Handwritten History: The Marvelous Manuscripts of the Karpeles


Old manuscripts have always fascinated me. Looking at an original document that some famous (or infamous) person has written is a completely different experience than just reading a printed document.

Manuscripts are intriguing because they have a personal quality that’s missing from print.

Charles Dickens 2

Handwriting analysis is above my pay grade, but from the look of this sinuous signature even my untrained eye appreciates that when Charles Dickens sent a personal note, he wanted no confusion about who had written it.

Charles Dickens Captions
A note to Dickens’ publisher for two illustration captions for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

This original Dickens note was only one of many intriguing documents on display at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Jacksonville, Florida.


The Karpeles Library is the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents, and their museum in Jacksonville is one of 12 located in smaller cities around the US. Founded in 1983 by California real estate magnates, David and Marsha Karpeles, the library’s goal is stimulating interest in learning, especially in children. I particularly like their policy of rotating items between museums each quarter so the exhibits are constantly changing.

The Dickens exhibit also included a number of original illustrations by artist Joseph Clayton Clarke, aka “Kyd.”

Riding Dickens’ coattails was a wise career move; Kyd became famous and earned his living in London from watercolor sketches, mainly of Dickens’ characters.


On the opposite side of the gallery was a totally different but equally amazing manuscript written by Albert Einstein in 1929.

Albert Einstein Theory of Relativity
Albert Einstein explains his Theory of Relativity.

Einstein wrote this 3000-word essay on his theory of relativity for publication in both The London Times and The New York Times. If you look closely you’ll see one of the details that I enjoy about manuscripts – a glimpse at Einstein’s personality.


Even the most influential physicist of the 20th century had to correct a few mistakes and make a few edits to his draft.


In a case a few steps away was another testament to the museum’s astounding eclecticism: J. R. R. Tolkien’s manuscript notes for the index to The Lord of The Rings. Long before Frodo and his merry band reached the big screen, I was a fan of these epic fantasy novels. So it was exciting to see something written in Tolkien’s own hand.

JRR Tolkein Index

If you’ve read the books you know how useful an index for keeping track of the characters and geography would be. And after seeing this manuscript, it came as no surprise that Tolkien’s penmanship was artistically exotic.


In addition to the Jacksonville location, we visited the Charleston museum many times. And even though the exhibits are small, they’re excellent, and as an added bonus, admission is free. The Karpeles website has a list of all 12 locations, and hopefully, you’ll find one close enough for a visit. 

In these days of emails, texts, and Twitter, handwriting is a dying art. My own penmanship is nothing to write home about, but it’s gratifying to know organizations like the Karpeles exist to keep the art alive.

Have you seen an amazing manuscript? Go ahead – namedrop.

Happy Trails,
James and Terri

Karpeles 2

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

48 thoughts

  1. Wow, what an amazing museum to visit, and such fascinating manuscripts and penmanship too! Last year, among my late grandfather’s hidden mementos, I discovered a book with a whole bunch of signatures (and illustrations), some by notable people. Will you believe that Franz Ferdinand and Pauline Astor (yes, I believe, of THE Astor family) are among them? A mystery awaits to be solved.. probably by me, at some point 😉 Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Amit, that’s fantastic! I’m not a collector, but if I were, I would collect manuscripts and maps. They would be framed and all over my walls. Your Ferdinand and Astor signatures sound like a fun research project, and who knows where the project could lead. Very cool. ~James

  2. Very cool. When I head back to my dad’s house in FL maybe I’ll get a chance to head to Jacksonville. Very few people “write” anymore, everything has become electronic. It really loses something.

