Reading old handwriting in genealogy documents can be tough for a variety of reasons.
Faded ink. Poor penmanship. Unusual script.
Add in unfamiliar language and new-to -you abbreviations and interpreting your ancestor’s document just got more tedious.
Don’t panic! I’m here to help with tips for reading old handwriting!
With practice you will become more skilled and confident when you read that old handwriting.
Simple Tips For Reading Old Handwriting in Genealogy Documents
1.Read the document out loud.
This may sound simple, and really it is. Think phonetically. Words might have been spelled differently or simply spelled at they sounded to the writer. This is especially true if you are working with family documents such as old family letters or the family Bible.
My great grandmother Esther Lee Richardson (of Pittsylvania County, VA) corresponded regularly with a large number of friends and cousins in the early 1900’s. I am fortunate to have that collection and use it in my research of her. However, let’s just say, not all of those postcards are easy to read. Penmanship might have been poor, but the spelling of many words was fluid. The letters also contained local patterns of speech.
Reading the postcards out loud and phonetically shed light on the meaning of the words.
2. Learn what common abbreviations meant.
Abbreviations in documents were common in our ancestor’s time as well as now. Learning and understanding what they meant is crucial to fully deciphering and understanding a document.
A few examples include:
- et al = and others
- wit = witness
- do = same
- w/o = wife of
- bapt or B = baptized
3. Compare letters or words with other words in the same document.
If you have a troublesome word in a document or if you are wondering if a letter is an “a” or an “o”, look for known words or letters in the document so you can compare the two. You will learn the style of the writer and be able to pick up on peculiarities of that writer’s handwriting.
4. Create an image of the document and edit the image for easier reading.
If you have a document that is faded and difficult to read, scan the document and convert it to a jpeg file. Alternately, take a digital photograph of the document. Then use photo editing software to enhance the image for easier reading.
By adjusting contrast, brightness and even just size, often the document becomes easier to read.
I prefer to use Vivid-Pix for editing my images of the documents I work with.
Take this Wake County, NC road record. I found this at the archives and took a digital photograph of it.
Here is a close up of the bottom portion with the signatures. I have multiple ancestors who were signers of the petition for this new road and wanted to make sure I could identify all the names there.
I uploaded the digital image of the signers into Vivid-Pix. Vivid-Pix gave me a variety of suggested choices for fixing the image, and I chose the one I thought would work best. Next, I made slight adjustments to make the document even easier to read and saved the newly edited image. Easy.
See how crisp and clear the document became? I love having a clean copy of so many of my ancestors original signatures!
Take advantage of the Vivid-Pix Free trial! It’s a great way to try out the software with your own photos and see if it’s right for you.
5. Have a sample of the alphabet for the time period you are researching close by.
If you are reading a 19th document, seek out a copy of a 19th century alphabet. Simply perform a google search for “19th century handwriting alphabet”. Click on “images” in the menu bar of the results page and you will have many options to use.
6. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Don’t throw up your hands in despair when you find those hard to read documents for your ancestors. Just like learning to find your ancestor’s records, reading old handwriting is a skill that come with practice. You CAN do this!
Add these tips and resources to your genealogy toolbox and you are on your way to understanding your ancestors better!
Other Posts of Interests:
- How To Perform Your Genealogy Searches More Successfully
- Restoring Old Family Photos – A Vivid-Pix Tutorial
- Free Printable – 15 Quick Genealogy Tasks To Do in 15 Minutes
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