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Useful Tips for Reading Handwritten Documents

Cerificate of Freedom 31-1043 Patrick Hayden

With acknowledgements to Gail Davis, Lindsay Allen, Richard Gore, Janette Pelosi, Bob Meade , Julie Hallett, David Hunter , Lee , Susan Walter, Pat & Iain Stuart.

In these days of Web 2.0 and the use of high tech tools and databases which can answer research queries in an instant, the challenge presented by reading and interpreting handwritten archival documents often comes as a surprise to first time researchers.  In fact interpreting old handwriting can be a laborious and time consuming task for even the most experienced.

Sometimes this is because the handwriting is illegible which can appear in documents of any time period! However, it can also be because of the writing styles and conventions used in older records, such as those from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which are so different from those used today.

Practical Tips

I consulted the brains trust at State Records  for some of their top hints for interpreting handwritten documents based on the most frequently asked questions over the years.  I’ve also incorporated the tips provided by contributors in the comments below. This is what we’ve jointly came up with so far.

1. Strategies

General

  • Compare similar types of documents, if possible those written by the same person as some aspects of style can be idiosyncratic to an individual.
  • Spend time comparing the words and letters in a document to those around them.
  • Compare letters or combinations of letters with those in a known word.
  • Check the position, start, middle or end of a word and look for combinations which may be one or more letters. For example ‘incorrigible’ has ‘in’ at the start but elsewhere these letters might have been confused with ‘m’. Often ‘n’ and ‘u’ look similar, as do ‘h’ and ‘k’.
  • Often the more time you spend reading a document the clearer it will become, sometimes it’s a good idea to come back to it after a break.
  • Show the document to someone else without telling them what you think it says.
  • Use common sense, more often than not the simple explanation is the correct one.
  • If all else fails give it to a person over the age of 70 (e.g. your grandmother) or an experienced person from a local historical society.
  • Persistence is the key.

Transcribing from copies

  • Be wary of transcribing from photocopies (especially if the original is in pencil) as the crosses in capital F, for example, can be hard to spot and they get transcribed as T.
  •  If relying on digital images make sure they are very high resolution so you can zoom in to the detail where you might pick up subtle pen strokes not otherwise visible.

Reading cross writing

  • Where there is cross writing in a document (i.e. a second layer of writing written at a 90 degree angle to the text), turn the letter so that the writing you are trying to read is at the top of the page.

Don’t take other transcriptions at face value

  • If the document has been indexed dont take the indexers word for it that the keywords have been read correctly. I recently got a death certificate for a Chinese person where surname had been indexed as Ah Pook but when I viewed the original it was clearly Ah Fook. Same applied to Lee Sing it was actually Lee Ling (in some handwriting capital L can be mis-read as capital S)

 2. Useful equipment

  • Use a magnifying glass.
  • In a blank piece of paper cut a slit or window the length and width of one line of text. Scroll it down over the text line by line. This is particularly useful to decipher cross writing. This eliminates most of the confusing background to the text under examination.

 3. Tips about lettering, symbols and abbreviations

Lettering

  • A letter may be written differently depending on its position in the word. In the example given the letter ‘r’ in ‘brown’ is written differently to the letter ‘r’ at the end of ‘October’ and is different again in ‘ruddy’.
  • Capital letters have different forms to non-capital letters.
  • Try making a sheet onto which you copy the style in which key identifiable letters are written and build up an “alphabet” for that persons handwriting. As you get a feel for it, unidentified letters will probably fit into those you have yet to identify.
  • Where there is a double “ss” in a word this will often appear as “fs” in cursive handwriting in older documents, this is known as the leading S.
  • The German ‘ß’ looks similar to a leading S.

 Abbreviations

  • Ditto is  a term that means “the same as stated above or as before”. It is often expressed with two lines (“) or (do.), which means that the word, figure or phrase above is to be repeated.
  • Be aware of abbreviations (sometimes words that have been abbreviated later can be found written in full together with the abbreviation at the beginning of a document).
  • Given names and Family names are commonly abbreviated in documents, such as Chas for Charles or Thos for Thomas.
  • Look out for Latin words and phrases as these are commonly used.
  • Obedient might be abbreviated to “obt.”
  • Where documents such as inquests refer to dates on which things happened or will happen, you may find abbreviations such as inst. (instant) prox. (proximo) and ult. (ultimo). Instant will refer to a date in the same month in which the document is written (e.g. I went to visit him on the third inst.) Proximo is the next month, Ultimo is the previous month.
  • a lower case c with a slanted stress mark above it stands for “with”.

Symbols

  • When money is being recorded the columns may not be headed with the symbols for pounds, shillings and pence ( £  s.  d. ), i.e. there may be unheaded columns of numbers.

