I’d planned to use this postcard for July anyway, but last week’s crazy wind-and-lightning storm made it a teeny bit more appropriate.  Though the card’s image of the Smithsonian Castle was probably intended to convey ‘Impressive Edifice at Night,’ it seems hilariously Gothic; no actual lightning bolts are striking the tower, but they’re gathering in those looming clouds!  All it needs is an imperiled girl with a billowing cape, running frantically away from the forbidding castle.

But on to the message.  The card is addressed to Miss Ethel Walters (actually Waters) of Gaithersburg, postmarked in DC on July 22, 1910, and signed Annie Bartle.  The rest is in shorthand. (Click to enlarge.)


This presented something of a problem.  Thanks to a few of the Society’s volunteers [Hi Dorothy!] I have some Gregg shorthand books in my reference bookcase, but once I got beyond the guessable  greeting of “Dear” I was stuck.  Happily, our Office Assistant volunteered her mother, the talented Diana Malament, who translated Miss Bartle’s message for us easily:

July 20, 1910.  Dear Ethel, Received a package from Helen.  Hope you are having a nice vacation.  Mr. Kelley is staying in our class; Mr. Barnes will leave the fifth of August.  When are you coming back to school?  Let me hear from you soon.  Annie Bartle 340 10 St SE

Nothing terribly earth shattering there, just your average over-the-break card to a friend. In this case, it’s the language, and the people, that tell us a little more.

Sixteen year old Annie Bartle can be found in the 1910 census on 10th St SE, living with her grandmother, a grocer.  Ethel Louise Waters was also born in 1894; she attended Gaithersburg High School and DC’s Strayer Business College.  In 1919, she married Merle T. Jacobs, and they raised their family in Gaithersburg.  (Their son Charles, and his wife Marian, donated this card, among others.)  Mrs. Jacobs worked for the Montgomery County Public School system for many years, as a clerk in the Superintendent’s office from 1916 to 1924, and as the principal’s secretary at Gaithersburg HS from 1934 to 1956.  (Below is the Superintendent’s Office staff, from the 1918-1919 Maryland State Board of Education report; if the image is cut off on your viewer, you can click it to see the whole thing.)


There are different official methods of shorthand (not including the ones invented by individuals for their own use), Pitman and Gregg being the most famous; they are still in use today, though in much more specialized ways.   I’d always associated shorthand, and the stenographers who used it, with the early 20th century, but it’s a much older concept than that; Samuel Pepys’ 17th century diary is in shorthand, and the Pitman method was developed in the early 1800s.  By the late 19th century stenography was an important skill, one that made you much more employable.  Business schools sprang up in cities across the country; in DC, where the Federal government was one of the main employers, they were particularly popular.  Strayer – where Ethel eventually studied – was founded in 1892, and opened a branch in DC in 1904.  The July 24, 1910 classified ads* in the Washington Post include an ad for Strayer’s “Special Summer Courses, day and night, in shorthand, typewriting, bookkeeping, civil service, &c.” as well as ads for other schools and shorthand courses. The “help wanted” section on the same date includes several ads looking for both male and female (slightly more for the former) stenographers and typewriters (the skill, not the machine).  Plus, rather touchingly, someone lost their Pitman shorthand book in Judiciary Park (sic) and offered a reward for its return.

By the early 20th century stenography was being slowly replaced by typewriting. Both skills, and the professions that used them, were also shifting from a male domain to a female one.  This chart shows the growing percentage of female “clerical workers” in the 20th century America, and this article in the London Review of Books (2008) cites examples of shifting attitudes toward shorthand’s appropriate gender.  Ethel and Annie took advantage of this new avenue for employment and independence by learning shorthand and other skills; though we don’t yet know what happened to Annie, Ethel put it to good use in her career with the school system.

*If you ever need an idea for a novel, read old classified ads.  Dozens of stories spring just from this day’s listings.  Other than an unfortunate emphasis on “colored” or “white” preferences, and a feeling that some ad responders are about to be scammed out of their life savings (you can make extra money by growing mushrooms in your cellar!), they’re pretty fantastic.

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