J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

“The Art of SHORT-HAND taught to Perfection”

Parliament’s order to close the port of Boston to transatlantic traffic was designed to hurt the town’s economy. John Hodgson’s business as a luxury bookbinder probably started to suffer, and on 4 July 1774 he advertised a new service in the Boston Post-Boy:
STENOGRAPHY,
Or the Art of SHORT-HAND taught to Perfection.

The Subscriber having for twenty years past practised, in public and private, Mr. Weston’s most approved Method of this truly useful Art, flatters himself that he had acquired a thorough Knowledge of the same: And, at the Request of a Number of Gentlemen, proposes (if suitable Encouragement is given) to open a School for the Instruction of those that are desirous of becoming Proficients therein.

This Art is useful to every Person, more especially those in great Business, Gentlemen of the Clergy, Law, &c, both for Dispatch in what they write for their own Memory, and concealing what they would not have be open to every Eye; also for common placing, or writing down what is most remarkable in any Book which may happen to be lodged in their Hands for a short Time; it is also very useful for seafaring Men and Travellers for keeping a Journal of all Occurrences. By this Art as much may be writ in one Hour, and in one Page, as otherwise in six Hours and six Pages. It is a most useful and necessary Qualification for all young Persons, and is a great Help and Ornament to their other Learning and Accomplishments.

Those who have practised any other Method of Short-Hand, will find it well worth their Pains to change it for this, as a great many have done (and the Subscriber for one) by Reason of its being so very speedy and legible, which are the two most essential Properties of Short-Hand, and the principal Design of the Art; for by this Method Joining Rules are taught, by which may, in every Sentence, be joined two, three, four, five, six, seven or more Words together in one, without taking off the Pen; and each of these Sentences are writ in Half the Time and Half the Room that they can be writ disjointed.
Hodgson invited people to look at samples of the shorthand writing “at his House near Liberty-Tree, or at the Printing-Office in School-Street.”

James Weston (1688-1751) had published his manual Stenography in London in 1743, along with an edition of the Book of Common Prayer as shown above; the latter book is viewable through Google Books and Rider College. Hodgson’s practice in that shorthand had allowed him to take such thorough notes on the trial of the soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

Hodgson remained in Boston through the siege, though many other people linked to the court party left with the troops. In April 1776, the town asked Sheriff William Greenleaf to arrest him and fifteen other suspected Tories. Though he was released on bond, the Massachusetts General Court investigated those men’s loyalties.

Apparently Hodgson went back to his work as a bookbinder. Isaiah Thomas recalled that he died in 1779, but in fact he lived until March 1786. His death notice in the Continental Journal said he “died very suddenly,” suggesting that he was still active and in good health till the end.

1 comment:

EJWitek said...

The use of shorthand in the colonies was well established prior to Hodgson's advertisement and there is evidence of its use for private correspondence within ten years of the landing of the Mayflower. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, for instance, was employed by the famous lawyer Sir Edmund Coke to record the proceedings of the Star Chamber prior to emigrating to Massachusetts. John Winthrop Jr and his wife Martha corresponded in shorthand. In the seventeenth century in England, churches held well attended classes for women to learn shorthand.
In addition to the obvious ability to record matters rapidly, but, perhaps more importantly, shorthand was seen as a means to keep communications secret - a cipher, if you wish. Those not familiar with a particular shorthand system would only see squiggles while those who had studied the system and used it could "read the cipher."
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, who actually invented a very effective cipher wheel, wrote a famous letter to a friend in 1764 suggesting that he send to him a copy of the Shelton shorthand system so that they could communicate their thoughts to each other "wholly unintelligible to every one but ourselves." What Jefferson was most anxious to commununicate was his efforts to court a young lady. Unsuccessful, alas.