“What Does That Say?” Series, Pt. II

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 second blog post of a series on how to read handwritten colonial documents, see the first blog post of this series on abbreviations, shorthand, and lettering.

Writing Styles

Several different styles of writing have developed over the centuries. Legal and court scribes developed a style of handwriting (referred to as “court hand”) to help distinguish their works from the “Gothic” style of script, which was used in the Middle Ages for religious documents. “Court hand” was the predecessor to “secretary hand” in the 16th and 17th centuries and then, as literacy increased, a new, thin, flowing style referred to as “italic hand” became more common and is the style of writing that is in use today.


An example of the italic style versus the secretary style of writing. (source)

People were often taught to write by penmen (writing “masters”), who would visit schools, families, or other group gatherings, and teach people how to hold a pen properly, how to sit correctly at the desk, and how to properly form the letters themselves.

Writing styles also varied based on a person’s class, gender, and occupation. Thornton (1998) notes that “a fully literate stranger could evaluate the social significance of a letter…simply by noting what hand it had been written in.” Today, one’s handwriting has become less of a measure of social status and more of an indicator of individual personality.

Tips in Decoding Handwritten Documents

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.