 4. Use reference tools and resources

Place names

  • Look out for place names that may have changed over time, just because it isn’t in a street directory today doesn’t mean your interpretation is wrong.  It may be necessary to consult geographical dictionaries and old place name guides. If you are looking for a place in New South Wales the Geographical Names Register is a handy online resource. (N.B. Geographical Names Register does not necessarily hold information on old or obsolete place names.  For example the small mining town Argenton near Emmaville was active for 10 years but there is no trace of it on the Geographical Names Broad but the Aregenton at Lake Macquarie is listed.)

Use expert sources and dictionaries

  • Consult expert sources on a particular type of record e.g. State Records Convict Guide has a Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations and dictionaries on Law, Medicine and Finance are always useful.
  • One point of interest is that some legal documents have terms that are not now in general use or standard phrases. For example old systems titles almost always had a reference to buildings and other things which is a stock phrase whether or not the land had buildings on it. It does not indicate that a building such as a house was on the land or not it merely covers the situation where a house or other buildings or fences …etc were on the land. I have found that purchasing a few of the older legal texts helps understand Old System titles and selection files because in those days old documents were often encountered by lawyers.
  • If you are reading inquests, medical records, hospital admissions or death certificates there is a great website for old medical terms with examples of them written in old handwriting. It is http://www.antiquusmorbus.com/English/EnglishP.htm Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms.

Consult experts

  • If you can track down someone who has knowledge of the subject matter and arcane abbreviations it can help to flick them a scan of the document. Amateur historians are usually willing to help.

When in doubt try Google

  • Once you have worked out what two or three words are which may be key to solving the puzzle, putting those two or three words into Google search can yield a something about the subject matter or something about the person concerned which help to decipher other relevant details. If you know what words to look for, it makes it easier to recognise them in the old script.

 

Useful Tools

In some cases, however, it may be necessary to learn more about older writing, spelling and grammatical conventions to ensure handwriting is interpreted correctly. Fortunately there are a number of handy tools on the web that can give you a crash course.

  • A brief rundown of some of the common tips and tricks for deciphering old handwriting can be found in the following article on “Old Handwriting in Geneaology Research” by Sabina J Murray.
  • The National Archives in the United Kingdom has a wonderful practical online tutorial on translating english documents written between 1500-1800. Then when you’ve finished you can test your new found expertise in the ducking stool game.
  • If you are interested in pursuing things a bit further and practising your transcription skills on some well known verses and correspondence the Cambridge English Renaissance Electronic Service (CERES) presents a more in depth online course on English Handwriting 1500-1700.

(N.B. While these tools are based on an earlier time period than that covered by most Australian archival collections, many of the lessons learnt can be carried forward.)

If you have some more tips please let me know and I’ll update the list.

Anyone brave enough to post their ducking stool score? I drowned after 4 words!

  • Janette Pelosi says:

    Another tip is to compare letters or combinations of letters with those in a known word. A letter may be written differently depending on its position in the word. In the example given the letter ‘r’ in ‘brown’ is written differently to the letter ‘r’ at the end of ‘October’ and is different again in ‘ruddy’. Check the position, start, middle or end of word and look for combinations which may be one or more letters. For example ‘incorrigible’ has ‘in’ at the start but elsewhere these letters might have been confused with ‘m’. Often ‘n’ and ‘u’ look similar, as do ‘h’ and ‘k’. Capital letters have different forms to non-capital letters.

    July 21, 2009 at 10:17 pm
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    Thanks for the new tips Janette, they’re very handy. I’ve added them to the list.

    July 22, 2009 at 10:31 am
  • Bob Meade says:

    Those are great tips. Thank you.

    I have two tips to add.

    1. If you can track down someone who has knowledge of the subject matter and arcane abbreviations it can help to flick them a scan of the document. Amateur historians are usually willing to help. I have found this useful in deciphering and interpreting military records held at the National Archives of Australia.

    2. Once you have worked out what two or three words are which may be key to solving the puzzle, putting those two or three words into Google search can yield a something about the subject matter or something about the person concerned which help to decipher other relevant details. If you know what words to look for, it makes it easier to recognise them in the old script.

    Here is my finest achievement in using google to decipher handwriting and add value to an old photograph previously unloved:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/27337026@N03/3076297366/

    August 9, 2009 at 4:38 pm
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    Thanks Bob, I’ve updated the post to include your advice. Some great detective work with that photo!

    August 10, 2009 at 10:16 pm
  • Julie Hallett says:

    In a blank piece of paper cut a slit or window the length and width of one line of text. Scroll it down over the text line by line. this is particularly useful to decipher cross writing. This eliminates most of the confusing background to the text under examination.

