Reading Old Handwriting

March 12th, 2014
By Karen Osburn, Archivist and City of Geneva Historian
We have some very interesting old letters, journals and diaries in the archives at Prouty Chew House and I love reading some of the entries.  It isn’t always easy for a variety of different reasons.  Sometimes the handwriting is faded and/or blotchy.  Other times the person who wrote the piece used such flowery script that it is like trying to “read” a piece of abstract art, for instance is that letter an uppercase F or a T?  Is the word Taking or Faking?  Sometimes the spelling doesn’t make sense as spelling wasn’t standardized as it is today and was less important than beautiful script in the early 1800s.  Sometimes the person writing the letter conserved paper and wrote horizontally and then vertically across the paper. 
It is often difficult for me to read a letter from the 1800s, but some of the students who come to do research or help with the archives have an even harder time than I do with the flow of letters.  Computers seem to have changed peoples’ ability to read and write cursive letters.
The first time I noticed the change was when I had a college student ask me to read a document for him.  The handwriting on the particular paper wasn’t very bad and I was a bit perplexed until the student explained that he was not taught to write in cursive and was unfamiliar with it.  Wow!  This may make transcription of old letters much more difficult when potential volunteers are no longer familiar with “long hand” just printing or computer fonts.
I love to experiment with different computer fonts and I admit that some of them can be somewhat hard to read, i.e. Vivaldi, Brush Script, Edwardian Script, Fiolex Girls, or Outright Televis to name a few.  I also remember when there were no computer (Yes, I am that old!) and our grade school teachers taught students good basic handwriting in self-defense. Can you imagine trying to read 30 third or fourth grade student papers when the printing or cursive writing on them made real hen scratches look legible? 
My fourth grade teacher gave me a D in handwriting on my final report card of the year.  My parents made me write one paragraph every weekday all that summer before I could go out and play. They picked the paragraph and believe me it was never short. If I was too quick and sloppy I had to write a second paragraph to reinforce practice.  By the end of the summer I could write well enough to please my fifth grade teacher and get passing marks in handwriting.  I don’t know if handwriting is even taught in schools anymore, but I don’t think it is stressed like it was in the 1960s.
So how do we go about reading old handwriting?  Practice, practice, practice!  With some documents, you can scan them, blow them up and see if that helps decipher the letters.  With others you could scan the document and then play with the contrast on a photo program and see if that helps make it readable.  You might try putting a piece of paper over the letters so only the top half or bottom half is visible, a trick I learned in a workshop that sometimes helps. Usually, I try to figure the word out from the context of the sentence. Or I try to look for an unrecognizable letter in a different word and decipher the meaning, which is tedious, but often works. Reading old handwriting can be a chore, but the end result can be fascinating!
Does it matter if students can’t read or write cursive writing?  The answer is yes and no. Does it matter if today’s students can’t write well with pen or pencil? Since the majority of students have some form of computer access, probably not.  The important thing is that they can think rationally, communicate coherently, and convey instructions and ideas effectively using a computer as their pen and paper.  It could help to develop a reasonably legible signature, but computer documents are adequate for communication purposes.
The other question is does it matter when students can’t read handwriting?  Here I say yes! It matters if you are able to read.  Our ability to read can help us effectively learn from people in the past, be it your great, great grandmother, a person who signed the Declaration of Independence, a doctor, lawyer or veterinarian.  The ability to follow written directions is important and not every document you have to deal with will be legibly hand printed or typed and printed on a computer. Reading script is not yet in the same realm as trying to read hieroglyphics.  Our alphabet is still the standard for written English and it is helpful to be able to read the ABCs in any form of script being used whether it is ABC, ABC, ABC, ABC, or ABC.  Even if people no longer use script to write I think it pays to be able to read it since you never know when you may need to read a document written.  Who knows, a favorite cousin may leave you a small fortune in a handwritten will someday and it will certainly be important that your lawyer understands how to decipher what was written.  There is a big difference in inheriting one million dollars or one willow doll cupboard don’t you think?
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One response to “Reading Old Handwriting”

  1. The “Bureau Central” letter is not that difficult to read for native speaker.

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