I'm having trouble reading handwriting on records

When you use historical records, you often have to decipher handwriting. Handwriting styles can differ over time and in different places. The individuals who wrote the records, of course, also have their own unique styles. You can find many resources on FamilySearch and elsewhere online to help you read handwriting. Learning to decipher the old handwriting techniques and characters of earlier times is a skill that takes time, practice, and a lot of patience. Help is available!

Tips

  • Try not to assume; be sure that what you are reading or typing makes sense. 
  • Look through the document and compare how similar letters and numbers were written. If one or two letters are difficult to read, look for the same letters in familiar words that can be read.
  • Look for similar letters in another batch by viewing reference images side by side.
  • Enlarge the view of the original document to see the letters clearly.
  • Use letters from words that you can already read to piece together some of the rest. 
  • Use the writing and letters of months to help determine the writer’s style.
  • Create an alphabet chart with examples of each letter style, if needed.
  • Keep in mind that places and names might be misspelled because words were often written phonetically.
  • Pay attention to commonly confused letters:
    • Uppercase: F-H, J-I, K-R, S-L, O-Q, P-R, U-V, W-M-UU
    • Lowercase: b-f, d-el, j-i, k-t, s-l, t-c, ss-fs-ps, w-vv, y-g

Handwriting samples

On FamilySearch, the Handwriting Helps page has in-depth examples has a chart of different types of handwriting for each letter of the alphabet.

Learning resources

  • On FamilySearch, click Help, then search the Help Center see what lessons and other resources are available in your language.
  • Check online to find online tutorials, blogs, or other handwriting helps, such as the following:
    • Brigham Young University offers a free online tutorial in reading old typeface and handwriting. This particular course is in English and covers English, German, Dutch, Italian, Latin, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
    • The National Archives of the United Kingdom also offers a free online tutorials on reading old documents in English and Latin.
    • The National Records of Scotland publishes a free online tutorial on reading Secretary Hand.
    • The Ancestry Insider, an English-language blog, has a post titled Indexing Tips: Cursive Writing. It lists three common types of handwriting used in historical records. Click the images within the article to view additional information.
    • Treasure Maps Genealogy, also an English-language blog, also provides helps and examples for reading old handwriting.

These resources and blogs are not supported or promoted by FamilySearch but is provided as a resource to help our users.

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