old document with old fashioned script and ink pen

Simple Tips For Reading Old Handwriting in Genealogy Documents

Use these simple tips for reading old handwriting in those genealogy documents and find your ancestors in the records.

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.

pile of old letters written in cursive. Tan block with dark green words reading "Read old Handwriting"
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Simple Tips For Reading Old Handwriting in Genealogy Documents

Deciphering the old handwriting on your ancestors’ documents does get easier the more you do it. 😀 As you work through the tips below, take your time. Don’t rush yourself. Walk away from the document, and do something completely different for a while. I find taking a walk or just being outside in general refreshes my mind and my focus.

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, and the spelling of many words was fluid across many of the letters. The letters also contained local patterns of speech.

Reading the postcards out loud and phonetically shed light on the meaning of the words. I begin to see – or I should say hear – patterns of speech and local dialect in the written text. I was able to decipher the alternate spellings of commonly used words.

Old postcard with postmark dated 18 Jun 1911. Addressed to Miss Esther Richardson
1911 Postcard to Esther Richardson

I felt a bit silly at first reading that text out loud. I only did it when no one else was home!

But once I became immersed in the dialogue of those letters and postcards, I begin to understand Esther and peer group. I picked up interesting tidbits about her life never found in the records. For instance, all the neighborhood boys were trying to court her!

[Spoiler alert – The tall, lanky farmer won out.]

2. Learn what common abbreviations meant. 

I worked in the medical profession for many years. Reading medical records including all those unique-to-the-profession abbreviations was second nature. Put me in a different profession such as the legal profession, and I will struggle to get the full meaning of the terms and abbreviations.

All professions seem to have their own set of abbreviations or their own language if you will.

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

Two good resources to find common Latin abbreviations are Rootsweb Genealogical Abbreviations and FamilySearch’s Latin Genealogical Word List

Take time to research the meaning of any unknown abbreviations you come across.

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.

Example of old deed with red arrows pointing out differences in an "a" and an "o"

In the future, my descendants will likely need to do this! I seemed to have inherited my ancestors’ poor penmanship.

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.  (Yes, my photography skills are a work in progress.)

Original road document  from 1823 petitioning for a new road in Wake County, NC
1823 Wake County, NC Road Petition

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.

Signers on Original road document  from 1823 petitioning for a new road in Wake County, NC
1823 Wake County, NC Road Petitioner

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.

Signers on Original road document  from 1823 petitioning for a new road in Wake County, NC after using photo editing software to improve readability
Edited Version of 1823 Wake County, NC Road Petitioners

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 in different scripts. 

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.

Screenshot from Google image search for old 19th century scripts

6. Practice, Practice, Practice!

You knew this tip was coming!

Practice is the best way to improve your skills for reading old documents and script. There are no shortcuts for this.

The next time you come across a difficult to read document, don’t throw up your hands in despair. Just like learning to find your ancestor’s records, reading old handwriting is a skill that comes 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!

Bonus! Get Social!

Still having trouble deciphering that old handwriting? Get social over on Facebook!

Upload a digital copy of the document to one of the many genealogy Facebook groups and crowdsource your answer.

Build Your Own Genealogy Toolbox

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23 thoughts on “Simple Tips For Reading Old Handwriting in Genealogy Documents”

    1. I am looking forward to reading all you have already I see hints that are helpful especially making a copy and enlarging it. I have seen my family name misspelled many ways and it brothers me when family uses the wrong way it bothered me because of ink deteriorating. My family name I see this in is Hofius. And those looking also are looking for same name but I’ve seen Holpins, Hoffins, because of the sloppy writing. I have had problems also and look forward to the helps you give so I can enjoy working on my family history.

  1. Great tips, Lisa. A few others I would share from experience:
    1. A tip from Peggy Clemens Lauritzen: keep a clear yellow transparency to place over documents or computer screen to help with contrast to make distinguishing letters easier. I made mine by cutting up a folder that I got in the scrapbook section of the craft store. I was designed to hold 8 1/2 x 11 paper and was made like an envelope.
    2. If you find the document online, look to see if the site has an “Invert” feature. Sometimes white on black is easier to read.
    3. If it is a standard type document (will, deed, etc.) look at others like it for help with words; maybe another similar document or one written in the same person’s handwriting might be easier to read or help with the illegible parts of your document.
    4. Try writing out the word yourself; might make the shape of the letters easier to interpret.

