I recently had to review a pamphlet co-authored by Joseph McIlvaine, a Whig politician in early 19th century Pennsylvania and secretary to the Board of Canal Commissioners, which in turn led me to check nr92033232 “M’Ilvaine, Joseph, 1799 or 1800-1838.”  The either/or birthdate was arrived at by extrapolating from his age at death.  In fact, he was definitely born in 1800, from several sources, plus the fact that his brother’s tombstone has a birth date of 1799. 


If it is worth correcting the birth date, what about the changing orthography whereby a lower case “c” replaced an apostrophe as the way of rendering “Mc”?  The family is generally known as “McIlvaine.”  The NAR for his father, Senator Joseph McIlvaine  (nr93035678) and brother Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine (n 86838935) both have the AAP as “McIlvaine.”  In the case of the senator, the AAP was taken from the Congressional biographical directory, although the signature on the 1824 work was the older “M’Ilvaine.”  The bishop clearly lived into the period when “Mc” was the normal spelling.


What, if anything should be changed here?  If “almost” is “good enough to retrieve a work,” then probably nothing.  The signatures of father and son will most likely be found only buried in government documents.  They are more “talked about” in the press and contemporary political letters than authors of works.  If the rule to copy what you see in the work is ironclad, then the senator’s name might be changed to “M’Ilvaine.”  If, as in genealogy and family history, family has a coherence apart from individual members, does consistency in surname matter?   In the larger sense, what does one do with obsolete orthography?


Chris Baer

Hagley Museum and Library