Pictured: Wilson’s shorthand draft of his first inaugural address, March 4, 1913. Courtesy of the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress.
Shorthand, also known as stenography, is a method of rapid writing by means of abbreviations and symbols. During Wilson’s lifetime, shorthand was used to record information quickly, such as in taking notes, drafting letters, or taking dictation. Today we use a form of shorthand when we text, tweet, or chat online using common acronyms like “LOL,” “OMG,” or “BFF.”
Wilson had a lifelong interest in shorthand, which began when he was just 16 years old. Never a fast reader, Wilson did not learn the alphabet until he was nine years old and did not learn to read until he was twelve. Historians now believe that he was afflicted by a form of dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder. Shorthand provided Wilson with a way of overcoming his learning disability.
After reading about the new Graham system of shorthand in Frank Leslie’s Boys’ and Girls’ Weekly, Wilson began a two year correspondence course to teach himself the system. Through hard work and practice he successfully mastered the system, which he continued to use for the rest of his life. The Graham system, which was less well known than the more popular Pitman and Gregg systems, is a form of phonography in which phonetic sounds are represented by different symbols. Each symbol represents a different sound depending on its shape, length, thickness, and position.