  2. Thank you for the great tips! There are times I have used a magnifying glass which has really helped. LOVE receiving your newsletter. Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. I am trying to read a marriage document dated 1791 Germany, 30 Mai – May 1791. The record date 19 June 1791. On Ancestry there are two different dates, unless you read the document and know the German language, it can be misunderstood.

  3. Barbara McGeachy

    Two more tips: (1) Be aware of the “long s”. It looks somewhat like an f or a p but actually represents ss. There is a wikipedia page for it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_s
    I have seen many words transcribed incorrectly. Hint: there is no state Tennepee!
    (2) Extending one of Sheila’s tips about finding the same terminology… Legal documents generally have the same terminology because lawyers and court clerks used form books. For example, deeds often start “Know all men by these presents” which is strange to us. You can find old form books at free websites like Hathi Trust (hathitrust.org). My favorite is “Legal and business forms (other than court forms …” by Francis B. Tiffany, published in 1915. It has forms (including deeds and wills) for all the states. It’s much easier to read the printed forms!

    1. Thanks, for these resources, Barbara! I wasn’t familiar with the book by Francis Tiffany. I’ll definitely check it out.

  4. Clorinda Madsen

    Another thing to do is get another set of eyes looking at the document. I can’t tell how many times I’ve looked until I was cross-eyed, asked someone else to take a peek and they immediately blurt out the correct word. Or they’ve looked and asked me for help and I did the same.

    And to follow that tip, if you can’t make it out, take a break and come back to it. We can suffer from “fatigue” and we just can’t make things out without either another set of eyes or a break.

    I’ve also sometimes looked for other sources of the same document. Some partnerships have the exact same images as say the state archives, but there are multiple digitizations of some of the earlier censuses so you can look at Ancestry’s and Archive. org’s and Heritage Quest’s to see which one is more clear for instance.

    1. For the longest time I couldn’t find a great aunt May born in the 1890s and listed in a census. When reviewing the page later, I noticed that words like Harry with two r’s looked like Hary and realized the writer just formed the ry incorrectly. Once I searched for Mary instead of May, I immediately found her birth record and sadly, her death certificate from a few years later.

      1. That’s great detective work on your part and a good illustration how researchers need to be “creative” in name variations when searching. Thanks for sharing your success story.

  5. So much great information! I agree, if you can’t figure it out, play with it in a photo program, have others look at it, share it in various groups online.
    I have ancestors from Pittsylvania County, VA also!! I wish I could go out there and do some research, one of my brick walls comes from there.

  6. I believe the latest version has included a reverse image feature.

    As suggested reading the letter / document out loud may help. There times when I will transcribe the document leaving a blank space with maybe the first two letters included. When done I try the reading out loud method.

  7. Carol J. McClure

    Thank you Lisal, this has been most helpful . I also thank the others for their input on reading old script, Now maybe I can translate my old family letters and also it will help reading a name of a greatgrandmother who has been a brick wall.

  8. You might also want to “cut” an image into two parts, and adjust each part separately. I had one page where the lower part was extremely dark, and the writing on the upper part of the page was very faint. I did this, then darkened the upper part of the page, and lightened the lower part. Readability improved on each.

  9. Janelle Holmes

    As a long time transcriber of handwritten documents, I think the worse ones are 16th and 17th century with their fancy script and crowded lettering. I started out transcribing one will and discovered it ran 15 pages, (digital copies online), so just downloaded them all for later. My father made many Xerox copies of court documents and then brought them home. As his macular degeneration progressed, he was taking these to a Quik Kopy and having them blow up to 10 x their normal size in sections. It helped him but I found it worse. I prefer to zoom in on a digital copy and heartily agree using a photo editor helps tremendously. I generally find the Windows photo editor all I need since it has filters and light/contrast and clarity adjustments.

    The photo editors now available on My Heritage which allow colorization and definition can also do wonders. I improved several old color photos which came out nice and crisp.

  10. Lisa,
    are you aware of the use of the word “law” in place of in-law in the 1700’s? I read the old meaning of in-law was “anyone of a relationship not natural or ‘not by blood’ ”
    (vocabulary.com). I have a will that the deceased says he gives his son, John, [then] law’s Richard Bennett… The deceased had a step son named Richard Bennett & I think he gave the land to both of these men.
    Thanks, Kay

    1. Kay, I’m not sure about that, but certainly sounds plausible. I’ll have to do a bit more research into the terms “law” and “in-law” for that time period.

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