A Journey Through Time

Recently I have been working with many documents from the late 1800s. Letters from a lady in Germany to her sister who emigrated to the Midwest, marriage certificates from a 19th-century church register,  correspondence between a man from Baden-Württemberg and his aunt  in America, etc. As the German script used in these letters is almost illegible to most German-speakers today, these documents always present an exciting puzzle. Until 1941, German children were taught a type of handwriting called Kurrentschrift, a script quite different from the Latin characters that we are familiar with. For example, an “e” in Kurrent looks like an “n”, an “m” has a few too many humps, and a capital “S” looks like an upside-down fish. The script is made even more complicated by the fact than an “s” can be written three different ways, depending on what part of the word it is used in! That being said, once you learn the script and you slowly become more adept at deciphering the individual letters and words, these documents can transport you back into another day and age. Worries about Indians attacking settlers in Kansas, concerns about 1860 German politics as the country grows larger, pleas for relatives in America to send food and clothing in devastating times of poverty and even juicy 19th-century gossip about haughty well-to-do neighbors come to life through the words of people no longer here. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these letters is the humanity of them. Despite the differences in time and circumstance, the authors express worry about a friend ignoring them, beg forgiveness for not writing more often, reassure of the well-being of relatives, speak of joyful times spent with family members and, all in all, communicate their hopes, fears, wishes and dreams. From my journey with these 19th-century writers through time, I have learned that although the circumstances of life may change, humanity still remains much the same.

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