Reading Old Handwriting

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National Handwriting Day, celebrated since 23 January 1977, promotes the importance of penmanship and its ability to express the personality of an individual.

In the ensuing years, our use of computers and typewriters has led many to bemoan the loss of penmanship skills.

Would the signature of John Hancock, who was born on this day in 1737, have been as impressive if he had not spent many hours during his youth practicing his penmanship?

Genealogists and family historians, in fact any researcher who works with handwritten documents, undoubtedly has great affection for those who had excellent handwriting. Unfortunately, even the best clerks got tired and their handwriting suffered as a result. The difficulties reading handwritten documents are compounded the further one goes back in time because the style of script changes and are not always readily recognizable to the modern reader.

When reading older documents two simple strategies will help:

First, study the individual’s handwriting. Don’t limit yourself to the one letter or census page. Studying all of an individual’s letters or several pages that a census enumerator recorded will pinpoint idiosyncrasies in their personal handwriting style.

Second, know what type of document you are looking at. Deeds, wills and testaments, birth, death, and marriage records use standard phrases. Learning these standard phrases in modern script will help you understand them in an unfamiliar one or even in a different language.

There are several excellent online resources that will help you understand old handwriting:

Useful Tips for Reading Handwritten Documents, from Archives Outside, the official blog of State Records New South Wales, is a useful compendium of tips, clues, and strategies.

Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800 is an online tutorial from the National Archives. The Where to Start section is a useful primer on transcribing, spelling, and abbreviations that is useful for understanding documents from any time period.

Script Tutorial: Making Sense of Old Handwriting from Brigham Young University is an online tutorial for students, researchers, and indexers. Tutorials are currently available for English, German, Spanish, and Italian scripts.

Scottish is an online tutorial from the National Records of Scotland for understanding Scottish documents that were written between 1500 and 1800.

This Fraktur Chart from the Yale University Library provides the Roman alphabetic equivalent for each Fraktur character.

For additional resources visit our Pinterest Board.

To learn more about the personality of your ancestors, please consider the handwriting analysis service offered by

by Amanda Epperson © 2015,, All rights reserved

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January 23, 2015
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