Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reading Handwritten Records

Next to impossible to read handwriting. Using abbreviations that no one else understands. Who knew census takers and doctors would have so much in common? If you've ever had *just a little bit of trouble* deciphering handwritten records, including census sheets and vital records, hopefully this post will offer some helpful tips.

First of all, let's start with the shorthand that census takers often used that follows absolutely no known rules of English (or any other language, for that matter). Unfortunately, many census takers in the United States, especially in the 1800s and early 1900s, would abbreviate first names rather regularly. Men's names were most often butchered in this manner, but women's names were also fair game. The most common male name abbreviations are: Wm, Geo, Jas, Jno, Thos, Jos, Fredk, Alexr, and Ferdd. Women's names that I've seen shortened are Mgt and Kath or Cath, although I'm sure there are more that I haven't come across, yet. In addition, many census takers would make matters worse by writing all of the letters in the abbrevation in normal size handwriting font, while the last letter would typically be written like a square root sign -- smaller and in the upper right corner after the other letters. The name below taken from an 1870 United States census is probably Frederick.

While we can guess at the meaning of the abbreviations, don't ever assume the exact name based on a census record alone. Always look for primary sources to back up your theories. For example, Wm probably means William. Geo probably means George. What about Jno? It could be John or Jonathan. Jos could stand for Joseph or Josiah. Mgt is probably Margaret, but it could also be Margaretha or some other similar spelling. Ed. below is most likely short for Edward or Edmund.

Another important piece of info to keep in mind is that handwriting was not completely standardized until more recently in history. In other words, one census taker's handwriting may look completely different than another's chicken-scratch (I mean, record). For this reason, the most helpful tip I can offer is to look at any letters you are having trouble deciphering in the context of the rest of the word and in context with the other handwriting on the page. For example, if you can't tell whether the first letter of a man's name is J or T, look at the rest of the name first. If the rest of the letters look like homas, the first letter is most likely a T. If the rest of the name itself doesn't give you any clues, look at the handwriting on the rest of the page. Is there another obvious J or T on the page? Compare those to the letter you are having trouble deciphering. Again, I must stress that you cannot rely on census records alone for the exact name spelling. Always try to find a primary source record. If you are looking at a handwritten marriage certificate, unfortunately that is your source record. In this case, try and find another record to verify what you are seeing, such as a birth record, death record, or several census years in a row.

Finally, although handwriting was not always uniform among census takers, certain trends do show up. The most common one that trips people up in reading old records is that a double ss in a word, such as Jessica, could be written in cursive with a double ss as we're used to seeing it or as an fs. In the image below, the last name is Strauss, although it looks like Straufs.

Capital S and L were so similar for most handwritten records that you might need to look at context of the word or rest of the page for subtle differences that will differentiate the two. Capital J's will often look like capital G's or Y's or even T's. Again, context clues will be your best bet in deciphering what the letters actually are.

If you still run into a particularly difficult record, one last suggestion would be to get at least one more pair of eyes looking at it. After long hours of staring at a particular page or image, another person can come in with a fresh perspective and perhaps see what you are missing. Especially in genealogical research, a collaborative effort can be far more effective than any individual could otherwise be.

These tips are in no way meant to be exhaustive. In fact, as you spend more time in your research looking at handwritten records, the quicker and more comfortable you'll be in figuring out the vital information written on them. Happy deciphering!


Anonymous said...

I have been indexing the UK Cheshire Land Tax film recently on familysearchindexing.com and ran into a few confusing spots- thanks for the detailed explanation; it answered my question!

nkarnold said...

In searching census records I have come across O C. Found usually in foreign lands, but not in Europe. Mostly in Australi. Also found in small islands, like the Azores Islands.
Keith Arnold

Jessica Hall Grayless said...


Yes, I, too, have come across the abbreviation O C in the census records, in the birthplace fields. You are correct. It is used in Australia, Canada, and small islands. It is only used for countries that are part of the British Commonwealth (under the British monarchy). I have researched this, and have still been unable to discover the exact abbreviation's meaning. My best guess at this point is it stands for Order of the Commonwealth. However, that is just a guess, as I have not been able to verify it for sure. Whatever the abbreviation does stand for, it is no longer in use today.