Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Can you read your own handwriting? Resources for the challenged

When I was in grade school (grammar school) I got a particularly bad grade with comments on my handwriting. Because of this incentive, I worked on improving my handwriting until it was fairly legible. Many years later, when I was practicing law with my father, we had a constant issue with his handwriting. He wrote out all his pleadings and letters by hand, but his handwriting was so poor that it took group consultation with our legal assistants to decipher the documents. Later, because of my background in linguistics and my years of trying to read old documents in my genealogical research, my interest in handwriting both old and new, increased considerably.

I have written about the need for cursive handwriting skills a few times in the past. But my recent experiences in working with people involved in developing handwriting recognition software for computers has provided an even greater incentive to address this issue. I have also mentioned previously, that I recently hired one of my 12-year-old grandsons to post some photos and documents to the Memories website. One of his first comments was that he could not read cursive.

Well, it turns out that a few schools around the United States still recognize the need to teach people how to write in cursive. I found an article from Florida entitled, "Cursive: Don;t Write it Off, Learning the old-school style of putting pen to paper still has an important place in our digital world." The efforts of the Florida State Schools to preserve cursive education is exemplary. Quoting from the article:
In Florida, cursive writing instruction in public elementary schools is a curriculum requirement for third through fifth grades as part of the Language Arts Florida Standards approved in 2014 by the Florida State Board of Education. Cursive writing was not included in Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that Florida adopted in 2011 along with 44 other states. But after a series of workshops for citizen input into the standards, Florida added the cursive mandate, along with other curriculum changes, to create the Florida Standards.
As genealogists, we need to support any and all of these efforts. The simple fact is that if children do not learn to write in cursive, they cannot read it and we may have a whole generation or more of people who cannot read the old documents we need to do genealogical research. 

In talking with patrons at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, I find that many people, even those who know how to write in cursive, feel challenged and sometimes overwhelmed in reading old handwritten documents. Regardless of our past experience with writing in cursive, we need to be aware that the styles of cursive have changed over the years. In fact, some of what is being taught today as cursive is nothing more than a modified Roman block style of writing. So, as genealogists, we need to learn how to read old handwriting. The study of old writing is called paleography. Here is a selection of books that may prove helpful. 

Barrett, John, and David Iredale. Discovering Old Handwriting. Princes Risborough: Shire, 1995.
Kirkham, E. Kay. The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1973.
Mashey, Anne B. A Guide to Olde German Handwriting of the Mid-1800’s, No. 2. Wexford, Pennsylvania: Anne B. Mashey, 1982.
McLaughlin, Eve, and Federation of Family History Societies. Reading Old Handwriting. Birmingham, England: FFHS, 1987.
National Archives (Great Britain). The National Archives Palaeography Tutorial: (how to Read Old Handwriting). Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK: National Archives, 2003.
Schickedanz, Judith A, and National Association for the Education of Young Children. Much More than the ABCs: The Early Stages of Reading and Writing. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1999.
Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1998.
Thoyts, Emma Elizabeth. How to Read Old Documents,. Christchurch [England: Dolphin Press, 1972.
Thoyts, Emma Elizabeth, and Charles Trice Martin. How to Decipher and Study Old Documents; Being a Guide to the Reading of Ancient Manuscripts. London: E. Stock, 1893.
———. The Key to the Family Deed Chest. How to Decipher and Study Old Documents: Being a Guide to the Reading of Ancient Manuscripts. London: E. Stock, 1893.
Wright, Andrew. Court-Hand Restored, Or, The Student’s Assistant in Reading Old Deeds, Charters, Records ... London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846.
———. Extracts from Court Hand Restored: The Student’s Assistant in Reading Old Deeds, Charters, &c. A Work Not Only Useful to Remind the Learned, but Absolutely Necessary for Young Students, and Others Who May Have Occasion to Converse with Old Charters, Deeds, or Records. London: C. Clarkson, 1778.

I found Kip Sperry's book to be helpful. It is also helpful to search online for old handwriting charts showing the variations in the letters in different areas and at different times. Here is one example:

Another option is to take advantage of online tutorials. One such is illustrated above, the Brigham Young University, Department of History and the Center for Family History and Genealogy, Script Tutorial: making sense of old handwriting. Another really good reference tutorial is found in The National Archives, Palaeography website (British). Here is a screenshot.

It is also helpful to find an old document with someone's transcription and try and do you own transcription without looking at the existing one. You can then go back and see how your effort compared to the existing transcription. 

Every time your research takes you back another hundred years, you will have to start all over again and learn to read the handwriting. 

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