Reading Old Handwriting (Paleography)

Reading old handwriting can be challenging. Prior to Noah Websterís An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, spelling was primarily phonetic: words and names were spelled the way they sounded. Making matters more difficult, those originating from countries other than England spoke with different accents, and those from different parts of England used different dialects.

Census records are often the most difficult to read because spelling was not standardized, census takers were often in a hurry or tired from traveling and thus made errors such as adding or omitting letters, and census takers may have had difficulties understanding some of the people they interviewed.

Penmanship also plays a major role in the difficulty of reading old handwriting.

To minimize transcription errors it is important to become familiar with the basics of old ways of writing. This step is not difficult. Recognize the alphabet and numbers:

A a B b C c D d E e F f G g H h I i J j K k L l M m
N n O o P p Q q R r S s T t U u V v W w X x Y y Z z
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

Note that the letters "I" and "J" are similar in appearance, as are the letters "L" and "S" and "H" and "K."

One should use recognized words as a guide to reading other words. That may involve checking for regularities in the penmanship style of the handwriting one is trying to read. Once several words are recognized the recognized letters can then be applied to other harder-to-read words.

To avoid errors when deciphering or transcribing words, it also helps to look at additional information (such as whether the person in question is male or female) and to say the word aloud. For instance, when having difficulty reading the name "Susan" one can check to see if the person's gender is indicated elsewhere. If the person is female, chances are good that the name is not "Lusan" but "Susan"; if male, itís quite possible that the name is "Lucian" and was merely poorly written. Penmanship varied from person to person, but most tried to stay within the guidelines of the cursive alphabet.

One common problem in reading old handwriting is the "double S." Today when a word contains two consecutive letters "S," they are written in the same manner, whereas in old documents they were written as "fs." "Sefsions" is an example of the surname "Sessions" which could be mistakenly read as "Sefsions." In an old court document the word "confession" could be written as "confefsion."

See: The original version of this article in pdf format which includes handwriting samples.