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Primary Sources: Reading Old Handwriting

This guide is an introduction to primary sources research.

About Reading Old Handwriting

Historical documents, such as letters and diaries, may be handwritten.  When using primary sources, researchers may need to be able to read old handwriting as well as be able to place a document in historical context.

Reading Old Handwriting

Handwritten documents offer a challenge to researchers.  In addition to the variations in the quality of handwriting, researchers sometimes encounter the following conventions in pre-nineteenth century documents:

  • names may be abbreviated;
  • spelling may vary from modern standards, even within the same document;
  • punctuation may not follow modern conventions, if it is used at all;
  • capitalization may be used randomly to emphasize words;
  • writing may continue around the edges of pages in order to conserve paper.

The following web sites offer some useful hints for getting past some of these obstacles:

How To Read Old Documents
From the Memorial Hall Museum.  Offers helpful tips on evaluating documents and provides examples of spellings and archaic language.

Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting 1500-1800
From the National Archives of the United Kingdom.  Nicely done tutorial on reading handwritten manuscripts.

First Name Abbreviations
Offers a helpful chart of common abbreviations for first names found in early handwritten documents.

Old Style Abbreviations - Proper Names
Samples of abbreviated personal names with examples from handwritten documents.

How to Write in Cursive
If you are unfamiliar with reading cursive handwriting, it may be helpful to practice writing in cursive.  This web page offers tips for writing in cursive, practice sheets, and a brief video tutorial of tips.

Cursive Writing - Complete Lesson - With Practice Sheets (YouTube)
Video showing how to write in cursive script.  The video shows a good demonstration of how each letter is linked to the next when forming words.  Understanding this process is very useful when reading handwritten letters or diaries.