Friday, March 28, 2008

Deciphering the Past

Anyone researching their German-speaking ancestors has likely come across the “Old German Script” in church records, handwritten letters, or diaries. As if learning the German language wasn’t enough of a barrier, now there’s another code to break! The sharp, angled lines of the alte deutsche Schriften (“old German scripts”) can be confusing (the curvier Sütterlin version is only slightly easier to decipher), but once you get the hang of it, it can be an interesting puzzle. There are several good sites on the Internet with information on the history of these scripts (for example, see HERE and HERE) and some, such as THIS one, supply guides for decoding the letters.

The script was, of course, being taught in German-language schools in the United States. The Max Kade Institute has several primers in its collection, published in America during the 19th century, that include lessons for learning this handwriting method. We also have several collections of letters and a few diaries written in the old script.

Here’s an image of a cross-written letter from the archives of the Max Kade Institute—observe how the page was turned sideways and the writing continued, likely in an effort to save on postage as well as paper. Click on the image for a larger version and test your skills—see if you can make out “Mein liebes Mathildchen” as the greeting!
By 1941 (and by Hitler’s decree) the script was no longer being taught in German schools. Not many people who were taught the script in their youth are still around today—however, members of the Sütterlin-Schreibstube in the Förderverein Altenzentrum [Center for the Aged Support Association] in Ansgar (Hamburg, Germany) offer transliteration services from the old German script into Latin (Roman) script. More information on this service can be found here:
The service provides intellectual stimulation for the members and helps make the diaries, letters, and other documents of our ancestors accessible.

We here at the Max Kade Institute are constantly wondering: How much American history is hidden in documents written by German-speaking immigrants? More researchers with skills in transcribing these scripts are needed!

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