The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

“Legible only to myself”: John Quincy Adams’s Shorthand

A line in John Quincy Adams’s 1788 diary is the earliest example of his use of English poet John Byrom’s shorthand system. The system replaces words with symbols to make writing faster and, eventually, easier. Six years later, Adams recorded in his diary that his youngest brother, Thomas Boylston, was attempting to teach himself shorthand and noted that he had once endeavored to learn the system, “but soon gave over the pursuit; not having a very high opinion of the utility of the art.”

Later in life John Quincy changed his mind about shorthand’s usefulness, though he did not strictly adhere to the Byrom system. The symbols, some of which are his own variations, appear in his diary more frequently beginning in 1810. John Quincy penned an entire sonnet in shorthand on October 30, 1826. He wrote, “I record it thus that it may be legible only to myself, or to a reader who will take the trouble to pick it out of the short-hand— If it were better poetry I would have written it at full length.”

Though it at first appears to be a page of scribbles, by using a combination of Byrom’s original structure and the hints John Quincy scattered throughout his papers, it is indeed possible to “pick it out.” The linear symbols represent consonants and digraphs; vowels are represented by dots, if at all. If a symbol stands alone, it represents a commonly used word.



Directly translated, the first line of the sonnet (above) reads, “Da f/v m fthrs brth I hl th y.” Once the vowels and commonly used words are filled in, we get “Day of my father’s birth I hail thee yet.” Let’s examine some of the symbols used here. The first symbol in the line is a “d.” If it stood alone, it would mean “and;” however, it is modified by a dot. The placement of the dot reveals what vowel it represents. From top to bottom, the dots represent A E I O U. Because it sits at the top of the symbol, we can read the letters as “da.” The word is “day.” For longer words, several symbols are combined. You can see the green that represented f or v in the second word is repeated in the fourth; in this case, it represents f. The next symbol, in blue, is the digraph th. The orange dash is r, and the yellow line is s. What is written is “fthrs,” obviously, “father’s.” The r and th are repeated in the following word, with a b at the front, “brth,”—“birth.” Note that even though the th arch is flipped upside down, the meaning remains the same.

Using past examples of John Quincy’s shorthand as a guide, you simply need to write out what you know, use context clues, repeat the process fourteen times, and you’ve picked out the sonnet!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 April, 2017, 12:00 AM

“All things are in common now”

Today is the 242nd anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolution. The MHS holds some terrific letters and diaries containing first-hand accounts of that famous day, not to mention related books, pamphlets, maps, and artifacts. We’ve also digitized select items over the years, and they’re available on our website with full transcriptions. My favorites are the letters of two refugees, Sarah Winslow Deming and Hannah Winthrop.


Sarah Winslow Deming (1722-1788) wrote to her niece Sally Coverly, possibly sometime in June, two months after the battles. In her 12-page journal-style letter, she recounted her harrowing flight from Boston after that “fatal” and “dreadfull” day. Early the following morning, she was told that British troops had closed all roads to carriages and that she was essentially “Genl Gage’s prisoner.” Nevertheless she persisted.

I then determined to try if my feet would support me thro’, tho’ I trembled to such a degree, that I could scarce keep my feet in my own chamber, had taken no sustenance for the day, & very sick at my stomack. […] ah! can any one that has not felt it, know my sensation? Surely no.

Learning that some carriages had gotten out, she, her husband John, and others borrowed a chaise and managed to pass through the British checkpoints without incident, but with no idea of their final destination.

We had got out of the city of destruction; such I lookt upon Boston to be, yet I could not but lift up my desires to God that he would have mercy upon, & spare the many thousands of poor creatures I had left behind. […] I was far from being elated with my escape. I remember my sensations but cannot describe ‘em.

Along the way, the Demings encountered other refugees, including many women and children.

A lad who came out of Boston wth us […] run up to our chaise wth a most joyful countenance & cry’d, Sir, Sir; Ma’m, here are the cannon – Our cannon are coming […] The matter of his joy was terror to me […] We met little parties, old, young, & middle aged, some with fife & drum, perhaps not an hundred in the whole, a kind of pleasant sedateness on all their countenances. We met such parties all the way, which gave me the Idea of sheep going to the slaughter.

