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Transcribing Quarantine: Letters of Laura Stanton (Part 2)

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

In January of 1901, Laura Stanton from Ashburn, Virginia was living in New York where she was attending Vassar College. The Loudoun Museum preserves a collection of Laura’s letters home during this time, including those written during a quarantine period that Laura spent in the school’s infirmary. Laura voluntarily submitted herself to quarantine after potential exposure to smallpox while at Vassar and in one particular letter, dated January 22, 1901 tells us how she was feeling at this time both physically and emotionally. We also learn that like most students today, her time in quarantine put a stress on her studies, and caused her to worry about being able to pass her upcoming exams. Laura's letter shows that we can still relate to her and her plight even after one hundred years.

When writing to her mother, Laura tells her that she is excited but also relieved to have received a letter from her mother. Laura goes on to say that her two weeks in quarantine have been long and a bit unsettling.

“It seems months since I have heard from any of you, though really only a little over a week. These two weeks since Christmas have been the longest and most unsettled I ever spent

in my life.”

As Laura’s letter goes on, she tries to make light of the fact that she might never have been to the infirmary if it wasn’t for her being placed in quarantine.

“I suppose it is just as well for me to have this experience of a week in the infirmary, since I want to take in everything while I am here at Vassar, that is get my money’s worth out of it, and probably I would never have gotten into the infirmary in any other way!”

In her letter, Laura goes on to talk about her fears of being unprepared for her upcoming exams.

She hopes that the school will be understanding of her current situation, but finds she’s isn’t entirely convinced that the school will give her much leeway.

“My studies for this year trouble me most just now. The examinations are next week and I have lost so much time lately that even if I am let out in time for them, I fear I will not do very well. However the only thing I can do is to do the best I can. I have been studying and reviewing some while I have been in the infirmary, but it is rather hard to accomplish much. Perhaps they will make some allowance for me, I don’t know how that will be, but the president, according to Dr. Shelbug, knows of my imprisonment as he had to be consulted concerning it. Dr. P. also said that the college would remember what I had done for it in consenting to be isolated in this case, but I cannot say how much good this remembering will do me.”

Laura's letters allow us to relate to her and her experience with being quarantined, as we go through our own government mandated quarantine. Though our current situation is on a grander scale then Laura's, the methods for containing diseases haven’t actually changed a significant amount. Even after one hundred years, quarantining the sick is still one of the best things we can do in order to stop the spread of disease. Unlike Laura, most of us have the privilege of being able to self quarantine ourselves in our homes, rather then having to be trapped in a school infirmary.

Transcribing old documents is a wonderful way to make the information found on them more readily available. Due to how handwriting has changed over time, mainly the shift away from cursive, many hand written documents can be a bit challenging to read. When transcribing old texts it is helpful to find a set of standards to follow such as those outlined by the National Archives. These guides lines can be found on the National Archives website, along with helpful tips.

In order to make the transcription process easier it is important to figure out how the writer writes. In other words, look out for specific ways that they write a letter, or how they abbreviate certain words. For example, in the letters shown above, Laura likes to write the number “2” out instead of writing the word to, too, or two. Her “s” is also unique compared to how a cursive “s” is typically written.

Once you have an idea of the writer's style you can begin transcribing. It’s important to type what you see, following the documents order and layout as best you can. All words should be typed exactly as they are, mistakes and all. Be sure to indicate to the reader when there are misspelled words or use of improper grammar. This can be done by simply adding in [sic] next to the section in question.

[sic]: "intentionally so written —used after a printed word or passage to indicate that it is intended exactly as printed or to indicate that it exactly reproduces an original”

The National Archives guidelines recommend “not to worry about matching the format of the original document, but instead think about how the text will improve ones ability to read the document.” Maintaining the exact format Laura used was useful during the transcription process to track progress but is not necessary so long as those who want the information from the document are able to read and understand it.

Something that transcends time, no matter what century the document is from, is that handwriting can be messy. So messy to the point that sometimes we just cannot read what was written. When this happens, using context clues is the next best way to figure out what they were saying. When context clues do not provide enough information to help and we simply can’t understand what was written, one can use [illegible]. This signifies that the word cannot be made out.

Transcription is time consuming but can be a relatively simple task, as long as the handwriting is legible. Many museums like the Loudoun Museum have a stockpile of documents that could be transcribed and digitized for the public to use.

Volunteering at a small local museum is a wonderful way to be given the chance to transcribe old documents and uncover unknown stories from history. Not only would this help the museum clear back logs of documents needing to be transcribed, but it would also give you the opportunity to try transcribing first hand.


Paige Armstrong, Loudoun Museum


National Archives. “Transcription Tips,” August 15, 2016.

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