Tips for Reading Old Handwriting in Genealogy Records

Tips for Reading Old Handwriting in Genealogy Records

As a genealogist, one of the biggest challenges you face is deciphering old handwriting in family and genealogy records. Handwriting from past centuries can be very different from what we are used to reading today, and deciphering it can be a daunting task. However, with the right tools and techniques, you can make it easier on yourself. In this article, we'll explore some tips and tricks for reading old handwriting in genealogy records.

Understanding Historical Handwriting Styles

Before you can start deciphering old handwriting, you need to understand the handwriting styles of the time period. This can be difficult, as there were many different styles of handwriting used over the centuries. Some of the more popular styles include:

1. Secretary Hand - This style of handwriting was commonly used in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in English and American colonial records. It features heavily joined and interconnected letters, with many letters looking very similar to each other.

2. Gothic/Blackletter Script - This style of handwriting was popular in Europe from the 12th to the 17th centuries, and features distinctive angular, almost spiky, letters.

3. Italic Hand - Developed in the 15th century, Italic handwriting was used widely throughout Europe, and is characterized by its flowing cursive style.

4. Copperplate Script - A popular handwriting style in the 18th and 19th centuries, Copperplate Script is characterized by its highly elaborate, decorative letters.

By familiarizing yourself with these and other handwriting styles, you'll be better equipped to decipher old records.

Use Context to Your Advantage

When reading old handwriting, context is key. By looking at the entire document, and not just individual words or sentences, you can often get a better understanding of what is being said. For example, if you're trying to decipher a will, start by looking at the headings and subheadings, as these will often give you a clue as to what the document is about. From there, you can use context clues to help you decipher individual words and phrases.

Use Transcription Tools

There are a number of transcription tools available that can help you with deciphering old handwriting in genealogy records. Some of the most popular tools include:

1. Scripto - A free, open-source transcription tool that allows multiple users to transcribe a single document simultaneously.

2. Tropy - A digital tool designed specifically for researchers working with photos and images. It features advanced search capabilities that can help you find specific words or phrases in handwritten documents.

3. Transcribe - A text editor that lets you transcribe handwritten documents directly into your computer. It also features a number of tools that can help you format your transcriptions for easy reading.

Use Genealogy Websites

There are a number of genealogy websites that can help you with deciphering old handwriting in genealogy records. These sites often feature transcriptions of old documents, as well as tips and tricks for deciphering handwriting. Some of the most popular genealogy websites include:

1. - One of the largest genealogy websites in the world, features a vast collection of digitized records from all over the world.

2. FamilySearch - A free genealogy website run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch features a vast collection of digitized records, including many handwritten documents.

3. Findmypast - A genealogy website that specializes in records from the United Kingdom and Ireland, Findmypast features a large collection of transcribed documents, including many handwritten ones.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Finally, the key to becoming proficient at deciphering old handwriting is practice. The more you transcribe, the better you will become. Start with simple documents, such as census records or passenger lists, and work your way up to more complex documents, such as wills or land deeds. Over time, you'll develop a better understanding of the various handwriting styles and be able to decipher even the most difficult of records.


Deciphering old handwriting in genealogy records can be a challenging task, but with the right tools and techniques, it can also be a rewarding one. By familiarizing yourself with historical handwriting styles, using context to your advantage, and utilizing transcription tools and genealogy websites, you can make the task easier on yourself. And by practicing regularly, you'll become proficient at deciphering even the most difficult of records.