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.
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. 😀
Fun Fact: Palaeography is the study and deciphering of old writing.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
The Best Websites to Help With Reading Old Handwriting
When deciphering your ancestor’s will or other documents with hard to read old cursive writing, keep these sites bookmarked for reference and sharpening your skills at deciphering old handwriting.
The UK National Archives
The tutorials for reading that old handwriting are excellent here on the Palaegraphy page at the U. K. National Archives. Once going through the tutorials, you’ll also have opportunities to practice even more. Knowing how to read old handwriting is a skill that will be crucial to finding your ancestors.
Have you traced your ancestors back to the the 15th – mid-17th century? If so, you likely have encountered “secretary hand” which was the predominant handwriting style during that time. Typically, “secretary hand” was used by those copying records such as clerks and scribes. Check out the Yale University’s tutorial all about deciphering “secretary hand”.
The National Genealogical Society
The National Genealogical Society has an excellent online course on learning to read old handwriting. If you are looking to sharpen your skills, check out the NGS course.
Build Your Own Genealogy Toolbox
Other Posts of Interests:
- How To Stock Your Genealogy Toolbox for Success
- 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