Deciphering Eighteenth Century Handwriting

Part of what attracted me to research in the era of the America Revolution was the excitement of handling and reading the actual letters of the participants and of the general public, with an emphasis on women. I was not only interested in the content but also in the handwriting itself, which I found to be a powerful manifestation of the writer, capable of establishing a personal connection between that writer and myself.

To read a letter one has to decipher the handwriting, to become familiar with the styles and customs which prevailed. In this regard I urge you to read the two topics listed in “About the Blog” on the right: “Letter-writing and More” and “Reading Old Documents”.

I recently came upon a series which concerns itself with “Deciphering the Handwritten Records of Early America” presented in “A State Archives of North Carolina blog.” Part I presents a section dealing with abbreviations, shorthand, and lettering which will be useful to anyone trying to read 18th century manuscripts. Names are often difficult to make out. These are the ones that appear in the article.
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Note the use of colons and the practice of shortening names and words by removing certain letters, frequently all but the first and last, and using superscript for the last letter(s). Note, too, the use of an “X” for “Christ” in Christopher.

Often there was no indication of what letters were missing as in this sentence which was the standard closing of a letter: “I am sir yr most obt and hble servt” that reads “I am sir your most obedient and humble servant”.

One characteristic common to handwriting at the time was the persistent use of the ampersand—&—for “and” as you will have noted if you are a reader of the letters in my blog posts. I find that quite charming for some reason, perhaps because I am interested in typefaces and the versions of the ampersand in the different fonts, many of which are beautiful. Of course these differences are not generally evident in handwriting.

More in the next post.

posted October 20th, 2017 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Letter-writing, Reading old documents


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