Drenched from a downpour of rain, they stopped at the house of Rev. William Gordon in Jamaica Plain, a man they barely knew but who immediately offered them accommodation. As Gordon told Sarah Deming, “all things are in common now.” Deming’s husband rode off to return the chaise, which was needed to rescue other stranded residents, and she was terrified she’d never seem him again.

Read about the rest of her narrow escape here.


The letter from Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop (1727?-1790) to her friend Mercy Otis Warren was written around May 1775 and forms part of our online exhibit of their correspondence. In this letter, Winthrop described her flight from Cambridge the day of the battle, first to a house a mile outside of town.

What a distressd house did we find there filld with women whose husbands were gone forth to meet the Assailiants, 70 or 80 of these with numbers of Infant Children, Crying and agonizing for the Fate of their husbands. In adition to this scene of distress we were for Some time in Sight of the Battle, the glistening instruments of death proclaiming by an incessant fire, that much blood must be shed, that many widowd & orphand ones be Left as monuments of that persecuting Barbarity of British Tyranny.

The next day, in the aftermath of the battles, Winthrop and others were forced to move again, which she compared to Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But while Deming was making her way south, Winthrop fled north to the town of Andover, “alternately walking & riding.” The sights she saw along the way were gruesome.

What added greatly to the horror of the Scene was our passing thro the Bloody field at Menotomy which was strewd with the mangled Bodies, we met one Affectionate Father with a Cart looking for his murderd Son & picking up his Neighbours who had fallen in Battle, in order for their Burial.

Like Deming, Winthrop found asylum with a “very obliging” family. Her rural refuge in Andover was peaceful, a surreal juxtaposition with the historical moment in which she lived. Read the rest of her letter here.

For more information on the battles of Lexington and Concord and the people who experienced them, search our online catalog ABIGAIL or our website.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 8:51 AM

Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, April 1917

Today we return to the 1917 diary of Gertrude Codman Carter. You may read the previous entries here: 

Introduction | January | February | March

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “paleography” as “the study of ancient writings and inscriptions.” This practice however, and the word to describe it, are increasingly used to refer to the practice of deciphering handwritten manuscripts in an age when typescript is what many of us encounter on a daily basis beyond the scribbled shopping list or note to self in one’s planner -- unless you, like many of us, have abandoned the print version in favor of Google calendars or a planner-like app. The art of slow reading, when making sense of a densely-handwritten letter might take the better part of a day in the archive’s reading room -- and often an intimate familiarity with the writer’s hand -- is a skill that we must increasingly practice with intent rather than one that we develop passively through everyday exposure.

Gertrude’s diary and letters are no exception to this rule, and in the spirit of this rough-and-ready transcription project I have undertaken for the year, I often find myself inserting [illegible] in the place of partially or wholly impenetrable words that by the end of a year spent in Lady Carter’s company might well seem perfectly understandable. Another solution to [illegible] manuscripts, one that we are often called upon to assist with in the MHS reading room, is crowdsourcing: enlisting a second, or third, or an entire list of social media followers to cast their eyes over the scribblings that befuddle a researcher and see what we can decipher as a group.

In the spirit of demonstrating the labor of paleography, I offer in this month of April the rough-and-ready transcription of Gertrude’s scattered April 1917 entries alongside the phrases that confounded me at first and second pass. Think you have an idea of what a word may be? Leave a comment below or let us know on Twitter @mhs1791!

* * *

2 April.

Paid bills.


3 April.

[left blank]


4 April. Great day!

10.30 Meeting at the [illegible] Road.

11.30 Theater meeting with the model. Everyone pleased. A splendid meeting.

[Pilgrims?] at home.

President Wilson’s grand speech. America enters the war.

Mr. Fell rang to tell me how pleased he was to hear it.


Here the diary skips to April 19 and continues on.


19 April.

[illegible] stonework.

G[odettes?] to dinner & Mr. Fell. He sang a heartrending little song called “Somewhere in France”. How terrible it must have been for Mrs. [Water?]worth.


20 April.

Band at the Savannah Club

Had an offer for 501 which was depressing & yet I don’t dare refuse $18,000 ($15,000 on mortgage at 4 ½ %). I cabled 5% or $20,000 which was very clever (so Charlie said in his letter) - I got the 5%. This was some time ago.


21 April.

I [damaged text] sale of 501.

