s we study our ancestors' lives, we are often fortunate enough to encounter examples of their handwriting. Each time I view a document signed by a grandparent, great-grandparent, or more distant ancestor, I feel a thrill of connection with history and a tingle of excitement to touch something they also held in their hands.
If you locate original documents written or signed by your ancestors, you may have more than just samples of their handwriting or signature. You may have something that provides clues and insights into their lives and character. Let's discuss some things to look for in these old documents and ways to obtain a deeper perspective into your ancestors.
Handwriting varies from place to place in many ways. Certainly, the formation of characters differs depending on location and on the language being used. Remember the old English 's' which looks like an 'f' character? This was fervently supported by Benjamin Franklin over our modern 's.' Some Romance languages, such as Polish and Spanish, use additional characters to represent unique sounds that change pronunciation. The presence or absence of these characters, and the use of diacritical marks associated with some letters, may change the pronunciation or meaning of the handwritten text. Certainly these nuances can be misleading to the uninitiated and have been the source of many misinterpretations, "transcraptions" or spelling errors.
Some languages use very different symbols and require tables to perform transliteration to the Roman alphabet. Slavic languages using the Cyrillic alphabet often require translation before they can be read. You may find multiple translation tables when performing Hebrew translations. The ALA/LC table is most frequently used. Transliteration between Yiddish and Hebrew can play a factor in successfully reading your ancestor's writings, too. Asian and Native American languages and their characters pose entirely different challenges.
Reading your ancestor's writings may not be as simple and straightforward as you could hope. Primary to interpreting handwriting is to start with the correct time period and geographical location for your ancestor. You may need to become familiar with the rudimentary structure of the language or dialect used in that area at the time. Familiarize yourself with the alphabet used by your ancestor, along with any additional characters and the use of any diacritical marks. Then locate examples of cursive script from the period to use as visual references for comparison with your own ancestor's handwriting.
Determine the purpose of the document, the intended audience, and where the handwriting was done. This will help you determine the handwriting style and format and help you relate to the dialect used, the alphabet, and any unique vocabulary used. For example, if a document was written in England in the 1600s and intended for introduction in a court of law, the grammatical style, spelling and punctuation may well be influenced by the venue in which it was to be presented. A private letter, personal journal or diary, or Bible entries are less "public documents" and therefore may be less formal or stilted in style, verbiage, and spelling.
Obtain a comprehensive translation dictionary for the language you are studying. A "comprehensive" dictionary includes older definitions, vernacular, and slang. It may reveal alternate or archaic meanings that a small tourist's dictionary would not contain. When studying older English handwriting, you will encounter differences in the language that require use of larger, more detailed reference dictionaries of the language. Remember that these nuances can be important in properly understanding the content and intent of your ancestors' writings.
Skills to Develop
- Read slowly and carefully. Be sure the words make sense, and assume nothing.
- Watch for the double S. Two Ss were often written to look like a lower case F, as mentioned earlier.
- The following capital letters often look the same:
- I and J
- L and S
- L and T
- M and N
- T and F
- U and V
- Don't ignore abbreviations. Names were abbreviated quite often, as well as common words. For example, you may find "sd" for "said," "decd" for "deceased," "do" for "ditto," "chh" for "church," and "rect" for "receipt." Double letters were often written as single letters with a line or tilde above them. Name abbreviations usually consist of the first three or four letters plus the last letter. Both name and word abbreviations are normally written with the last letter of the abbreviation raised.
- If you have trouble deciphering a word, try saying it aloud in several different ways. (This also works with some of my crazy screen names.)
- If a word or phrase perplexes you, read the remainder of the sentence, try to determine what word would make the most sense.
- Keep a quality magnifying glass hand.
- Find other words in the document that you can read, and use the letters in those words to piece together the letters in the words that you can't read. This is an old FED Census trick, but still valid.
- Use a handwriting book or samples from that era to assemble the letters. I recommend the following three books:
- Kirkham, E. Kay,
- The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years
- Everton Publishers
- ISBN: unknown
- $ 11.00
- Sperry, Kip,
- Reading Early American Handwriting,
- Genealogical Publishing Company
- ISBN: 080630846X
- $ 29.99, List
- Strykker-Rodda, Harriet,
- Understanding Colonial Handwriting,
- Genealogical Publishing Company
- ISBN: 0806311533
- $ 6.00, List
Your Ancestor's Literacy and Style
You may determine much from your ancestor's writing style. Remember, not everyone's penmanship was exemplary. Spelling and grammar were probably far less than perfect too, especially considering the lack or quality of schooling available.
Your first clue to your ancestor's literacy is the discovery of an 'X' signature. If your ancestor could not write his or her name, you have already discovered much about his or her lack of formal education, and a dependency on others for help in transacting business requiring written documents, i.e., deeds, wills, bills of sales, etc.
If your ancestor could write, poor spelling on written documents could point to a poor education, illness or truancy. The use of florid characters, exaggerated spelling variations, or other perhaps flamboyant variations or affectations may indicate a better education but also a tendency to self-promote as an important person. Well-written, orderly handwriting with proper spelling, good grammar, and punctuation marks a well-educated person who valued effective communication. It is likely that there may be more enduring records for the latter individual, such as personal correspondence and business transaction documents.
Most of us have wondered about the personalities of our ancestors For 4 years I studied graphology — the scientific analysis of handwriting to learn more about my friends and family. While some deride handwriting analysis, I have found that professional graphologists can present an accurate analysis of handwriting. Consider, too, that their testimonies are valuable in a court of law.
Studying the firmness of the handwriting, the slope and loops of characters, the pen strokes used to cross a 't' character, or the way an 'i' is dotted and where, can all indicate character traits. Regardless of the language written, a study of the physical characteristics of people's handwriting can provide insights into their personalities. Perhaps this is another area for you to investigate.
Handwriting analysts examine a large variety of factors in addition to how individual letters are formed. They note the pressure of the writer's hand on the pen and paper, the quality of the line of writing (sharp or pasty edges), and the rhythm or flow of writing. They measure the slant of the writing, the width of the letters, the spaces between letters, and the spaces between words and lines. The size and shape of the margins, how horizontal the lines are written, and many other factors are taken into account. Some of these factors are affected by how the writer was taught, and some are not.
Any single feature of handwriting is meaningless out of context. It's like a painting. When you see a painting, you don't think of blue, the green, and canvas. Those components, taken separately, look and feel different than they do together. The same is true of your ancestors and their handwriting.
The study of your ancestors' handwriting can be a bit more complicated than just picking up a document and reading it. When dealing with another time period or another language, you encounter the unfamiliar. Different languages may have different alphabets, structures, and other subtleties. Your best preparation is to educate yourself in the basics. Learn as much as you can before you go to the library, the archive, the Family History Center, or travel abroad to research. You will have a realistic expectation of what you may find and a better skills with which to begin reading and interpreting what you find. Always obtain copies of whatever is available. Consider analyzing your ancestors' handwriting for additional perspectives, too.
For Further Exploration
CopyBooks: examples of handwriting from different eras and areas.
Handwriting Analysis: On-line Handwriting Trait Dictionary — a comprehensive guide to analyzing handwriting trait by trait.