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Overheard in GenForum: Understanding Old Handwriting
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

July 29, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Can anyone tell me where I can find a site that explains and deciphers old handwriting? I don't want to analyze it as the written word has changed so much over the years, with dots and lines etc. being a common practice a hundred or so years ago. -- S

A: Handwriting can indeed be a major stumbling block to the researching of our family history. The further back we go the harder it is to read the writing. I know that when I was in school and we were studying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that those looked like gibberish to me. My children say I should be worried that I can now read through it as easily as though it were typed.

I think that as we begin to push back our ancestry our training in handwriting is begun. First we learn how to master the scrawl of the census enumerator. Then we must decipher the writing of the clerk who recorded grandpa's land deed. Bit by bit we head back to the older writings. The art of reading older handwriting is known as paleography.

Paleography is the study of early handwriting and it is critical to the professional of our ancestral research.

Easier Said than Done

I won't fool you, reading the early handwriting will be one of the more difficult aspects of your genealogical research. There will be times that you will not know what a word or phrase is. Other times you will have trouble distinguishing certain letters. In such instances, it is always helpful if you have a fellow researcher who can look at the document. It is a good idea to make a transcription while you have the microfilm. Very often, even the best of photocopies, will have light patches or will add to reading difficulty.

There are a number of web sites that you will find useful in understanding the old styled handwritings.

Turning to Books

Not surprisingly, there are a number of reliable and useful books on this subject. I am including just a couple.

Kip Sperry's Reading Early American Handwriting was published by Genealogical Publishing Company in 1998. This almost 300-page book looks at all aspects of handwriting. However, the major benefit is the last half of the book, where examples and their transcriptions are shown side by side. This is an excellent way to hone your skills. The book includes a variety of records and important items such as the names of the months, and names for both men and women. The examples cover a time frame of early 1600s on up through the late 1800s.

For those who are researching in foreign countries, there is another valuable book for you. Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman was published in 1994 by Avotaynu, Inc. This book includes the alphabet and various documents for the following languages:

  • German
  • Swedish
  • French
  • Italian
  • Latin
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Spanish
  • Czech
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Hungarian (Magyar)
  • Lithuanian

Online Resources

Just as there are online web sites with information and examples for English handwriting, there are also some web sites to help those with German writing:

In Conclusion

Like other aspects of genealogical research, the more often we work with these older handwritings, the easier it becomes to read. If you know you are going to have to work with some records of old handwriting, allot enough time to read through them thoroughly.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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