St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The Mystery of the Stranded Shorthand

Honestly, shorthand? Who still writes that stuff? Who even reads it? The art of shorthand doesn’t just have one foot in the grave, it has the other planted firmly on a banana peel. Although shorthand is fading out of memory now, it used to be the pinnacle of a secretary’s education. Being a properly trained secretary took years of study. Secretaries had to learn to type, which is taught in primary school now but certainly wasn’t before computers became widespread. Secretaries had to learn style and etiquette for writing letters, and if you’ve ever dealt with the malformed emails people write in modern offices you’ll know that’s no trivial undertaking. Secretaries also learnt shorthand, which is about as difficult as learning a new language. The whole thing is dead and gone now — computers and dictaphones have nailed that coffin shut. The only people who still harp on about shorthand are the hopeless curmudgeons like Clive Swift in his infamous interview by Benjamin Cook: “Don’t you know shorthand? … I think you’ll find that proper journalists know shorthand.”1. And so when I found myself in desperate need of someone who could read shorthand, I was high and dry.

I was surfing through an old newspaper from 1946 when I came upon a rectangle filled with squiggly lines. It didn’t have a caption and it wasn’t attached to any article — it just stood on its own. And it was in shorthand. Of course I don’t read shorthand but I knew enough to recognize it. What we had here was a coded message.

Page of shorthand from the Lewiston Daily Sun.

Who would post a secret message in a newspaper? It was in the spot reserved for advertisements, so someone had clearly paid money to publish it. Traditionally this has been done by star-crossed lovers who wanted to maintain a covert correspondence, but then star-crossed lovers traditionally use a simple cipher. They don’t use shorthand which, aside from requiring years of training, lacks all romance. And yet I couldn’t imagine who else would be posting such a thing. I narrowed the shorthand down to the Gregg system, which is only one of many competing systems. Some of these work by compressing the spelling of a word, but the Gregg system works by transcribing sounds phonetically. I swotted up on the system but ultimately turned to Marc Semler, a shorthand connoisseur who maintains Shorthand Shorthand Shorthand and was kind enough to provide a translation. Here, for the first time since 1946, is the secret message:

Secretaries are always striving to increase their speed and efficiency to us enabling them to command top positions and higher salaries. The First-Auburn Trust Company is always striving to speed up its many services thus to better serve its customers in these times when promptness is so important.

Star-crossed lovers indeed! What we have here is an advertisement from a bank hiring shorthand-trained secretaries. It’s an ingenious notion — advertising in a way that only qualified people would be able to read. But Marc notes that the shorthand was not very well written. It uses some non-standard forms and actually misspells words like “secretaries” and “striving”. If you wanted to make your company look like a professional outfit for potential employees, wouldn’t you want to make you ad look good? Why publish something full of mistakes? The First-Auburn Trust Company was no Mickey Mouse operation and yet this is the best they could conjure. [Edit: Jon, writing in the comments, has noted that these are not misspellings but actually highly abbreviated forms that capture the essential sounds of the word. First-Auburn would appear not to be as cack-handed as I first suspected!]

For anyone suicidal enough to read it, there is a very dull article about the history of First-Auburn called “First-Auburn Trust Company Is Observing Its 100th Anniversary“. Despite the fact the article could bore the pants off an Eskimo, it does kick off with this bizarre gem:

“I am the Old Man of the Great Falls of the Androscoggin River. Some days when you get in the right position you can see my profile from the North Bridge that connects the thriving cities of Lewiston and Auburn. Despite the eroding force of turbulent waters that roar and rage over and about me in their ceaseless rush toward the sea and the annual spring buffetings of ice and logs borne by the swift current, my eyesight remains unimpaired, my mind and hearing are acute, and my memory of people and events from the remote ages to the present are as clear as if it were yesteryear. You say you wish to interview me relative to the story of the first hundred years of the First-Auburn Trust Company. Take a seat at my feet and I will tell you my recollections of what I have observed.”

First-Auburn was acquired by the Casco Bank & Trust Company five years after the Old Man of the Androscoggin River recollected his observations.

Although the First-Auburn Trust Company and its unusual advertising campaign are long gone, you can take comfort from the fact that shorthand isn’t quite as dead as you might have thought. People like Mr Semler feed the flame of written shorthand while mechanical shorthand is alive and well in the hands of court stenographers, who orchestrate their notes on the wonderful stenotype machine. Even so, I quite like the idea of shorthand as a lost art. I would love to see future archaeologists unearthing fragments of these strange squiggles and wondering just what the hell had possessed those mad men down at First-Auburn in 1946.

A check from the First-Auburn Trust Company
A check from the First-Auburn Trust Company.

  1. Cook, “Who on Earth is… Clive Swift”. 


I owe special thanks to Marc Semler for translating the text and to Dottye Goad Bagnall, who helped me with understanding some of the shorthand.