Saturday, June 30, 2018

Handwriting in Context

Members of genealogy groups on Facebook sometimes ask for help reading a word on a document, posting only the word they can't read.  What one novice can't read, an experienced family historian may be able to decipher.  But sometimes, perhaps even often, it is only by comparing handwritten letters in different words on the same document — seeing the handwriting in context — that can one figure out what the words are.

A case in point is this marriage record I received this week.  I knew the names would be Thomas Richardson and Martha Doyle but when I saw what looked like "Thomas Bichardson" my first thought was that it was the wrong certificate.  My second thought was to look more closely and compare words.

The uppercase R, P, and B are the confusing letters in this record:  they look similar.

In this first example, below, the R in Richardson looks like a B.

But compare the B in Blythe to the Rs in Richardson and Reay, below, and one can see the difference.  Without the identifiable Blyth and without comparing the two letters I would not have identified these letters correctly if I'd been asked to index this record.

Also notice the P in Pitman.  If I saw that in another word I might have wondered if it were an L.  The letters have lots of little, extra curlicues that add beauty but not clarity.

The R words in this document are Richardson and Reay.
The P words are Pitman and Parish.
The B words are Blyth and Banns.

Because I anticipated what some of the words would be — Blyth, Pitman, Parish, Banns, and even the surnames — it was not as difficult to determine what the words were and transcribe this record as it would have been if I'd had no knowledge of the location, occupation, or surnames.

Whenever reading a handwritten document in which you don't know what the letters or words are, always look at the handwriting in context.  Use the all the words and letters, especially those you do know, to help you figure out the ones you don't know.


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