Sometimes There Is Not Enough Writing

Reading handwriting can sometimes be a tricky business.

While it can sometimes be difficult to transcribe the handwriting of a court clerk, census taker, church pastor, etc., often there are several pages of handwriting to use as a point of reference. On those other pages there are names that are known, legal phrases that are common, boilerplate text that is used repeatedly, and other discernible items that can easily be transcribed. Those transcriptions can assist in the development of a “handwriting style guide” for the individual who wrote the record. That can assist the researcher in interpreting those words or phrases that look difficult on the surface.

Being familiar with common legal terms, especially when transcribing legal documents, goes a long way to improve a researcher’s transcription ability.

Sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes there is not much on which to go.

The researcher may only have on copy of an ancestor’s signature. Other records either did not require a signature or are record copies of documents that do not contain the real signature anyway. There can be problems with other records as well. The pastor may have written very few entries in the church register before he moved on to another location. The Justice of the Peace completing a marriage license may only have had a few blanks that needed to be filled and did not leave behind a significant amount of handwriting.

Sometimes one can search for other records the individual may have written or may have written in. There are times when these records can be located and other times when they cannot.

If one knows the time period and location in which the person grew up that may help in determining how the person may have been trained to write (particularly if the script they learned to write initially was non-English). Knowing the person’s probable educational level may help. But sometimes even this information is not really enough.

Sometimes reading a person’s handwriting is part science, part academic study, and part art.


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