Thursday, September 1, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: Deciphering Handwriting

I am not an expert in this area by any means, but it is a fascinating part of archives, history and genealogy work. What does one do when one comes across something that looks like this?

Whether it's old fashioned handwriting or just plain bad handwriting, documents and ephemera with script like this can be a headache for an archivist or researcher. However, it can also be just plain fun.

I first started really thinking about old handwriting when I stumbled across a book on the subject in the early 1990s while working as a local history librarian / archivist. Since that time, the study of old handwriting has become a hot topic for books and on the Internet.  Here are some helpful and interesting resources I've found to help you look into this subject some more:

Deciphering Old Handwriting from a genealogy course taught by Sabina J. Murray - a fascinating look out how one person solved a name dilemma

Handwriting in America - An interesting history from the University of Buffalo

How to Read 18th Century British-American Writing - brought to you by DoHistory, one of my favorite online sites for learning

The Impossible Art of Deciphering Manuscripts - from, a look at how professional transcribers tackle the issue

Tricks for Deciphering that Careless Writing! - from Ontario Genealogical Society's Ontario Branch, just a few handy pointers

Unexpected Google Trick: Translate Bad Handwriting - auto correct to the rescue!

My mysterious postcard has been a puzzle for some months now. I keep taking it out of its folder and putting it back in frustration. One day, I will need to sit in earnest to figure this it...if you can help me decipher it, I would much appreciate it.  The front of my postcard looks like this:
 Doesn't this scene make you really curious about the author of this postcard and what the postcard says? I have so many questions about it!

And there may be some other uses for this knowledge besides deciphering historical documents. I am also hoping that these tips will help me read my own poor penmanship. Am I the only one who writes notes to myself that I can't read?

Here's a fun little bit of trivia I picked up... According to Wikipedia and other sites, Ovaltine was developed in Berne, Switzerland, where it is known by its original name. In English speaking markets it is called Ovaltine because of a misreading of the patent paperwork due to poor handwriting!


  1. I read something about a Walker reunion and see the names of Nettie Baker and Lewis Baker, possibly the mention of a birthday present, but mostly, I'm stumped :)

  2. With guesses in [brackets], explanation in (parentheses), and a single _ for any word I won't make a stab at, here's what it looks like to me:

    I will rite in a few days
    just come from the baker
    Reunion had a good time
    I am going to send you a
    picture of the Walker Reunion
    for a birthday Present Pearl
    be shure and Put the Rest
    _ _ _ _ or send
    to Nettie Baker for there is a
    Nettie Lewis Baker here and [then?]
    get my _ they opened the
    Last [Letter?]you sent and [I?] _ get up
    no to Weaks (sideways below line) [meaning in two weeks?]
    [see you?] Love _ (sideways on line)

    Hope that helps!

  3. I have definitely seen some bad handwriting in our archives, but there's not a lot I can make out in this one. I think the previous noter did much better than I would have!