    August 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    Thanks Julie. I’ve incorporated your advice into the article above. I know from my own experience it can be tricky for the untrained eye to block out the background noise.

    August 24, 2009 at 1:52 pm
  • David Hunter says:

    Having worked in an archive for a number of years, the best advice that I can give is to persist. Eventually, you’ll figure it out.

    I’ve worked with some shockingly bad handwriting. It is not uncommon to take a few days to completely “translate” an A4 page in extreme circumstances.

    Consulting others is also a good idea. Not just for their own understanding, but simply for another set of eyes. If you can’t find another historian with experience, a non-historian friend may still be useful in deciphering specific letters.

    April 6, 2010 at 2:30 pm
  • Lee says:

    That’s all very interesting. I have spent years as a researcher transcribing documents, both personal & those held in public institutions, ranging from 12th century parchment property transfers to 20th century (all pre google). You may want to add that “do.” is also used for ditto & you may actually wish to post the symbols for £ s. d. (for people who may not have previously encountered them). Also the German ‘ß’ is very close to what you describe as a leading S.

    April 7, 2010 at 11:49 am
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    It’s great to see the comments in this post ticking over again.

    @David Hunter – I agree persistance is the key. It should be the mantra for anyone carrying out this sort of work!

    @Lee – Thanks for sharing your experiences and giving some additional tips.

    I’ll update the post with these new hints.

    April 8, 2010 at 10:51 am
  • Susan Walter says:

    It is also important to understand the era in which a document is written and the writing styles, protocols and conformities of the time. An example being ending a letter with “I remain, sir, your obedient servant…..”
    where obedient might be abbreviated to “obt.”
    Where documents such as inquests refer to dates on which things happened or will happen, you may find abbreviations such as inst. (instant) prox. (proximo) and ult. (ultimo). Instant will refer to a date in the same month in which the document is written (e.g. I went to visit him on the third inst.) Proximo is the next month, Ultimo is the previous month.
    Be wary of transcribing from photocopies (especially if the original is in pencil) as the crosses in captial F, for example, can be hard to spot and they get transcribed as T. If relying on digital images make sure they are very high resolution so you can zoom in to the detail where you might pick up subtle pen strokes not otherwise visible.
    Try making a sheet onto which you copy the style in which key identifiable letters are written and build up an “alphabet” for that persons handwriting. As you get a feel for it, unidentified letters will probably fit into those you have yet to identify.
    If you are reading inquests, medical records, hospital admissions or death certificates there is a great website for old medical terms with examples of them written in old handwriting. It is
    http://www.antiquusmorbus.com/English/EnglishP.htm
    Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms. I use it a lot.
    If the document has been indexed dont take the indexers word for it that the keywords have been read correctly. I recently got a death certificate for a Chinese person where surname had been indexed as Ah Pook but when I viewed the original it was clearly Ah Fook. Same applied to Lee Sing it was actually Lee Ling (in some handwriting captial L can be mis-read as captial S)
    I agree that spending time with the document is a key to understanding it and the handwriting of the author. If all else fails give it to a person over the age of 70 (e.g. your grandmother) or an experience person from a local historical society. We pride ourselves in having a foot in both the IT and pre-typewriter ages.
    Have fun!
    (Malmsbury Historial Society)

    April 21, 2010 at 7:26 am
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    Thanks Susan for all these great tips. It’s a very comprehensive list! It took some doing but I’ve added them all into our growing list of advice. I loved the link to the dictionary of Archaic Medical terms. Late last year we were investigating the meaning of “worm fever” as used in this letter ( http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/state-archives/digital-gallery/lachlan-macquarie-visionary-and-builder/general/4-3498%20Page%20280.jpg/view ) for our Macquarie 2010 gallery. Your link answered the question in seconds.

    April 21, 2010 at 9:34 am
  • Anthea Brown says:

    One of our Archives Outside/Flickr friends tweeted this link to an old handwriting tutorial http://script.byu.edu/english/en/welcome.aspx

    The “Reading Documents” page has some good tips “…the key to successful reading is to first concentrate on the lowercase letters, especially the consonants, rather than the vowels or guessing at the meaning of words…”

    Thanks @lifeasdaddy!

    July 1, 2011 at 11:52 am
  • entrenous says:

    Thank Fiona Sullivan,I’ve worked with some shockingly bad handwriting. It is not uncommon to take a few days to completely “translate” an A4 page in extreme circumstances.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm
  • Pat says:

    In reading documents from the 1960s I came across a strange symbol, I thought. It was a lower case c with a slanted stress mark above it. After lots of reading, found it stood for “with”.
    I deal with old hand written documents from the beginning of the 20th century and I have found that the lessons learnt on translating handwritten notes for typing always keep me on track. Thanks you Pitmans.

