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Making sense of old handwriting

Reading the Documents

Letters and Line Diagram

The diagram below shows one of the standard four-line schemes of European calligraphy. All letters, uppercase and lowercase are written within four imaginary lines: the ascender line, the midline, the baseline, and the descender line. The portion of the letter that goes above the midline is referred to as an ascender. The portion that goes below the baseline is a descender. A stroke on either an ascender or descender is one of the signs used to indicate that a word or name has been abbreviated.


The lowercase letters that ascend in the Secretary Hand are the same as in modern cursive writing:

b, d, f, h, k, l, and t

Those that descend are:

g, p, q, x, y, and z

NOTE: The ascender on the d leans to the left, both f and h ascend and descend, s may resemble an f, and the t also looks like an f but does not descend.

Normally you will not see what looks like a j except in Roman numerals. The diagram above provides examples from the Secretary Hand of a capital F (the lowercase f is repeated twice with the line across both to indicate that it is a capital letter) and lowercase h, p, and x.

The following letters are interchangeable:

i, j, and y,u and v

Expect a name like Jones to be filed under -i, and words like being to be spelled "beyng." Certain letters resemble each other such as the n and u; and g, y, p, and x. Try interchanging such combinations until the word makes sense.

Reading Documents


The key to successful reading is to first concentrate on the lowercase letters, especially the consonants, rather than the vowels or guessing at the meaning of words. A few simple steps will help you to get started.

  1. ​Just by paying attention to the ascenders and descenders, you should be able to recognize half of the alphabet.
  2. Play the vowel game if you can tell that a letter is between two consonants. That is, substitute a, e, i or y, o, and u until the missing letter makes sense.
  3. Trust your first impression. Most of the letters resemble their modern counterparts. There is a small number of letters (c, e, h, r, s, and x) where the first impression can be misleading but still helpful if you commit the following to memory:
  • If it looks like our r or t, it is their c. (Their c would not ascend like a t.)
  • If it looks like our cursive o, it is their e. (Their o does not loop back over itself but resembles our printed o.)
  • A curvy line that both ascends and descends is their h. (There is no modern counterpart.)
  • If it looks like our u or w, it is their r.
  • If it looks like our f but doesn't make sense, it is their s.
  • If it looks like our p, it could be their x and a Roman numeral.

Uppercase letters are more challenging. A capital letter can be detected by its size and the fact that there is often a horizontal or vertical line drawn across or through the letter to indicate that it is indeed a capital letter. Fortunately, the missing capital letter may fall into place mentally after deciphering the lowercase letters in a word or even a sentence if you pause and reread the word or sentence for sense.

There are two last areas of concern before you start to read the documents in the next section:

  1. A letter may change its appearance depending on whether it is the initial, interior, or final letter in a word.
  2. You will encounter numerous unfamiliar abbreviations. Half the battle is recognizing when the scribe has abbreviated.

The next section and practice will help you resolve both concerns.