audience that would find and read his papers—and perhaps reveals a characteristic attention to detail that might have made him a successful leader.

Bulger’s paper is not of particularly high quality. The pages don’t have watermarks or embossing, which would have been typical of fine stationery at this time. Instead, Bulger used a large quantity of affordable paper to pen his autobiography—paper that has nevertheless withstood the test of time, absorbing stains and creases but arriving intact at the Amon Carter in 2017.

For those of us studying Bulger, answering these questions of materiality is fairly straightforward, but these questions remain important for any archivist or researcher to ask. Materials reveal critical information about class, about literacy, about the lengths people will go to in order to communicate and write, and even about the author’s emotional connection to a piece of writing. I have heard archivists talk about finding tearstains on old letters between lovers or family members. The material conditions of Bulger’s papers may not reveal shed tears, but along with the content, they paint a clear picture of a diligent, literate, well-respected man devoted to chronicling his life in a clear and accessible way.

Quill Pen | How to Make Everything – a fascinating demonstration of how a traditional goose feather quill pen would have been produced in the 19th century.
Nigel Hall, “The Materiality of Letter Writing: A Nineteenth Century Perspective,” in Letter Writing as a Social Practice, eds. David Barton and Nigel Hall (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania: John Benjamins Publishing, 2000).
Preserving the Gettysburg Address – a Cornell archivist explains how they have preserved a famous mid-19th century document, based on knowledge of ink, paper, and pen used.