    October 21, 2011 at 3:12 pm
  • Anthea Brown says:

    Thanks for your comment @Pat. I wonder if that symbol you saw was shorthand…? An interesting one.

    October 26, 2011 at 10:25 am
  • Iain Stuart says:

    This is a great document something that our professional historians should use.

    One point of interest is that some legal documents have terms that are not now in general use or standard phrases. For example old systems titles almost always had a reference to buildings and other things which is a stock phrase whether or not the land had buildings on it. It does not indicate that a building such as a house was on the land or not it merely covers the situation where a house or other buildings or fences …etc were on the land.

    I have found that purchasing a few of the older legal texts helps understand Old System titles and selection files because in those days old documents were often encountered by lawyers.

    Another point to note is that the Geographical Names Board does not necessarily hold information on old or obsolete place names. It would be good if they, did but they don’t. For example the small mining town Argenton near Emmaville was active for 10 years but there is no trace of it on the Geographical Names Broad but the Aregenton at Lake Macquarie is listed. This is not a criticism of them but a warning about the incomplete nature of the information.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm
  • Fiona Sullivan says:

    Thanks for the tips Iain, I’ve updated the document.It’s been good to see this post getting some more hits over the past few weeks!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm
  • Art Taylor says:

    Thanks for an informative post and some valuable comments. I’d like to mention a practice which I understand is now common in the US and is about to be started in Ontario, Canada. The teaching of handwriting, or ‘penmanship’ as it was once known, is to be dropped from the elementary schools’ curriculum within the next year or so.

    While I understand the point of view that nearly everyone uses a keyboard of one kind or another these days, and very little ‘writing’ is actually done by hand, I see this practice as being a very real problem in the future for anyone trying to read today’s hand-written documents, let alone any of the documents we consider to be archives. It seems to me that future generations will be faced with the same kind of problem trying to interpret handwriting as many of us have trying to interpret ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Other than introducing hand-writing as part of the curriculum for future archivists and historians, I don’t see a ready solution to this future problem.

    Reference to books of frequency of use of specific letters, such as might be used by code-breakers, may be helpful. If one can find a particular letter form frequently in a given document, it might be linked to a particular letter of the alphabet in terms of its frequency of occurrence.

    If the lettering in a document is badly faded or very light, such as a lead pencil’s mark, scanning the document at a high resolution (at least 300 dots per inch) to enlarge the image, yields a digital image where the contrast can be easily increased in software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. If the document text is in coloured ink, the use of a complementary colour filter in software, or in front of the lens of a digital camera used to photograph the document, will also help to increase the contrast. If photographing a document, refer to books about film photography using black-and-white film and colour filters for more information about this aspect.

    Art Taylor

    April 6, 2013 at 5:32 pm
  • Art Taylor says:

    A couple of other potential reference sources are manuals for Pitman shorthand and SuperWrite, (I think that’s what it was called in 1994 when I studied it as part of a Legal Assistant’s program at a business college in Ontario.). These books should have illustrations of all the marks and symbols used for these speed writing techniques so they may be helpful for transcribing original documents written in these formats.

    Another short form I recall seeing and using in the 1970s was w/ which stood for ‘with’, an alternative to the lower case c with the slanted stress mark. I believe the lower case c with stress mark is derived from the Latin ‘cum’, meaning ‘with’. Another term I saw, particularly in ads for camera equipment was w/o which stood for ‘without’, as in ‘body only,w/o lens’.

    While it is regrettable that official bodies don’t always permanently retain listings of community names, especially if those communities are at some point amalgamated with or absorbed into other communities or are abandoned and become ghost towns, contemporary maps of the area, from when such a community did exist, may be very helpful in locating ‘lost’ communities.

    One of the benefits of ‘geo-tagging’, offered in many cellular (mobile) phones and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant), as well as a few D-SLR and other digital cameras, is the ability to include, in the IPTC data, precise longitude, latitude, and elevation of the camera’s position when each photo is exposed. An alternative method of geo-tagging photos if neither built-in nor external add-on GPS capability is available with a digital or film camera, but an external GPS unit or cell phone with GPS display capability is available, is to take a photo showing the GPS display with the general scene so that the GPS information can later be added to the image(s) after they have been transferred to a computer, using Google Earth or Google Maps. Such information will help people in the future to determine the location for each photograph, even though the physical features at those coordinates have changed significantly since a particular photo was taken. If a shot of a ‘Welcome to …’ sign is included in a group of photos from that community, a comparison of its GPS information with that of the other group photos will give a definite location, even if the community as such eventually vanishes.

    Art Taylor

    April 7, 2013 at 7:03 am

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