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Posted: 1380201310000
Classification: Query
Reading old handwriting, especially for the beginning researcher, is a pain. It can look just like a scribble on a page and is just downright impossible to decipher.

Before the 20th century, many people wrote in a style of handwriting called “copperplate”. This had been invented by the English in the 16th century as a substitute for calligraphy and used in business records or official documents.

There were many styles of copperplate – some writing was very simple; some was very ornate and had all those extra flourishes added. The latter is beautiful but sometimes very hard to decipher – it is too “flowery”. So, we as researchers can see variations on this type of handwriting based sometimes just on the origin of the writer, how well he/she had been taught penmanship and many times it can determine the amount of education or social status the writer had.

But, with copperplate writing, there were problems in deciphering as I’m sure many of you have encountered!

Capital "L" and "S" are hard to tell apart, especially in unfamiliar names.

Capital "I" and "J" are often indistinguishable. They were written pretty well identical and names beginning with “I” were indexed with the J’s! If you look at the old tax records where the clerks entered the taxpayer’s name and you can’t find Isaacs or Inglehart – look in the J’s; they’re likely there.

Double-s may look like "fs" or even "ps". It can also be written as “pp”.

Decorative loops and flourishes can mimic other letters such as small "e".

On the latter, the reader can be tricked up at the end of a word or name. As an example: The surname Clark. I’m sure there were families who spelled their name Clarke, but often that ending “e” is not an “e” at all, but just a flourish at the end of the name. I’ve seen this in words as well as names.

How can you decipher a name then? One way is to look at that letter and try to find it in a word you can read. Example: First name “Paul”. Is it a “P” or an “S” for Saul? Scan the document and find a word that starts with the same letter such as “Security (provided by etc). Does the first letter in the name look like the “S” in Security? If not – look for a word that starts with “P”. Compare again. This can be done with small letters as well. Is the man’s name John Ropp or John Ross?

As we all know, clerks, ministers, doctors and ordinary people – they didn’t always spell a person’s name the same way. Many people in the earlier times of Kentucky (and elsewhere) had little education and many times they didn’t even know the person whose name they were writing. And, many times the official wrote the name as they heard it. Not being a native born Kentuckian, it took me some time to know that Mathis as a surname was spelled Matthews by some (though some families spelled their name Mathis). Another example locally. We had a Dickerson family, a Dickinson family and a Dickson family. On one deed I assume the clerk wanted to be sure; he spelled the name all three ways!

Mary, John, William, Elizabeth … these were common names for children. But, some parents then, as now, used more unusual names. Biblical names were a favorite or a soldier’s name – or the doctor’s name, etc. Have you ever found a Keturah or a Vashti? From the Bible. Have you run across a Tennessee, Missouri or even an Alaska? I have – these new state names were very popular. And yes, there were children named “Doctor” and some poor children didn’t get a first name for a long time. One instance locally, a man was just called “Babe” for most of his life.

Another thing to watch out for in reading old documents is that “th” is written like a “y” sometimes. This goes back to an old Germanic rune which is called the “thorn”. The Latin alphabet has no letter for “th” so the old scholars used the “thorn” instead which looks just like our “y”. As an example: Mary Jones ye wife of John Jones …. The “ye” would really be “the” and would be pronounced as the.

The nationality of the writer can sometimes be determined by the way he wrote – or spelled names. We had a gifted clerk here who was from the Old World it appears. John Smith became Jean Smith. Rogers became Rodgers. Henry was Henri, James became Jeames, etc. His handwriting was eloquent; the names were just changed to “protect the innocent” – no, to the way he would pronounce and spell them!

After learning to read the old handwriting, particular of the 1800’s onward, I can read the writing normally as rapidly as if it were written in current day styles. But, there was a learning curve and I can still be tricked occasionally.

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