4.15 Dinner party at [illegible]. An amusing chat with Laddie. He can be quite fun.


22 April.

To church.

To Erdiston in the afternoon.


23 April.

Consul again.

4 Miss Packer re: Savannah beautification

Later Mr. Carpenter. Jolly chat.


24 April.

8.30 Miss Packer

Laddie Challum motored me out to Caledonia. He has a nice little Ford car, a ripper at hills.


25 April.


[illegible] to auction

Procession of Civic Circle around its various outposts & then meeting.


Here ends the April 1917 entries remaining in the diary.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary or letters yourself, in our library, or have other questions about the collection please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 14 April, 2017, 2:54 PM

Celebrate National Beer Day!

If you are like me then you were unaware until this morning that today is National Beer Day in the United States. And just like that, you learned an important fact on a Friday afternoon.

On 13 March 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drafted a memo which read:

To the Congress:

I recommend to the Congress the passage of legislation for the immediate modificaiton of the Volstead Act, in order to legalize the manufacture and sale of beer and other beverages of such alcoholic content as is permissable under the Constitution; and to provide through such manufacture and sale, by substantial taxes, a proper and much-needed revenue for the Government. I deem action at this time to be of the highest importance. 1


According to the folks at that National Constitution Center, on 22 March 1933, Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, a piece of legislation that amended the Volstead Act of 1919. The Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect on 7 April 1933 and was met with celebration around the country. Happily for many, the CHA did not stick around long; it was voided upon ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in December 1933.2

In commemoration of the Cullen-Harrison Act of 1933, here are two recipes from the collections of the MHS to brew your own beer and spruce beer:

To brew Beer

     Take 3 pints of malt, a double handful of Hops, as much of bran or shorts, boil these in ten gallons of soft water for two hours. then strain it, and when cold, add half a pint of molasses a half a pint of yest and work it well. To colour it add a handfull of roasted barley whilst it is boiling. The yest of this beer put in a bottle with water, & kept in a cool place, will serve to make Bread.__

Spruce Beer

          Take half a pint of Spruce. boil it two hours in five gallons of soft water, a quart of molasses. When cold work in a large tea cup full of good thick yest. let it work 24 hours & then bottle it off. it will be pleasant Beer without the Spruce.__ 3


While it is too late to brew and sample today, you have a full year to practice your brewing and have a homemade batch for the next National Beer Day. I, for one, look forward to reader submissions to see who creates the best brew.



1. Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Message to Congress on Repeal of the Volstead Act.," March 13, 1933. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Accessed 7 April 2017.

2. National Constitution Center, "The constitutional origins of National Beer Day.," April 7, 2017. Constitution Daily Accessed 7 April 2017.

3. From an Anonymous recipe book, ca. 1800.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 7 April, 2017, 4:00 PM

Bread Pudding: an experiment with Mary Channing Eustis’ recipe book

The Pemberton collection, a compilation of materials from several New England families connected by marriage, includes a few artifacts from Mary Channing Eustis of Milton, Massachusetts. A dedicated recorder of recipes and what we now lovingly refer to as “life hacks,” Eustis filled two commonplace books with directions for the making of everything from plum cakes to stomachache cures. After recently rediscovering Emilie Haertsch’s 2012 blog post on Ben Franklin’s milk punch (, I figured another experiment with a vintage recipe was long overdue. Should this post instill you with further curiosity about Massachusetts’ cooking-related past, consider attending the MHS public program series “Cooking Boston.” The next installment (2 of 6) is scheduled for the 27th of April.

With that, let us explore Mary Channing Eustis’ recipe for bread pudding. Since I’d been planning to attempt a bread pudding anyway, I was quite excited to find this recipe. To my untrained eye it looked like the perfect choice—easy, simple, and delicious.

 “Boil 3 pints of milk sweeten it with half a pound of sugar put in half a pound of Butter – when tis melted pour it over Eleven ounces of [of] Bread – when cold put in 10 eggs well Beat – glass of wine – glass of Brandy little salt – spice to your taste & Currants or raisins as you Choose---”


The photo and transcript above represent the recipe in its entirety. It is vague at best, with some decidedly odd proportions. In order to accommodate my lack of a kitchen scale as well as my unwillingness to sacrifice 10 eggs, I halved the recipe and converted each measurement into its approximate equivalent in cups. Pictured below is the full array of ingredients as well as a bag of flour, which I was almost positive the recipe included despite having read it multiple times. Milk was also included in the recipe, but is not pictured here. Obviously the baking nerves were already setting in.


