Deciphering the Handwritten Records of Early America
Since beginning my work with digitizing the General Assembly Session Records collection at the State Archives, I have had to do a bit of research on how to effectively interpret 18th century manuscripts in order create the appropriate metadata for the records and improve discoverability of these records in our digital collection. The following sections include a brief history of writing during this time period, characteristics of 17th and 18th century British-American handwriting, and some tips on deciphering the text found within these records. This is the first blog post of a series on how to read handwritten colonial documents.
As a skill most take for granted today, writing was not a widespread accomplishment during this time period; however, with the growth of commerce and industry, the need for this skill became more apparent.
According to Monaghan (1988), reading and writing were considered to be two separate endeavors, as the ability to read was not dependent on the ability to write. Initially, reading was simply a means to an end—a skill that provided direct access to the Scripture. The Bible was this era’s most popular book, so it comes as no surprise that it was the first text children learned to read. Thornton (1998) contends that “reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual need; writing was taught second, and then only to some.”
Abbreviations, shorthand, lettering
Oftentimes words were abbreviated by removing certain letters or all but the first and last letters of a word or name (see Fig. 1). Latin, being the chief language of record in the Middle Ages, introduced a system of abbreviations to simplify the copying of many repetitious portions of words (Yeandle, 1980).
Superior-letter abbreviations were also used, for example:
- sd for “said”
- prsence for “presence”
- Richd for “Richard”
- wch for “which”
Some writers simply shortened words and left no other indication of the missing letters, such as written phrases like:
- “I am sir yr most obt and hble servt,” which reads as “I am sir your most obedient and humble servant”
- “abt two hund wt of spare Cordage,” which reads as “about two hundred weight of spare Cordage”
In terms of lettering, special letter forms and symbols were often used to condense text, like the tailed s, the thorn, the ampersand, monetary symbols, and symbols used in place of names. The tailed s is often mistaken for an f, and two s’s together look like a p (see Fig. 2).
The thorn, often mistaken for the letter y, represents the “th” sound (see Fig. 3); thus the word:
- ye is “the”
- yt is “that”
- ym is “them”
This misconception of the thorn in particular has led to such visible modern errors as “Ye Olde Gift Shoppe.”
There are also several letters that need careful attention, as they are visually very similar to one another—particularly L and S, J and T, K and R, and several others (see Fig. 4).
Capital letters were also written in many different styles, and it is apparent when examining text from this era that words were often capitalized without any apparent reason and proper names were usually left in lower case (see Fig. 2).
Tips in Decoding Handwritten Documents
- It’s important to take time to study the handwritten text. Use context clues to determine the content of the message and better understand the intent of the writer.
- Use reference tools and resources: it may be necessary to consult geographical dictionaries to identify unfamiliar town names and/or understand town origins. In examining North Carolina records, a great online resource for this is NCPedia, which includes access to an excellent geographical dictionary, the Gazetteer.
- Getting a second opinion doesn’t hurt, especially from your friendly neighborhood reference archivist!
Recommended Reading & References
Jokinen, Anniina. (1996). Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618). Luminarium: Anthology of English literature. Retrieved from www.luminarium.org/renlit/ralegh.htm.
Kirkham, E. Kay. (1964). How to read the handwriting and records of early America (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.
Kirkham, E. Kay. (1973). The handwriting of American records for a period of 300 years. Logan, UT: Everton Publishers.
Leary, H. F. (1996). North Carolina research: genealogy and local history (2nd ed.). Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Genealogical Society.
Monaghan, E. Jennifer. (1988). Literacy instruction and gender in colonial New England. American Quarterly, 40(1), 18-41.
Osborn, Albert S. (1929). Questioned documents: a study of questioned documents with an outline of methods by which the facts may be discovered and shown (2nd ed.). Albany, NY: Boyd Printing Co.
Tannenbaum, Samuel A. (1930). The handwriting of the renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.
The UK National Archives. Palaeography: Reading old handwriting, 1500-1800, a practical online tutorial. Retrieved from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/further_practice.htm.
Thornton, Tamara. (1998). Handwriting in America: A cultural history. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
West, Andrew. (2011). The rules for long s. TUGboat, 32(1), 47-55. Retrieved from www.tug.org/TUGboat/tb32-1/tb100west.pdf.
Yeandle, Laetitia. (1980). The evolution of handwriting in the English-speaking colonies of America. The American Archivist, 43(3), 294-311.