Journey Back in Time:

18th Century Writing Practices & Modern Comparisons

Curriculum Objectives:

Using primary source documents in the classroom helps teachers to connect their students with uninterpreted material, giving them a chance to understand it within its own context, rather than through a text book about the material. Using primary source documents from the late 18th century, this lesson will set the documents into historical context, teach students writing conventions of the time, show how to read a handwritten document, and will allow students to interpret the document and relate it to today’s conventions.

Though several documents are highlighted, the lesson is built around a journal kept by a 17-year-old boy named Patrick Hayes, who traveled with his adoptive father John Barry (the father of the United States Navy) on a merchant expedition to China. The journal holds his account of the voyage. Other documents used will help to illustrate writing styles and historical context relevant to understanding the journal.

The goal of this unit is to highlight a primary source from history, to set it into historical context, and to use it for examination and comparison to better understand the history of written language. Ultimately, this project brings primary sources into the classroom for examination and comparison in a meaningful way.

This curriculum guide is broken down into three aspects:

  • History of Written Language & Modern Comparison
  • Historical Context of Patrick Hayes’ Journal
  • Reading and Interpreting Primary Source Documents


History of Written Language & Modern Comparison

In order for students to read and interpret Patrick Hayes's diary, they should learn a bit about the writing conventions and practices of the 18th century. Writing in this time was a relatively new technology to the common population, and one that spread quite quickly once introduced as a useful tool.


In 18th Century America and Britain, reading was considered paramount for all to learn because it enabled the people of this time to read the Bible. Reading was taught primarily in the home by the mother or another female member of the household. In America, being able to read often depended on where the family lived. For instance, in the south and in the countryside, only about 60 percent of men could read, and only half to a quarter of women could read (4). In the northeast and along the coast, nearly everyone was literate. Both boys and girls learned to read beginning at a young age, but only boys were regularly taught to write in the beginning of the century. Writing was not considered necessary, except for those who would pursue a career in commerce, which women were not encouraged to pursue. Prior to this time, only religious clergy and lawyers learned to write, and the purpose was usually to transcribe the Bible for distribution. There are many examples of old documents prepared by a lawyer or a scribe, that were signed with an 'X' by the people who had asked for the document to be created but did not know how to write. One might assume this person didn't know how to read either, but this is actually relatively unlikely.

Discussion: How is this different than how we learn to read and write today? How is it the same? **Note that we often associate reading and writing as one concept, rather than as two separate entities. They are taught in school synchronously, but typically children learn to read with their parents before they learn to write.**

Writing began to grow in popularity as business practices became more established in America. Writing as a form of communication became an integral part of the merchant and business person. By the mid- to late- 18th century, writing masters began to allow female students seek penmanship, but for the purpose of "a fair hand as a female "accomplishment" on par with dancing, music, or most appropriate, needlework" (8). Women were encouraged to write poetry or to keep a journal or create a list of goods to be purchased at the market, but not to use their writing skills for business purposes beyond the home.

Writing first served very specific purposes: bookkeeping, keeping daybooks, ledgers, invoices, and all other manner of business correspondence. The skill of writing was explicitly not for creative writing. In fact, copy books ingrained the proper use of writing through the subject matter it included, and writing masters taught specifically for the particular uses appropriate. Copybooks themselves squelched creativity by their very nature. Student were to copy the letters exactly as they saw them. Individuality that we now associate with a particular person's handwriting was not a concept 18th century writers shared with us. Creative writing was thus discouraged:

"The materials used in handwriting instruction reinforced the links between penmanship and commerce. The standard penmanship "textbook" was the copybook, a collection of engraved specimens of model handwriting to be imitated by the pupil. Once past the initial stages of copying letters and single words, students worked on full sentences, usually maxims, and many of these pithy sayings commented on the proper conduct of commerce and the character of the merchant."

Of course there were creative writers, but they were in the vast minority, particularly in America. As the years progressed, people also used writing for private letters, and this became a popular means of communication among family members or friends living at a distance away from each other, even across the ocean. Reading these old letters today is quite a different experience from letters we might craft. Standardized grammar and spelling did not yet exist, and in fact dictionaries did not become a popular reference until the early 20th century with the widespread distribution of the Oxford English Dictionary. Letters in the 18th century read more like a stream of consciousness or a conversation: a writer wrote exactly as he/she thought.

Discussion: What examples can you think of in today's time that might be similar? **Note that email, texting and instant messaging often have a "stream of consciousness" feel. Twitter posts, blogs, and similar online communication  tools also encourage a less formal mode of communication.**

Those who wished to learn to write had to seek out a writing master. Though some public schools had been established, more likely, a student would need private tutoring, or would gain training through a private school. Students could also teach themselves using some copybooks specifically for self-instruction. Generally, writing was a necessary skill in port cities such as Philadelphia and Boston and writing masters in these cities were easy to come by.