First, Eustis indicates that the milk should be boiled and sweetened with sugar. However, due to her disinclination toward comma usage, I was unsure whether she meant that the sugar should be added right away or after the milk was boiled. I was also unsure as to whether boiling milk is ever a good thing to do. Instead, I put the milk in a pot over medium heat and brought it to just before boiling, adding sugar gradually until it dissolved. As the milk heated, I chopped the bread into cubes (despite the recipe not specifying that I should do so) and put it into a bowl. After this, the recipe calls for an off-putting amount of butter to be melted into the milk before the whole mixture is poured over the bread.

 “Speak softly and melt a big stick of butter.” -Theodore Roosevelt, (Historical note: Theodore Roosevelt did not, in fact, say this.)

Honestly, this was the recipe at its best. You might as well stop reading right here. Even so, at this point my sweetened bread and dairy concoction was likely pretty far from what Mary Channing Eustis would have had. I used skim milk, while Eustis almost certainly would have used whole milk or even cream, considering the fact that skim milk was not sold in U.S. stores until around World War II. The same goes for the overall differences in quality between my Stop n’ Shop rolls and whatever delicious, probably homemade bread Eustis had on hand. I am also fairly certain that Eustis had never heard of Craisins, which I added later on.

A festival of health.


Eustis’ recipe instructs that the above mixture should chill before the next steps can be taken. While chilling, my bread absorbed most of the milk mixture and became incredibly soggy. This made the next step in the recipe especially painful. To the bread and milk, the (halved) recipe instructs that five well-beaten eggs must be added. This made the eggs to milk ratio almost equal, creating what can only be described as a sweet, uncooked bread omelet.

There are no words.


The recipe then calls for one glass each of wine and brandy. Nowhere is it specified how much a “glass” is supposed to be, so I estimated by adding half a standard-sized wine glass of each. At this point, I figured, adding a little alcohol would only make things easier for everyone. I also added a few handfuls of Craisins to substitute for currants, and spiced the pudding “to my taste” with vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. All in all, the uncooked pudding did not look half bad. It looked fairly similar to other bread puddings I’d seen previously, and the spices and wine made it smell quite lovely! With nothing in the recipe indicating how long or at what temperature the pudding should be baked, I was forced to guess. I cross-referenced a few other bread pudding recipes and came up with 350 degrees for 40 minutes. With an inflated sense of optimism, I placed the pudding into the oven to bake.





Admittedly, the pudding looked very handsome at the end of its bake. My apartment was filled with the fragrant scents of cinnamon and butter, the top of the pudding was beautifully brown, and it appeared that most of the liquid had been absorbed. However, the sheen of butter grease coating the surface did not inspire confidence, nor did the fact that my first spoonful of the pudding revealed a pale and wobbly interior beneath the crust. The sad result of this experiment was a bread pudding that resembled a sweet frittata more closely than anything else. The spices, sugar content, and baking time were spot on. Had the proportions been slightly more even, this probably would have turned out well. However, the sheer amount of butter and eggs in this recipe coupled with the comparably small amount of bread made for a greasy, breakfasty mess.

There are many reasons why this could have turned out as badly as it did. First of all, Mary Channing Eustis likely compiled this book of recipes for herself, her family, or her peers. All of those people undoubtedly had some background in the cooking techniques needed for these recipes, including knowledge of typical oven temperatures or a sense of how many eggs is too many eggs. Second, as I mentioned before, it was impossible to recreate the dish with complete accuracy given the supplies, skills, and hardware I had on hand. Finally, it may just be the case that eggy puddings were in vogue back in the 1840s and 50s, and that this egg purgatory was inescapable. While I personally cannot see the appeal, Eustis obviously could, given the fact that this book is absolutely full of similar recipes. Any avid egg-eater is welcome and encouraged to attempt this recipe and share the outcome.

Despite the eggy result, this was a fascinating experiment and a great look into an older take on a still-popular dish. I certainly look forward to revisiting Eustis’ recipe book for more questionable recipes in the future. Perhaps I’ll look into her home cure for an upset stomach first.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 31 March, 2017, 12:00 AM

older posts