News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 20, 2008

Genealogy: Web site aspires to help decipher handwriting

By Tamie Dehler

All genealogists are challenged to some degree when they have to read and interpret documents in original handwriting. And the further back in time the handwriting sample is, the greater the challenge, until our own language looks foreign to us. A Web site aimed at scholars and researchers aspires to change all of that. English Handwriting 1500-1700, an online course, is a remarkably professional and thorough course of study, certainly equivalent to a college class.

The site is at and contains 28 self-guided lessons ranging in degree of difficulty from 1 to 5. Each lesson divides the computer screen into four sections: the first shows the sample text that you are to work with. The second section is your transcription window, where you type in your interpretation of the sample text. The third section gives you information about the sample you are working with, a description of the hand (type of writing) and the date it was written. The fourth section consists of various help buttons you can click on, view a transcription of the sample, show the written letters of alphabet in upper or lower case, see a table of common abbreviations, and take a test on this sample. The material in the 28 lessons starts with a level 1 in difficulty (I found this level easy) and works its way up to a level 5.

The site also has lots of supporting data, which should be looked at before attempting the courses. Included is a historical introduction that describes and illustrates the inks, resins, writing instruments, and surfaces used. This part gives the recipes and methods that were used to make a usable ink or to prepare a surface for writing, and it illustrates examples with actual pictures rather than drawings.

The transcription conventions section defines, lists, and gives examples of methods of abbreviation, which includes contractions (leaving out letters in the middle of a word, such as “Dr” for “Doctor” ), suspension (leaving off the end letters of a word, such as “etc” for “et cetera”), and brevigraphs (using a symbol to indicate a word or part of a word, such as “&” for “and” and the Greek chi-“X”-for “Christ”). Tildes (~) were placed over a letter to indicate that letters in the word have been omitted. Superscripts were letters written smaller and placed above the baseline as a sort of shortcut. The punctuation marks used (quite different from modern ones) are also discussed and illustrated.

The alphabets section illustrates two “hands” or styles of writing used in various documents-the Italic hand and the Jacobian Court hand. The user can view written examples these hands as well as examples of the upper or lower case letters of the “secretarie” alphabet, which was used during this time period.

The section on dating and describing hands tells how some of the different hands evolved over time and defines different features of writing and letter formation. Dating can be tricky, as the date on a document might actually be the date it was transcribed by the writer from another, older, document.

The sample transcriptions section is a shortcut for those not wanting to take the 28 lessons, but still wanting to look at each of the sample documents and study it along with it's transcription.

This is a great site to visit to refine your skills in transcribing old handwriting. Anyone graduating from this online classroom will be close to an “expert” by the time they are finished. The site is free to use with no registration.

• If you are interested in going to the Allen County Public Library for a research trip Nov. 12-14, contact David Bonnett at or visit the WVGS Web site at for trip information and prices.