Discussion: Why did people in port cities need to know how to write more than those living in the countryside? **Note that in port cities, there was typically more industry and formalized trade than in more rural settings, requiring some form of formalized, recognized record keeping.**

In America, writing masters had typically been trained in Britain, and were practiced in several different types of handwriting. For instance, women were taught a different style of writing than men. Also, lawyers' handwriting was specific to their field, and appeared quite different than that of a merchant.This is helpful in identifying works and their purpose or importance. The writing of a woman was considered unimportant, while a document using lawyers' script would likely be quite significant. Generally, colonial American handwriting styles were most heavily influenced by secretary hand and italic hand, which was considerably simple, compared to more complex handwriting used in Britain.

Writing masters were often considered craftsmen, and therefore not part of the elite class even though writing was associated with the learned population. In fact, the perception of a writing master was so low in the eyes of the elite that writers of this class often boasted about poor penmanship, or even purposefully wrote illegibly to show their status. Typically, business documents were prepared by a scribe or a writing master that members of the elite class would employ, but personal letters written by the individual that might hold significance were sometimes illegible as a result. Most merchants and other less elite business men, however, considered the skill of writing a huge asset to their ability to do business effectively.

Many of these early documents still exist in peoples' private collections and in libraries. These handwritten documents are a window into our past, and how those who founded our country lived and communicated.



From page 66 of Patrick Hayes' Diary. The diary appears to have been used by Patrick's older brother Michael to practice his handwriting. This page demonstrates the scarcity of paper, as this book had been used for several purposes, and also the careful practice of script. Note the prase Michael copied, most likely from a copybook.


Read a sample transcription from the journal: What do you notice about the writing style? How is it different from the way we write today? How is it the same? What do you notice about the content?

Teachers' notes: Point out the informal nature of the writing, and the lack of grammar and spelling conventions. The content will vary on the assigned pages. I recommend pages 5, 7, 12, 16 and 20 from Patrick's journal, because the content lents itself to discussion.

This lecture provides an opportunity for a discussion about oral versus formal communication. Are we moving toward a less formal mode of communication with the ever-growing popularity of the casual email, IM, and other online tools that do not encourage correct grammar and spelling? Why are grammar and spelling conventions important? This might also be assigned as journal or short reflection paper, as a homework assignment.

Additional Resources:

Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Harper Collins, 1998.

This book gives a full history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It reads much like a fiction novel and therefore would be a good pick for a high school student. The Oxford English Dictionary was arguably the first respected dictionary for the English language, and marks the start of standard spelling and usage. You may consider providing excerpts of the book to illustrate the information provided in this guide.

Historical Context of Patrick Hayes’ Journal

Now that your students have learned a bit about the history of the english language, they will have a better understanding of why Patrick Hayes wrote in the style that he employed. But before they can have a true appreciation for Hayes's story, they will need some historical context.


Commodore John Barry and Adopted Son Patrick Hayes

John Barry was born in 1745 in County Wexford, Ireland; the ancestral home of President John F. Kennedy. Born into a poor Irisher farming family, Barry rose from his humble beginnings and traveled to Philadelphia in 1772, where he made a name for himself as a merchant ship captain under the Meredith and Clymer mercantile house, and then later for the top Philadelphia mercantile house Willing Morris & Company.

In 1775, at the height of the Revolutionary War, Barry's ship, the Black Prince, was selected to lead a small naval fleet. Since he had been the captain of this vessel ever since it had been afloat, Barry was selected to lead the fleet as captain, affording him the title of Senior Commander of the entire United States fleet. Commodore John Barry fought valiantly for America’s freedom capturing over twenty ships during the Revolutionary War.  On February 22, 1797, President Washington called Barry to the President’s Mansion at 190 High (Market) Street to receive Commission Number One in the Navy. Commodore Barry remained the commanding officer of the U.S. Navy under the John Adams and the Jefferson Administrations until he passed away on September 13, 1803.

Once the Revolutionary War ended and he was not needed for the purpose of war on any consistent basis, Commodore Barry went back to merchant sailing on a newly crafted merchant chip called the Asia to serve the ship's owners in the highly lucrative China trade. As the crew began to take shape from among some of the most capable in Philadelphia, Barry added one more to the ranks: "Numbered among the boys was Patrick Hayes--eager to begin his sea-training under so distinguished a mentor as his famous uncle" (Gallant John Barry, 334).

