The Archive Lady: Deciphering Old Handwriting

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, solves the mystery of deciphering old handwriting!

Margo in Montana asks: “I have original letters written by my Grandfather to my Grandmother dating to the 1920’s. The writing is beautiful, but unfortunately I am having a hard time deciphering many of the words and letters because of the handwriting. I know you work in an archive and read old records all the time, can you give me any tips to reading my Grandparents letters?

Old letters, postcards, diaries, and journals are some of the most precious family records that we have in our genealogy record collections. Our ancestor’s handwriting and especially signatures are something we all look for and try to collect. Holding documents that our ancestors held and wrote helps us to make that connection to them and the times they lived. Sometimes these records are just too hard to read because of the style of the handwriting or because the writing is just messy. While it may not be possible to decipher everything on a written document, there are some tips and tricks that can be used to read as much as possible.

Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, solves the mystery of deciphering old handwriting!
Marie Stockard Letters, ca. 1940’s, Houston County, TN. Archives
  • Read Through the Document: My first tip for anyone handling a handwritten document is to read through the entire document. Even if you can’t read some of the words, read through it anyway. This will help you get used to that person’s particular handwriting and voice. Sometimes if we can read enough of the handwriting, we can get ourselves used to it and then we can decipher more of the text. Reading through the entire document will also help you to understand the context and subject matter. Knowing WHAT the person is writing about may help you to figure out words and phrases that are hard to make out. Don’t be afraid to read it through more than once.
  • Enlarge the Document: A great tip that has helped me in the past is to scan the document and save it on my computer so I can enlarge it for better reading. Be sure to scan the document at a higher resolution such as 300 or even 600 dpi. Once digitized, you can then enlarge the document and really zoom in on certain words and phrases. I have found that this has helped me to get a closer look at the handwriting and I have been able to read words that I was not able to read with the naked eye.
  • Similar Words or Letters: One of the best tips? Look for examples of the same words or letters in the document or in other documents written by the same person. If you can find similar words that you have already been able to read, maybe you can compare the two and decide if it is the same word. If you are having trouble figuring out a letter in a word, look for examples of what you think that letter is in the document or other documents by the same person to help you. I have been known to go through the entire alphabet comparing each letter to try to figure out a word written by my ancestor.

  • Google It!: Sometimes the reason we can’t read our ancestor’s handwriting is because they are using a script that was taught to them many years ago when they were in school and learning to write. Today, the old styles of writing are not taught consistently or at all in our schools and many people do not even use cursive in their writing. Getting on the Internet and Googling different types of handwriting styles that were taught in different eras could very well help you to figure out your ancestor’s style of writing. Of course, all of us put our own flourishes on our writing but for the most part you should be able to match-up your ancestor’s penmanship to a handwriting style that was taught and established in the past.
Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, solves the mystery of deciphering old handwriting!
Cursive Style Example

If you have documents written by your ancestors and you are having a hard time deciphering the writing, use these tips to help you. Be sure to preserve the handwritten records so that they can be enjoyed by generations to come.


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If you have a question about researching in archives or records preservation for The Archive Lady, send an email with your question to: melissabarker20@hotmail.com

If you have a question about researching in archives or records preservation for The Archive Lady, send an email with your question to: melissabarker20@hotmail.com

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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