The Star-Herald

Deciphering old handwriting mysteries

When it comes to interpreting old handwriting most genealogists agree it’s a difficult task.  I’ve done my share of puzzling over words that I’m sure were created by a malevolent clerk chuckling over the trouble he was creating for future genealogists.  For example, I recently came across a word on an old marriage record that was nothing more than a series of bumps. Eventually, I was able to figure out it was supposed to be “Lincoln.”  

To help genealogists deal with the problem  I recently arranged for Marlene Groves, who has transcribed more town vital records than anyone else, to give a talk on tips to decipher old handwriting at a meeting of the Wassebec Genealogical Society in Dover-Foxcroft.    

One of my all-time favorite pieces of advice to  genealogists struggling with this issue is to read a few pages of a town clerk’s handwriting to try to find a match for the questionable letter or word.  Marlene, however, showed us a page of the vital records of a coastal town where the town clerk made entries on the same day and wrote the same letter in two totally different ways.   

Marlene gave us several good tips and a sampling of the way letters were written over a period of centuries, beginning with the 17th.  She warned us that the capital letters I and J were written the exact same way into the 1800s. This means you may have to record a name with an inserted [?] until you can find another source.  Marlene recommended trying substitutes if something doesn’t make sense, such as an “a” for a “u” or and “i” for an “e” since these letters were often not closed.

She also warned us that punctuation and spelling rules were non-existent in the past.  Among common abbreviations were “do” for ditto; “ye” for the, and “y” for yet. Also a P or PME stands for ‘Per me” usually right before a clerk’s signature. A long “s” will look like a backward f so the word you thought was freth is fresh.  You’ll often find these next to a regular s, which can lead to mistakes in translating for the unwary.

It’s impossible for me to list all the tips she gave us, but we both recommend consulting Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry for assistance. You may be able to find this volume in a library near you or purchase it online.  It’s a great reference, liberally illustrated, crammed with helpful material and lots of examples which have their transcriptions side by side. Also, if you have a chance to hear Marlene speak on this subject, I urge you to make the effort.   

Sadly, now that cursive writing is no longer being taught in schools, I’m afraid future generations will find the problem of interpreting old handwriting even more challenging.  To illustrate that point, Marlene told us her youngest grandson is already having trouble reading her handwritten notes on a birthday card.

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