Patrick Hayes, son of John Barry's sister Eleanor and her husband Thomas Hayes, came to America from Ireland in 1787 when he was (october 9, 1770) 16, after both of his parents died. Patrick had two older siblings, one sister who chose to stay in Ireland to marry, and a brother who came to Philadelphia and almost immediately began to work on a merchant ship. Barry and his wife Sarah, who had never had children, enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to raise young Patrick as their own. As this was Patrick's first journey and it was to last for the better part of a year, he kept a journal recounting his experiences aboard the Asia. This journey served as his introduction to a career on the sea, and upon return, he began his apprenticeship to one day become a sea captain under his uncle's mentorship.

Post-Revolutionary America

When Patrick Hayes came by ship from Ireland, America was still a very young country. Few countries believed it would survive as an independent nation for long, or even recognized their independence. As a result, America still relied heavily on the British for protection, identity, and international commerce.

Public schools had only just begun to open, and because they were not yet widespread, most students still attended private schools. Children living in the countryside or those children living in the lower classes were less likely to attend school at all, and their learning depended wholly on their mother or another prominent female. Boys, once they were old enough, would learn a trade (often that of their father's), and girls would continue to work aside their mothers. We don't know for sure whether or not Patrick attended school in Ireland. Barry had been sending money to his parents and siblings for years to help support the family he left behind, but schooling may not have been a priority, given their economic hardships. Barry would have certainly educated Patrick when he came to America, and he may have even hired a tutor to accompany Patrick on the voyage to China, as it took approximately 28 months.

The American household, much like the rest of Europe, was one where the woman controlled all things domestic, and the men worked at a trade or in business. There seemed to be a shift at this time to a more nuclear family, with husband and wife marrying because of affection moreso than convenience. The family of this time was likely rather similar to our understanding of families today.

At this time, men who were to join an artisan craft or merchant trade occupation would pass through a time of training in this occupation called an apprenticeship. During this time, the student would work under a master to learn the skills necessary for success. Patrick Hayes worked under his uncle to learn the skills needed to be a successful sea captain. Typically, an apprenticeship lasted for approximately 7 years, and was necessary to be considered a master of any given trade. The mentor provided documentation to affirm such an apprenticeship had been completed satisfactorily.

Discussion: What types of occupations require a similar type of training today? **Metal workers, auto repair men/women, electricians, hair stylists and many other people in trade jobs still encourage apprenticeships.**

Apprenticeship Information

Merchant Trading Practices & the Chinese Market

Philadelphia at this time played a major role in seafaring and international trade because of its location between the Schukyll and the Delaware rivers, which connects them to the Atlantic Ocean. America had been trading with nearby countries (such as the Carribean Islands, Britain and Canada) for many years, but had only recently began to trade with China with any regularity. Without the British armed forces to protect this young country, American sea merchants were at greater risk of falling victim to pirates in the Mediterranean and East Indian oceans.

Letters and journals have been found that document trade practices of this region. Merchants had to be careful to follow foreign protocol to avoid being swindled or overcharged. First, upon entering among the islands along China's coast, natives in small boats offered their services in leading the passageup to Wampoa and up the Sikiang river. Though they charged money for this, these natives' services were necessary in order to negotiate a license to trade with the Chinese government. Barry had been advised by fellow sea merchant Thomas Truxtun to choose one particular guide, or comprador, to come aboard. Upon securing a license, which can take up to 24 hours, another guide became necessary, and several mandarin soldiers would board the ship to make sure that the goods aboard were properly secured. However, quite often, they were known to take items for themselves unless they received payment (either in goods or money) and access to the rum.

Negotiating trade agreements often took months. Only one representative from the ship was allowed to enter China; the rest of the crew had to stay on the ship. Barry had arranged to stay in a factory, which was essentially living quarters, warehouse and trading store in one. He had also hired the best linguist in the region to help him negotiate his trades. At the time, China was ruled by the Chinese Imperial Government, who controlled all foreign trading. Hong merchants were therefore responsible for all imports and exports on behalf of the Chinese government and had to give concent for any such trading. Therefore, a foreign merchant had to enter into contract with a Hong merchant in order to do business. Port charges also had to be levied against the Asia. While in port, the crew saw to it that repairs were made for the trek back to America.


Map of China Voyage

This link will show you the approximate route Barry and Hayes took to reach China.



Courtesy of the Independence Seaport Museum. This is a letter to the Chinese government from the American government requesting that said American sea captain be allowed to trade with their country.


Compare and contrast the historical context to what we experience today (career training and schooling; trading practices; the way America is presently viewed; Chinese government; etc.)

Reading and Interpreting Primary Source Documents

The materials used for writing were not so easy to come by as today's pen and paper. Until the early to mid 19th Century, the primary tool for writing was the quill pen. The quill pen was usually made from cutting a proper nib from a crow, goose or raven, using a penknife. If they were not cut properly, the end would dry out quickly, or would carry the ink unevenly on the paper. Quills required frequent sharpening. Writers had to mix their own ink, and treat the paper with powdered pumice or sandarac, to keep the ink from soaking all the way through the paper. After all of this was accomplished, at last, the writer could begin to compose.


