Commonly used abbreviations

Just as modern text and email writers use abbreviations (LOL, ttyl), shortened forms (best instead of best regards), and letter writing conventions (dear sir, sincerely), the letter writers of the 18th century had a pool of common abbreviations and conventions to draw from.

This guide serves as a short introduction to some of the most common abbreviations in 18th century manuscripts, presented in roughly the order you might find them, with examples with possible.

While there are frequently used abbreviations, there may also be random abbreviations inserted by the writer. These can usually be identified because the last letter or two will be in superscript (small and higher than the rest). You might see Compts - meaning Compliments - or answd - answered. If a confusing word has superscript letters at the end, take your best guess from the context of the sentence or placement in the letter.

Envelope leaf or outside of letter

  • Recd: Received. Some people wrote the date a letter was received on the outside of the letter. Comparing it and the date written can give you an idea of how long a letter took to deliver.
  • Mssr or something that looks like a tilde (~) over the r in Mr: sometimes an abbreviation for Monsieur (if a single addressee) or for Messrs. which was a may of referring to multiple 'Mr.'s.

Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a letter is addressed to a Mr or Mrs - your best bet is to work from the context of the letter if you can, or check the information page for the letter to see how the PWD editors have identified the sender and receiver.

At the beginning of a letter

  • Private sometimes appears before the date, indicating that a letter was sent personally, rather than on official business.
  • Dr Sir or Dr Sr (the S may look like a T or J to modern readers): Dear Sir.
  • inst: "of this month". This usually appears with a date and reference to another document, for example "I have received your letter of the 4th inst.
  • ulto: "of the previous month." Like "inst," this usually appears with a date and reference to another letter; "I have received yours of the 17th ulto."

In the content of a document

  • do: short for "ditto" (the same) sometimes in letters, frequently found in ledgers and lists. Example: "2 reams extra large quarto gilt Paper, 1 ream ditto patent copying Do." (one ream gilt paper, one ream copying paper).
  • QM Gen or QM Genl: Quartermaster General. A quartermaster is an individual in charge of supplies and provisions for a troop or garrison; the Quartermaster General is in charge of the Quartermaster Corps of the Army.
  • Gen or Genl: General
  • Col or Colo: Colonel
  • Capt: Captain
  • Sgt: Sargent
  • Pvt: Private
  • Virga, Phila, and others: state and city names ending in the letter a are sometimes abbreviated with a superscript a at the end.

Weights, measures, and money

These may show up in the context of a list of items, a ledger page, or just a sentence about supplies.

  • Hhd: hogshead. This sometimes is written like a very ornate H.

  • bbl or bl: barrel.

British currency was abbreviated as follows: pound (L), shilling (s), pence (d). There were 240 pence in a pound, with 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. Sometimes amounts are written as L10.2.3 which would be 10 pounds 2 shillings 3 pence. Numbers written as 8/6 are shillings and pence (8 shillings 6 sixpence).

At the end of a letter or document

A common closing for letters, particularly formal letters, was "I have the honor to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant," A full abbreviation of that might look like "I have the honor to be, Sir, yr mst hmbl & obt svt" but a closing might only use part of that phrase.

  • Esq: Esquire
  • Jno: short for John
  • Wm: William
  • Yr obt svt: your obedient servant