Shorthand systems

From Alfred Janes, Standard Stenography: Being Taylor’s Shorthand (1882), courtesy of Google Books.

One day, when searching through the town records of New Haven, Connecticut, I was struck by one of the entries. The writing appeared like nothing I had ever seen before. After asking others for their thoughts, we found that none of us had ever seen this form of writing before. After some research, I discovered that what I had found was notation written in Taylor Shorthand, a system of writing developed by Samuel Taylor in 1786, the first system of shorthand writing to be widely used across the English-speaking world.[1]

Shorthand has long been used as a method of notation, often when time or efficiency is imperative, and as a result, it often appears in court documents and meeting minutes. The first known shorthand system was developed by Roman Marcus Tillius Tiro c. 60 B.C. Tiro’s shorthand employed abbreviations which are still in use today including ‘et’ for the word and as well as ‘viz,’ meaning namely.[2]

Other systems of shorthand gained popularity starting in the eighteenth century. One such system was Universal English Shorthand, developed by John Byrom.[3] The purpose of shorthand systems was made clear in the preface to The Universal English Shorthand (published in 1767), presenting Byrom’s system. This work stated that “Mr. Byrom’s method of short-hand may be termed, the art of expressing all the words and phrases of the English tongue by a character, which is perfectly regular and beautiful, and, as we conceive, the shortest possible.”[4]

The system developed by Samuel Taylor utilizes characters as shortened forms of letters and words, and was applied in the recording of many records and court documents upon its development in the late eighteenth century. In Taylor Shorthand, vowels are omitted from words except when they begin or end a word, in which case they are represented by a single dot.[5] In many cases, symbols which represent a single letter are also used as an abbreviation for common words in stenography (see table above).[6] The style of writing also contains other unique methods which were generally used to save time. For example, when two consonants come together with the removal of a vowel, the symbol for that consonant is written once in a larger size.[7]

Since the publication of Taylor’s shorthand method in 1786, other forms of shorthand have also come into popular usage, including Pitman’s Shorthand, which was developed and published by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1837. Pitman’s Shorthand was unique in that silent and voiced sounds were represented by lines differing in thickness, requiring the writer to use a proper writing implement to successfully convey the correct sounds or syllables.[8]

The rise of typewriters, and more recently, personal computers, has led to a significant drop in the importance of shorthand notation. Despite this, a knowledge of these writing systems and their application in the transcription of records in past centuries remains important to genealogists.


[1] Sir Isaac Pitman, A History of Shorthand (1891), 48–55.

[2] David A. King, The Ciphers of the Monks: A Forgotten Number-Notation of the Middle Ages (2001), 61–63.

[3] John Byrom, The Universal English Short-Hand (1767).

[4] Ibid., i.

[5] Alfred Janes, Standard Stenography: Being Taylor’s Shorthand (1882), 18.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Sir Isaac Pitman, Brief Course in Isaac Pitman Shorthand: An Exposition of the Author’s System of Phonography, Arranged in Twenty-seven Lessons (1914), 3.

About Zachary Garceau

Zack Garceau is a Researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Masters Degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a BA in history from the University of Rhode Island. He specializes in French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History.

12 thoughts on “Shorthand systems

  1. Fascinating. My mother’s fruitcake recipe was written in ca. 1940 shorthand and I was able to find an elderly neighbor to translate it for me. It could have been written in cuneiform for all the sense I could make of it.

  2. You left out the most widely used shorthand system in the United States – Gregg Shorthand which was used from the late 1800s to the 1970s. McGraw Hill still publishes a Gregg Shorthand instruction book … The Gregg Shorthand Manual Simplified ….readily available at Amazon and on eBay… and.. oftentimes available in a Barnes & Noble retail store.

  3. I took shorthand in high school. Sometimes I still remember the style. When I text, I do think of shorthand too.

  4. I learned Pitman shorthand in high school and (when not employed using it) still used it for my personal notes and convenience. I wish I knew someone familiar with the Gregg shorthand because that is the one my father knew. He wrote notes in his address book and I can’t read them. Could be interesting – genealogically speaking :-).