Through the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, paper was made from cotton or linen rags.  Because of the quality of the paper, it was rather expensive, but it does not deteriorate as quickly as the paper we produce today. Writers of this time used every available inch of paper to make sure they didn't waste this valuable commodity.

Discussion: Refer to "Cross Hatching Example" below. Why do you think the author of this letter wrote in this way? **Note the rarity and cost of paper and other writing tools.**

History of Papermaking

Tips and practice

When transcribing an original document, it is important to copy everything exactly as it is written, including capitalization, spelling and grammatical errors. This helps to preserve the history of writing, and also allows the reader to make interpretations of the original text, rather than the transcriber.

The way letters, words and abbreviations were written in the past is sometimes quite different than the way we write today. Here are some examples:

  • The lowercase letter 't' is sometimes not crossed, and therefore sometimes appears as an 'l'.
  • Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a capital 'S' and a lowercase 's'. 
  • The lowercase 'e' is sometimes difficult to differentiate from the lowercase 'o'. 
  • The double 's' (ss) often appears as a figure that looks like an 'f'.

In all of these cases, the transcriber must take into account the rest of the word or sentence to make a determination about which letter is used. Because of this, sometimes a reader may disagree with the transcription. It is important to look at the original document along with the transcription so that you can make up your own mind. See below alphabet for more guidance.

When reading an old document, it is extremely helpful to compare letters and words to others found in the document. For instance, you may not be able to tell what a word is because of a few letters that seem indecipherable. Compare words that you are sure of to those that are in question to learn what letters look like for a particular writer. For example, compare the letter 'e' in a word that you are sure contains an 'e' to other words to understand how the writer makes the 'e'. Or try comparing letters in question to months of the year (typically, documents are dated) or other familiar words in the document.

Another tactic is to transcribe the easy words and letters and leave the harder to decipher words and letters until you have finished a page. You will find that some letters and words that are repeated elsewhere in the document more legible, and when you revisit those letters you were unsure of before, you may find them easier to understand. Having a magnifying glass handy, or a zoom feature if viewing online, will also be helpful as you work your way through a document.

Be sure to go through the document when you have completed it to ensure you have made the best choices for words and letters. As you become familiar with the handwriting of the writer, you may change your mind on earlier words or letters that you though you had gotten right.

Applying context

You may find it helpful to read the document first for context. Words may be easier to determine if you take into consideration the entire sentence or even paragraph. If you know the subject of a document is a sales transaction, you can make some assumptions about the presence of words such as 'owe', 'price' or 'cost'.

Discussion: How might the context of Patrick Hayes' diary help to guide your transcription? what more can you gather from the journal as a whole, knowing the context of the story?


scanned alphabet guide


Transcribe this! Choose three to four pages from the journal and ask your students to transcribe them. I recommend pages 6, 7, 11, 23 and 28, as they are most legible. Students can work in groups to transcribe. Then, compare to the actual transcription. Where did you have trouble? What could have helped? What tactics did you use?

Helpful Worksheet

Homework: read the transcribed journal. What do you notice about spelling and grammar? What do you notice about the writing style? What can you learn about maritime life in the 18th Century from this document? What can you learn about the people in the various settlements? What challenges might they have faced?

Creative Writing Activity: Consider Patrick Hayes' journal. Would you still consider the contents of his journal an "adventure" today? What sorts of modern adventure would you want to be sure to document in some type of journal? What might differe between how you document your experiences, compared to his? Write your own journal (fiction or non-fiction) documenting a modern adventure.



Clark, William Bell. Gallant John Barry 1745-1803: The Story of a Naval Hero of Two Wars. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1938.

"Diary of Patrick Hayes, aboard Asia, 1787," Villanova University Digital Library,

Freeman, Joshua B. 1994. "Structure and culture in the labor market." Labor History 35, no. 1: 98-100. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed April 25, 2010).

Oestreicher, Richard. 1994. "The counted and the uncounted: The occupational structure of early American cities." Journal of Social History 28, no. 2: 351. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed April 25, 2010).

Smith, Philip Chadwick Foster. The Empress of China. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1984.

Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1998.

Thornton, Tamara Plakins. Handwriting in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

"Written Document Analysis Sheet," The National Archives,

Zurcher, Andrew. "English Handwriting 1500-1700: An Online Course," Copia, May 12, 2008,

"The Library of Congress: American Memory," The Library of Congress,

"Teachers: Bringing the Power of Primary Sources into the Classroom," The Library of Congress,