One of the greatest problems in genealogy is reading the handwriting on old records. They writing can range from really clear on easy to read to virtually illegible. And it’s not just the writing itself, it’s also the way it was written. I can’t read Latin to save my life and why did they have to write so small and bunched up (OK I know this was to save paper).
I don’t know if it’s just me, but sometimes I find it very difficult to read the writing on the records.
The study of old handwriting is called palaeography. There are many courses available and I have done the free one run by The National Archives.
These courses are designed to help you interpret what people have written.
We should remember though that writing didn’t start on paper or even papyrus or animal skin. It started on stone and wasn’t necessarily even writing. Cave painting are the oldest know form of writing in a way. The pictures passed on the information that was needed. From here people started to make makes on stone such as cuneiform (which was a series of marks such as lines in a pattern giving an early form of alphabet) to hieroglyphics which used pictures for words or sentences. It wasn’t until the Greeks and Romans that a style of writing like we use today began when Latin developed. This was written down on usually animal skin – parchment or vellum using a quill pen and ink. Paper as we know it didn’t develop in Europe until the 11th century, although it had been available in China since approximately 100 AD.
In my experience as time has progressed the writing of people has improved greatly, but is this due to peoples handwriting improving or is it due to improvements in the writing equipment?
Let’s look at for want of a better word pens. They started out with quills which are made from the feathers from birds such as geese. The feather is cut down to a point and the hollow centre of the feather is used to hold the ink. These must have been dreadful to use as they would break easily and must have need a lot of practice to use, and with ink and paper being expensive not many would have been able to get hold of them and thus practice.
Next came the fountain pen. I hated using a fountain pen. I got more ink on me than on the paper. It came into use in the 1600’s. It worked very similarly to the quill but was made with a metal nib so was more stable. It sucked ink up like a quill until the cartridge version was developed using plastic in the 1950’s.
The 20th century brought my saviour with Laszlo Biro, when he developed the ballpoint pen in the 1930’s. A pen that didn’t smudge and could be used by anyone and most of us use them most days for notes etc. and are the go to for everyday use.
Then finally the one we mainly use now. The keyboard started on the typewriter and progressed onto the computer. Most of us use a computer or tablet every day, but they all use a keyboard. I know I couldn’t run my business without a keyboard. My handwritings awful and if I had to write report by hand no one would know what it said.
Education also brought about improvements in writing. In the Victorian times only basic writing was taught, but now neat handwriting is taught. This shows in the records. The later the records the more legible they become. The 1939 register is mainly easy to read as the style of writing and the pens used is good but the 1841 census can be really difficult to read due to the poor writing and pens used.
In general, practice makes perfect, so the more you read old records, the better you become, but doing some practice is the key. You learn styles and generally get you eye in and it gets easier.