Deciphering Handwriting on Botanic Labels

Emmett Glazbrook, Collections Intern
May 7, 2024

As a collections intern, I contributed to the ongoing process of digitizing the museum’s botanical specimens. This consisted of cataloging each specimen into the online collection system Arctos, creating labels for them, scanning them, and integrating them into the museum’s greater collection. Part of the digitizing process is reading the handwritten labels that go along with each plant. This step is essential as all of the information about the specimens are recorded on the collectors’ labels. The purpose of the digitizing project is to make specimen information accessible and organized within a database, so the label information must be accurately portrayed. This project is crucial in increasing the accessibility of specimen data and provides incredible value to those inside and outside of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum communities.

A majority of the specimens I worked with were from the 1800s when cursive handwriting was more ubiquitous than it is today. During the 19th century, there were various styles of penmanship being taught and used for different purposes. The Spencerian method was being taught in schools, while Roundhand was used more artistically. Fairhand was also used in more professional settings to maintain a standard style of writing before typewriters were used. With the botany labels that I worked with, their script was likely a mixture of Fairhand and personal writing styles. The collectors were the ones writing these labels, but the labels were ultimately used for scientific purposes. With the shift to text and print in the 1900s, reading handwriting is an increasingly difficult task.

Reading the labels was challenging for myself at the beginning of my internship. As I studied them, I felt like I was a detective deciphering a hidden code made of loopy pen strokes. It was frustrating to decode handwriting that didn’t even resemble words at points, but the satisfaction of solving each puzzle was so rewarding. By the end of my time at the museum, reading the labels became one of my favorite parts of working with the pressed plant specimens. I became familiar with the way collectors wrote each letter and how their words strung together. Reading each label strengthened a kind of one-sided intimacy between myself and these collectors from centuries ago.

My mind often ended up wandering while doing some of the more tedious tasks like attaching both the original and the transcribed labels to the botany mounting sheets for each pressed plant. I would think about who these collectors were, what their experiences were like in the field gathering specimens, how they identified each plant, and what they were going through while writing each label. Sometimes, I could tell when the collectors were in more of a rush to write; words would be misspelled, species names would dissipate into squiggles instead of letters, i’s would be missing dots, t’s would be crossless. However, I could also see when collectors had the time to be more meticulous with their penmanship. Each letter was defined, and some swoops resembled calligraphy. These examples of handwriting gave me a greater appreciation for the time it took to write information down as opposed to the convenience of our current digital age.

One collector’s handwriting that I became very familiar with was Henry Holmes Babcock. During his lifetime from 1832 to 1881, this botanist collected around 10,000 specimens in Illinois. He was involved with various local institutions, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, Northwestern University, and Chicago Academy of Sciences. Some of the specimens that I worked on cataloging were from his exchange with the Herbarium Horti Botanici Pisani, known as the Herbarium of the University of Pisa currently located in its Botanic Garden. Although he didn’t collect these specimens, he received them in exchange for his Illinois specimens and wrote labels for them. Becoming familiar with Babcock’s handwriting is a way to get to know him as there is so little information available about him as a person. Handwriting is such a unique aspect to every individual, and part of his legacy exists within these labels.

I want to highlight some examples of specimens that were the most difficult to decipher, but also ones that were the most pleasing to look at.

An example of an uppercase Q: 1873.48.590

This one took me a substantial amount of time to decipher. The species name reads “Quercus pedunculata,” which is a type of oak tree. Trying to read the uppercase Q was difficult, mostly because of how rare it is and how much I thought it resembled the letter D. But figuring out what this label said was one of the most satisfying moments of my internship.


An example of an uppercase H: 1873.48.502

Reading labels with the letter H on them always brightened my day. This species name reads “Hypericum elodes,” which is commonly known as marsh St John's-wort. I like this example of an H the best because of how the pen strokes stand out. The letter is so loopy, but the downstroke is so solid. This is a beautiful example of penmanship, in my opinion.


This experience of digitizing the museum’s botanical specimens has given me both an appreciation for the intimacy of handwriting and the value in transcribing each label. Although script may become more obsolete with the convenience of typing, it should be cherished. It provides an insight into the identity of a person and continues their legacy. But transcription also plays a role in continuing that legacy in a more accessible way. I hope that my work contributes to the ongoing process of making the museum’s resources more available, and I am thankful to be a part of it.

Instagram Facebook Youtube TikTok Twitter LinkedIn Close Arrow Right Menu Menu Cards Menu List Cross Search Butterfly parretn Zoom In Zoom Out