    1. Laura I’m sure that you’d enjoy the Karpeles. The collection isn’t big, so it wouldn’t be a big time commitment. The building is in an interesting historic area near downtown, and isn’t far off I-95. But, this place runs on a tight budget, so the hours can be unpredictable. Make sure to call ahead to confirm. ~James

    1. There were a couple of additional Dickens pieces that didn’t make it into the post. One was a contract signed by Dickens in which he sold half the copyrights to A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Hey – a man’s gotta eat! ~James

  3. Such an interesting post! And with pics of handwriting samples from the likes of Tolkein, no less. We love to look inside glass cases in museums and examine not only what was written but how. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Rusha. In addition to their wonderful manuscripts, I love the philosophy of this organization. I read an interview with David Karpeles, and he said that they deliberately put the museums in smaller cities for increased accessibility. He said they had an exhibit in NY City and 5 people came. They moved the same exhibit to Jacksonville, and 5,000 people came in one weekend. If you get close to one of these museums (Charleston maybe), make sure to visit. ~James

  4. Love this museum and I haven’t even been there yet. My secret wish has always been to find a diary or journal by someone famous or not. There is only one problem. What if I then cannot read the scribbles. That would be hell.
    These examples have almost made me scratch that wish. 🙂

    1. Tess, I think that finding an old diary would be fantastic. No matter who wrote it, the daily entries about the ebb and flow of life would raise all sorts of mysteries to investigate. One of our readers (that unfortunately, we’ve lost contact with) has a blog based on her grandmother’s diary. The granny was a teenager at the turn of the century, and the blogger would write a post on each day’s entry. It was fascinating. So, I think it’s a great idea if you start browsing the antiquarian bookshops. ~James

  5. Fascinating to see the actual written words of the likes of Einstein!
    James I confess my decades of desperately trying to decipher physician’s handwriting made this nurse welcome the digital age differently than most. I have become ridiculously dependent on auto correct but from a professional standpoint the move away from handwriting decreased the risk of misinterpretation of patient orders tremendously.

    1. Sue, I can imagine that, for any number of reasons, that for someone in your line of work, legible writing was paramount. It’s fun to attempt to interpret a Dickens sentence, but having to guess on a patient’s meds because of sloppy writing is another thing entirely. In these litigious times, how has this tradition continued? ~James

      1. I can not speak for the US but here most charting is now done on an electronic medical record. This has made an astounding difference. Praise be to technology in this area!

  6. I’ve spent a fair amount of time doing genealogical research. At one point, I came across a treasure trove of documents relating to my family during the Revolutionary War. Finding the trove was one thing; interpreting it was another. Even when the penmanship was beautiful, as it often was, there were numerous words that needed to be defined. 🙂 –Curt

    1. The Revolutionary War? Very cool Curt. I’m curious what the documents were (fodder for a post perhaps?). I’m sure that an area of study at the time was penmanship, but vocabulary can certainly change over 250 years. At the time was there a big difference in American English vs. British English? ~James

    1. I had been to another Karpeles Museum, and knew what to expect, but the exhibit in Jacksonville was outstanding. The manuscripts were all interesting, and we had the place to ourselves – all the better to study the documents in detail. ~James

  7. Ah the written word and the author’s unique style of penmanship! Wonderful insight into a worthy museum I had no idea existed, thank you. I’m headed to the website to see if there is one near me. If you ever get to Boston my favorite hideaway is the Isabella Stewart Gardner http://www.gardnermuseum.org/home is another gem and I am not a huge museum fan! Temples in the jungle, now that’s a different story.

    1. I checked out the Gardner Martha and it looks cool. I love these smaller museums with eclectic collections. You never know what you’ll see, and they aren’t such a big time commitment. Sometimes large museums give me museum overload and I find that I can’t fully appreciate the collection. ~James

    1. Thanks Susan. As I said to another commenter, there were a few other interesting Dickens pieces. One was a contract signed by Dickens in which he sold half the copyrights to A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Imagine that happening to a famous author today. ~James

