Reading Historical Documents

Tips to reading historical writing

This Video from the University of North Carolina Wilmington describes many of the problems faced by researchers when trying to read and understand historical handwritten texts.

Abbreviations often found in Historical Documents

Chart taken from E. Kay Kirkham, The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years (Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1973).

Along the same lines, several phrases that were frequently used in letter writing will often be abbreviated as well. It was common to sign letters with the phrase “your obedient servant,” and you will often see this abbreviated as “yr obt svt.”

Other common abbreviations are viz., which stands for the Latin term “videlicet” and is used as a synonym for “namely” or “in other words.” You may also encounter the abbreviations “inst.," "ult.," and "prox.” These stand for the Latin terms “instante mense, ultimo mense, and proximo mense” and they mean “this month, last month, and next month.” If the document you’re transcribing includes a phrase like “Yours of the 14th inst. at hand,” that means the writer is responding to a letter they received from the addressee on the 14th of the current month.

Text courtesy of the Archivists at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Roundhand Script English from 1600's

Resources for Handwriting Evaluation

American Cursive Introduction

Brief introduction of the cursive alphabet - upper and lower case. Music only 4 min.

Brief introduction on formation of cursive words. Music only. 6 min.

Palmer Method common in 20th Century

The Palmer Method was devised as a simplification of the Spencerian Script in 1888.

A. N. Palmer - The Palmer Method of Business Writing

Spencerian Script common from 1850-1925

Spencerian Script was a form of Copperplate that dated from the 16th century.

 From Spencerian key to practical penmanship by Spencer, H. C. (Henry Caleb); Spencer, Platt R

Copy of the Magna Carta originally written 1215


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