Deciphering Sütterlin

The Archaeology Archives would like to welcome guest blogger Dr. Helgard Ulmschneider, who has been helping us with the translation of German letters from the Jacobsthal archive.

Letters are not always easy to decipher, as those dealing with handwritten correspondence doubtlessly have experienced at one time or another. Some authors write with great precision and even artistic flair, while others would have been well advised to resort to computers, typewriters, or scribes. Add to this the natural decay processes, ink slowly fading, damage caused by water and general neglect, or – more common in the past – hungry mice, and the results can be less than straightforward.

While most of the letters in the Jacobsthal archive thankfully have been relatively well preserved, one special challenge  is trying to make sense of the old German “Kurrent” script used by some of Jacobsthal’s German correspondents. Kurrent, a blackletter typeface also known as Gothic script, was commonly taught in schools in German-speaking areas during the 19th and up to the mid-20th centuries.

Example of the Kurrent alphabet c.1865

Kurrent is often – though not entirely correctly – referred to as “Sütterlin” (in 1911 the graphic artist Ludwig Sütterlin in fact had invented a very similar but more easily readable variation of the Kurrent script, which was taught in some German-speaking areas from the 1920s).  The main problem with the Kurrent / Sütterlin script however is – as the letter below shows – the difficulty it provided for readers.

Letter written by Alexander Langsdorff in 1928 (page 1)

Letter written by Alexander Langsdorff in 1928 (page 2)

In 1941 Kurrent / Sütterlin was officially ‘banned’ by Martin Bormann, later private secretary to Adolf Hitler. Instead, teaching was now to focus exclusively on the Latin (“round”) script (Antiqua) or so-called Normalschrift (“normal script”), which had been taught alongside Sütterlin, and which is in use to this day.

Kurrent, however, continued to be taught in school arts classes as an example of “a beautiful script to be executed with a quill” until 1952. As much as I disliked learning it in those days, knowledge of these old German scripts, which is fast dwindling, has proved to be enormously useful – be it while searching old catalogue entries in libraries, or more recently helping to read letters in the Jacobsthal archive.

About Archaeology Archives Administrator

Researchers in the archives of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Home of the Historic Environment Image Resource. Passionate about old photographs and fresh biscuits.
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3 Responses to Deciphering Sütterlin

  1. Benecya Jackson says:

    I have some script written in pencil on wood of this style…I want to know what it says, but it’s suffered much abuse and I don’t know how to preserve, protect, or restore it. It is in this style I think…I have a hunch about what it may say but I haven’t even learned how to write in cursive so it’s been a challenge. As the furniture it came from has a lock that was estimated to have predated World War II and was made in Barmen (What is now Wupperral), I am guessing the inscription is of the same age… please help

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