How to read old handwritten documents

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How to read old handwritten documents

Official document regarding Peter Christian Spliid, 1767

After the initial Internet search for your ancestors, you might want to go a bit further with your genealogy and family history research. In that case you will soon need to work with original documents; from old personal letters and diaries/journals to vital records, emigration lists, wills, and other official records. At first this old handwriting seems illegible and very difficult to read for the untrained eye, but you will also discover that with a bit of practice it soon becomes more easy to read.

The following will provide you with some general information about old handwriting and a guide on how to get started transcribing and reading old documents along with a few examples.

A little bit of background

Officially the word 'Paleography' means the study and reading of old handwriting. The old type of handwriting you would find in old Danish letters and documents etc. is called Gothic handwriting or so-called "German Hand". This was the official style of handwriting in Denmark until 1875 and in North Schleswig until it again became a part of Denmark by the plebiscite in 1920.

If you want to learn more about reading old document, be sure also to read my article A closer look at a census record where I look at a specific census record. Also check the link at the bottom of this page to a practical online tutorial for reading old handwriting.

Since the beginning of the 1800s official scribes where taught at professional writing schools resulting in a correct and easily readable handwriting. However, civil servants and gentry often wrote a difficult readable handwriting, which varied a lot from person to person, from one record keeper to another. The handwriting also changed a lot over time; from the 1700s feather pen and large, bold letters to the 1840s and onwards where steel pens made thinner lines resulting in more compressed letters. This variations means that e.g. a church record which is extremely difficult to read, even for the trained eye, easily could change in a short period of time, and become more easy to read.

Example from the birth register in Nibe Parish, 1792. Entries became standardized after 1814.

Your challenges are the Danish language, unknown words or old expressions

When deciphering and transcribing records (or trying to do so) a mayor problem, or challenge if you will, is that records are likely to be in Danish. Although you are armed with a Danish-English dictionary you might encounter words that you don't know and can't look up. It could be a seldomly used Danish word, technical term, or even a dialect expression.

Furthermore words and the spelling of words and how people express themselves differs from today. There were no official spelling conventions in Denmark before 1892 so until then it was common to write the words as they were pronounced (and here you'll sometimes need a little fantasy in order to guess).

An entry in the church register of Holmens Parish, Copenhagen, regarding Christian Frederik Reinhard, born on July 26th 1866 and baptized September 23rd 1866 by Vicar Prior.

Ok. Let's get started...

To read old documents you will need both patience, fantasy, and sometimes a little bit of luck; patience is needed because you need to train your eye to read unfamiliar handwriting, and at first you only make slow progress. You'll need to use your fantasy when deciphering a very difficult text and need to "troubleshoot". And you'll sometimes need a bit of luck, for example when otherwise illegible entries in a church register, suddenly changes to readable handwriting just before your ancestors entry. 

Trust me! With patience, fantasy and luck it WILL get easier to read as you go along.

Here's a few useful tips to get started:

1Before you start a good idea is to have a Danish-English dictionary or word lists etc. to assist you (could be an online version). If you have a basic knowledge of the Danish language it will of course be a great help, but if not, don't worry, because you can often rely on the many standard phrases and words that were used in for example the Danish church registers.

2A good place to start is official documents, where the handwriting might be more standardized, using words that are easily recognizable. As mentioned, you will encounter that there are many standard phrases and words that are used in church records, censuses, probates/wills, deeds etc.

3be sure to transcribe all text and using the original words as they were written—word by word and letter by letter—as much as possible. And be sure to add a line break in your notes the same places as the original record.

4If you don't have permanent access to the document, for example if you are visiting the archive, make sure to take a photocopy or simply just take a photo of it for later reference.

5Try to identify how the specific record keeper wrote. Find a word you can identify, perhaps an easily recognizable name, and take a closer look at each letter trying to identify similar in the sentence or word you are struggling with. You might even want to read through some non-related records just to learn the words.

6If you are running tired, put the text away and take it up later. This usually helps a lot! But if you are really stuck, it is always a good idea to ask a friend or a fellow family historian to take a look. Even a quick look with "new eyes" may give you the necessary breakthrough.

Give it a try! Be patient and always keep in mind that you eventually WILL be able to read old handwriting.

Good luck with your further research ;-)

An emigration record as recorded by the Danish Police regarding Caroline Bernth traveling to New York on the emigrant ship 'M/S Island' in 1893 (Contract no. 279300)

A few numbers and facts...

  • 500,000

    ...Danes emigrated up to 1968, and of these about 70% departed for the USA. In the 1800's alone a vast majority of 90% went to the USA. Read more...

  • 261,065

    This many individuals, comprising of 4.6 percent of all Danes, carries the surname JENSEN followed by NIELSEN, HANSEN, PEDERSEN and ANDERSEN. Read more...

  • 1,000

    Of the 5,000 basic words in modern English, as many as 20 percent are so-called loan words from the Old Norse language (ON). Read more...

  • 1769

    This year the first Danish census was taken. The next censuses were taken in 1787 and 1801 and from 1834 onwards every 5-10 years. Read more...