    1. I studied the Gregg method in high school. It proved to be a powerful aid in note-taking throughout my life and though my skills are rusty I still use it today. I picked up a used textbook fairly recently, copyrighted 1919, which is battered but still useful. My classmates and I developed a shorthand language which we used to confuse non-users of the system. It was great fun to confound those around us by speaking in shorthand-ese!


  5. Shorthand systems were used by professionals up through the 1980s. The system devised by John Robert Gregg (1867-1948) eventually overtook all others in the English-speaking world. Gregg brought his system to the US, and it was eventually adopted in high schools and at Katharine Gibbs School. The syllabic shorthand system based on the English alphabet was used by Mrs. Gibbs in 1911 and was eventually used in ENTREE, the short-term program for college graduates.

    Shorthand was essential for business in the twentieth century until the personal computer gave executives the ability to prepare correspondence and until businesses decided that the executive and secretary/executive assistant model was too expensive except for the CXO level.

    Shorthand played a role in pre-Castro Cuban politics. Louis Leslie worked for Gregg after learning shorthand as a scholarship student. When Fulgenico Batista, a young military man in Cuba asked to become a scholarship student by correspondence, Louis Leslie presented his case to Gregg saying that shorthand would help Batista’s career. He became a long-distance student and used shorthand to move up through the ranks and became president (1955-1959) until Fidel Castro. John Gregg wore a ring presented by Batista until his death.

    Gordon Gibbs, Katharine’s son, hired Louis Leslie as vice president in 1937. Leslie had written or coauthored major Gregg textbooks. When students opened their Gregg shorthand books, they saw that one of the authors was a Gibbs vice president.

    My best shorthand story came as a result of my writing the first history of Katharine Gibbs School. Diane McWhorter, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for CARRY ME HOME: BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA THE CLIMACTIC BATTLE OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS REVOLUTION, called me.

    She told me that she was preparing a new edition for the 50th anniversary of Birmingham and had received access to the long-hoarded minutes of the Senior Citizens Committee. This group of white citizens was not chosen by age but by their importance in the community. They met to decide what to do about Dr. King’s activities, but the minutes were taken in shorthand.

    After attempting to learn shorthand, the author asked for my assistance, and a former shorthand teacher at Gibbs transcribed the minutes. Although only the order of principal speakers changed, the need for someone to read shorthand was evident. Shorthand transcription is still needed. A woman in New York has set up a business transcribing shorthand notes primarily for court cases. A shorthand group meets monthly in Maine to read shorthand and discuss shorthand puzzles.

  6. I remember friends taking shorthand in high school. Would look over at what they were doing and thought it was very interesting. I was on the college track and she was on the office track. They learned to use a 10 key adding machine (I think) like I learned to touch type. Now, a generation or so later, I’m the one who amazes students by touch typing on a computer with all 10 fingers! Imagine that.

  7. Zack, thanks for introducing us to the beginnings of shorthand, and to everyone else for sharing their more recent experiences. I was especially interested in Rose’s history of Gregg shorthand, as that was the one my mother used (her sister, for some reason, used a version of Pitt’s- perhaps a form of sibling rivalry). I was fascinated by the beautiful mystery of shorthand, but never learned it. In college, though, I developed my own “sort of” shorthand, a compressed Italic that allowed me to take notes rapidly and still stay focused on listening.

    I absolutely agree that knowing shorthand would be a very useful skill for historians and genealogists. I’ve seen a few early public records that seemed to me to be more a kind of shorthand rather than the haphazard writing of a tired hand. As more private and commercial shorthand records from the 18th, 19th and 20th century become available, I suspect many will turn out to be invaluable primary sources.

    My mother kept notes and journals in shorthand, and wrote some letters in shorthand. Sadly, those are all missing. But I’ve been thinking lately that learning an 18th century shorthand might come in handy for my research.

    1. The BPL has fascinating material about the history of shorthand. John Robert Gregg, A Biography of the Shorthand Inventor, Educator, Publisher, and Humanitarian, Whose Achievements Enriched the Lives of Millions by L Cowan circulates. It is well written and has the history of shorthand.

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