What is that word?

October 14th, 2014

If you have transcribed a letter, rather than a bill or report, you might have come across a jumble of letters at the end of the letter, just before the sender’s signature. The most common would be “yr obt svt.” What does this mean?

Just as modern correspondence conventionally ends with “Sincerely” or “Best Wishes” (on paper, at least), there were phrases in common use for closing letters in the late eighteenth century. “Yr obt svt” is short for “Your obedient servant.” Sometimes letter writers used the longer “Your most humble and obedient servant,” which might get compressed to “yr most hmbl & obt svt.”

Abbreviations like these, as well as variations in handwriting, can be confusing for scholars and transcribers new to eighteenth century documents. Fortunately there are a number of resources to help decipher handwriting and become familiar with eighteenth century letters.

For paleography (the study of handwriting) visit DoHistory.org’s “How to read 18th century British American handwriting,” as well as Reed College’s Digital Collections study guide for Colonial American Handwriting and their letter matching game. For letter styles and conventions, Colonial Williamsburg offers a handout (pdf) for teachers to help students write their own eighteenth century correspondence. Read our post explaining just what, exactly, a letter book is. It also helps to read more letters, for which you can turn to modern print editions or this openly accessible online edition of the correspondence of major political figures of the founding era, provided by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission, part of the National Archives.

There are also a number of books on deciphering handwriting as well as the culture of letters and letter-writing in the eighteenth century. Talk to your local reference librarian to find out more.