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Postcards and Pitman: A fascinating glimpse into a forgotten world


Postcards and Pitman shorthand have seen their heyday but combined they form a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten world...

I got to Blackpool yesterday but so far I am not very much in love with it. It is too much of a city. The weather has been shocking today, raining all morning but I think it is going to clear up.

A typical message, written on a picture postcard in 1906, and sent to a friend back home. One of millions sent in an era known as the ‘Golden Age’ of the postcard which stretched roughly from 1900 to 1918. A time filled with the delights of postcard writing and collecting. A time of confidence that the mail would be delivered the next day or even later the same day. The short message would be read, the picture admired and the postcard stuck in an album to be shown to friends and family. But the tiny snapshot of life over a hundred years ago, captured above, was written in a way that not everyone could read. The sender wrote in Pitman shorthand and the recipient, 25-year-old Lizzie, squirrelled away that postcard, and many more, in her collection.

Sir Isaac Pitman devised his first phonetic system of shorthand in 1837 and continued to improve on it until his death in 1897. He gave each individual sound a sign and kept the actual amount of writing to a minimum. At its simplest, consonants are represented by strokes of the pen which can be easily joined together and written at speed. Dots and dashes account for vowel sounds.

Learning Pitman shorthand is a long, tedious slog. It involves drilling new material until the student can write it automatically, linking the sounds to signs. The more the student sees, reads and writes shorthand the better and they need to sustain concentration for long periods of time. To make it more interesting some students exchanged messages in Pitman, like this one, written in 1904 to Lizzie:

If you have not heard from me it is not because I have forgotten you. I often think about you. How are you getting along at the classes? Is Mr Davis back again? Are the Friday night meetings prospering? I miss the classes terribly.

In the early days of Pitman, women rarely learned the skill but in 1887 the First International Shorthand Congress was held in London and included a paper Shorthand for Women presented by Miss Kensit. She championed the cause of women shorthand writers: ‘Quickness of fingers women have naturally; also, I may say, quickness of thought; both of which form a large part in the practice of Shorthand. But concentration is not among the natural gifts of women. Their brains are quick to move, but have not the same staying power that is engendered by the discipline of a man’s education. Fortunately, however, it can be acquired, and once a woman has mastered the art and attained a fair rate of speed, I venture to assert that she can, if she wishes it, be unexcelled’.

By the time that Lizzie learnt shorthand, it was common for women to attend classes in commercial subjects. She attended Davis’s Academy which advertised in the Manchester Evening News, 2nd November 1903: ‘TO PARENTS – Have your Sons and Daughters Taught Shorthand, Typewriting, Bookkeeping, etc, at DAVIS’S ACADEMY, 49 Lower Mosley-st, Manchester. Principal Mr ARTHUR DAVIS’

Once Lizzie had qualified, she continued to exchange postcards, and this is a typical message to her written in Pitman shorthand on a postcard dated 1905:

I hope they are not killing you at the office. The weather has broken here still I think we shall manage to enjoy ourselves as three more fellows are coming down this weekend.

There is a fascination with the squiggles first formed on a postcard over a hundred years ago. The messages to Lizzie were not written for reasons of secrecy but some senders used shorthand to make their postcards indecipherable by servants, postal workers and others living at the recipient’s address. And yet there was a risk of it being misunderstood even by readers who were confident users of shorthand. Nobody writes perfect shorthand and unlike making spelling mistakes, inaccurate Pitman outlines can result in the message being incomprehensible. For some it was a risk worth taking:

My darling girl. Shall I be seeing my ducky tomorrow afternoon? I am longing to, dear. I shall be walking up your way tomorrow afternoon if fine and I should be pleased to meet you if you care to see me, beloved.

Some Pitmanites advertised for shorthand penfriends. The example below is from a message of 255 words; proof that fitting a lot into the small space on a postcard is another advantage of the art.

. . . I myself have answered advertisements for correspondents by young men and have gone on corresponding all right for about a month then all of a sudden they discontinue. I think myself they only correspond for a short time to see what nice cards they can get, there is a certain amount of fraud about it in my opinion!

Postcards and Pitman have seen their heyday but combined they form a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten world.

By Kathryn Baird

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