  8. How interesting these manuscripts are! As are the illustrations the Kyd made…. I agree that seeing someone’s handwriting (especially a famous person such as these three here) is such an intimate look inside their character..
    I too still enjoy seeing a handwritten note instead of an email, every once and a while..
    And I agree that Tolkien had a very mysterious handwriting! Hmmmm intriguing!
    Thanks again for posting.. I enjoyed reading, as always …

    1. Thanks Lia. I must admit that, like most people, I’ve fallen into the digital trap as well. I don’t actually hand write much any more except very short notes. The majority of my writing is this blog, and it’s completely done on my laptop. So no Gallivance manuscripts for future generations. ~James

      1. Oh, too bad! I’d be curious to see your handwriting… I’ve always been interested in the way people write… And found those handwriting analysis tests rather interesting!
        Your blog however will thankfully remain for future generations via the blogosphere!

  9. Love the sentiment (to stimulate learning in children) and the content!

    Wonderful idea to rotate the articles on a quarterly basis as well

    1. Chris, I love the entire philosophy of this organization. It addition to their focus on kids, all their museums are in smaller cities for accessibility, and they buy and renovate historic buildings in neighborhoods that are in transition. It’s win-win on all fronts. ~James

  10. I love to see original manuscripts like this too. I loved seeing a Hemingway exhibit at the Portrait Gallery in D.C. many years ago. I love seeing Tolkien’s handwriting. It is very exotic!!

    1. I haven’t seen any Hemingway manuscripts Cathy, but given what a character he was I’m sure there was lots of interesting personal touches and stories in his handwriting. I envision paper with coffee cup and booze glass stains, and the odd cigar burn. ~James

      1. Yes, if I remember that was the case, James. It was quite a while ago, but I do remember the many changes he made in his manuscripts. He didn’t get it all right the first time. 🙂

      1. You have digital manuscripts then. Unfortunately they won’t make much of a display in the Library of Congress in 200 years time. Will check out the website. Thanks!

  11. A very interesting post James! There is something very appealing to me about the handwritten word. Quite often I find myself writing something long-hand before I type it on the keyboard. To see the likes of Albert Einstein and Charles Dicken’s manuscripts would be fascinating.

    1. Thanks LuAnn. I don’t hand write long letters or notes anymore (my penmanship has gone to the dogs). I pretty much use the laptop and WP. But I’m a note and list maker, and to avoid all those tiny bits of paper stuck all over the place, I’m trying to go paperless. Having said that, I love these old manuscripts and find them so interesting. ~James

      1. I know what you mean about the bits of paper. Terry is always reminding me of how wonderful it would be if only they were all in one place. 😉

  12. When I saw Jane Austen´s handwritten draft of one of her books at the British Museum, I was so moved. She was very messy with notes all over the place. At that moment she became a real person to me. On that same visit to the British Museum, I also saw the original last entry in Captain Scott’s diary and I wept.

    1. Darlene, I suspect there’s enough information about technique in Austen’s margin notes to teach a class in creative writing. Edits by hand show so much about the creative process. BTW, do you handwrite anything when you’re working on a book? ~James

      1. I do often scribble down ideas before I start typing. It is amazing how the ideas flow when handwriting. Also I often get ideas when I am no where near my computer. Thanks for asking.

    1. I’m exactly the same Marie. My penmanship was never very good, but over the years it’s definitely gotten worse. I suspect that it’s because I do everything on my laptop now, and if I do write something, 99% of the time I’m the only one who’s going to read it. We’re a product of our technology I guess. ~James

  13. There’s something about old manuscripts and letters that carry a breath of history in them. Like writing manuscripts by hand, letter writing is also becoming a dying art, and in future biographers will have little to base their books on.

    1. Interesting thought on biographers Dorothy. I hadn’t thought of that. I haven’t really read anything on the trend, but there must be some long term effects on what and how we write in the digital vs handwriting days. This topic is also timely for us, because lately we’ve been working on going paperless in our personal and financial records. We’ve made lots of headway, but actually, we’ve found that it sometimes is a hard cord to cut. ~James

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