When Documents are More than Just Words

Opening the worn, soft-bound leather cover of a hefty volume of notarial documents produced in nineteenth-century Mexico City, I hoped to find a neat index orienting me to the volume’s contents—wills, transactions of business dealings, inventories, and the like. Notaries historically occupied important positions in Mexican society, producing all manner of legal writings used in conducting business and personal affairs. For several weeks, I had been working through the notarial registries stored in government archives in search of my own subject of study: Mexico City printers, whose business dealings I would analyze to reconstruct the negotiations that went on behind the printed page.

On that day, I expected to flip through to a particular leaf in the crumbling volume before me, read the script scrawled across its face, and puzzle out the addenda squeezed into the margins. I already knew from reading work like Kathryn Burns’ Into the Archive that notarial writings should be approached critically, and that such documents might be better understood as pieces on a chessboard used by historical actors in power struggles not necessarily reflected clearly in the written record. With this idea rattling around in the back of my mind, I sat in front of the leather-bound volume, ready to trace out financial transactions between many changing parties, transcribe inventories into spreadsheets, and skim through the legal boilerplate before my vision blurred and either hunger won out or I ran out of time when the archives closed at two thirty.

This time, my eyes rested not on line after line of studied script or a neat index, but on the most unusual title page. The contents were fairly standard—the title page featured the notary’s name, a religious dedication, and the date of production—but the format and style grabbed my attention. Rather than a perfunctory inscription, each line of this impressive title page reproduced, in minute hand-rendered detail, a different typographic style. In 1843, a scribe had imitated typefaces with a pen and ink. During the following weeks, I discovered a number of these title pages, some featuring drop shadow typefaces that looked like they belonged on a circus poster, others with lettering that reproduced the style one might expect to see engraved on a U.S. bank note.

Figure 1Archivo General de Notarías, Acervo Histórico “Corpus Christi,” Notaría No. 171, José Mariano Ceballos, 1843.

To my twenty-first century eyes—and as someone with a basic training in contemporary graphic design—this title page contained a ridiculous mash-up of styles, reminiscent of the early days of desktop publishing when writers thought it might be a good idea to use every single font when they should have stuck with Times New Roman. As a historian of printing in nineteenth-century Mexico, however, I recognized this aesthetic (albeit magnified by a power of ten) from the title pages of typical pamphlets, of the sort issued by important politicians or even the new national government to engage a polemic or disseminate new legislation.

Figure 2Manifestación al público del impresor ciudadano Ignacio Cumplido. Mexico: Imprenta del autor, 1840.

As a scholar accustomed to thinking about print and writing as separate kinds of media made in very different contexts, this clear stylistic cross-pollination had me scratching my head. I became more and more puzzled as I uncovered further examples of this phenomenon in other notarial volumes and dusty ledgers prepared by government bureaucrats in the mid nineteenth century.

By the time scribal mimicry of typography made its way into the archival record in the late 1830s, Mexico City had become a capital awash in type designs. These designs proliferated in major international centers of type production in the U.S. and Europe and arrived in Mexico as imports. In Mexico City, printers ordered and experimented with novelty typefaces, developing local genre conventions in dialogue with styles that circulated around the Atlantic. New type styles were apparently so exciting that bored scribes took time out from their transcriptions to painstakingly construct reproductions of them. Perhaps notaries were also lured by the potential of print to convey other kinds of ideas for those they expected to flip through their volumes and encounter their penmanship—novelty and links to a cosmopolitan world of knowledge production; authority as expressed in new forms of print that emerged with republicanism; the ability of the hand to match the exactness of reproduction offered by metal type. Just whom did notaries hope to address or impress with their dazzling transcriptions? Clients, officials, and litigious parties might have had other priorities in mind, yet the notaries invested considerable effort in their creations. Stumbling over scribes’ appropriations of print, in turn, offered me clues into how contemporaries in Mexico might have perceived that medium and constructed its social and political functions. Perhaps scribes lay claim to print not only to impress patrons and bureaucratic superiors with design savvy, but also to reassert the primacy of the written text and its makers—against incursions by the burgeoning world of print—through mastery of the typographic letterform in hand-rendered ink.

The cross-media fad of drawing type offers an opportunity for methodological reflection beyond my own research on the material and cultural politics of print in nineteenth-century Mexico City, especially for historians and scholars accustomed to thinking about documents as texts. For one, the initial experience of noticing this phenomenon highlights the importance of switching our analytical skills away from textual and numerical evidence—if only from time to time—towards the visual and material qualities of the sources most commonly examined by historians and scholars of other disciplines. Those training in history (my home discipline) spend countless hours puzzling out the obvious and subtle meanings embedded in texts, analyzing legal testimony for hidden transcripts, and compiling and crunching numeric evidence from ledgers, censuses and notarial records. Many are less attuned, however, to the basic material and visual ways in which these texts and information were presented.

Rather than thinking about materiality and visual qualities as just the vehicles for texts, we can also ask how they are intertwined with or perhaps work at cross purposes against texts. Digitization efforts—extremely important as they are—may exacerbate our lack of awareness of the context in which the sources we use to construct histories moved. After all, many digitized newspapers have been scanned from blurry microfilm reels or facsimile editions lying around in library collections. Developing a field sense of how historical documents were made and used—and how they relate to the broader constellation of other documents—can bring new depth and directions to any research project, encompassing not only obvious questions about audience, but more complex inquiry into the role documents played in political, social, economic, and cultural formations. While this does not necessarily demand that we reframe how we approach our research, taking the time to develop historical media literacy towards the written and printed materials we so heavily rely upon may yield unexpected results.

Corinna Zeltsman
History Department
Duke University


I wish to thank Mexico City’s Gobierno del Distrito Federal, the Archivo General de Notarías and the Acervo Histórico “Corpus Christi” for granting permission to access their facilities and reproduce the above images.


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