One hurdle to using historic records is how handwriting has changed over time. Here are some tips for reading handwritten documents.

 

This Letter to Absent Senators from the Senate, dated 1789, has some great examples of letters that look weird to modern eyes, even if you're used to reading cursive. In particular, the lowercase "p" and the lowercase "long s" may give readers some trouble.

 

Let's look at the whole first page:

 

7726745 page 1.jpg

 

"Agreeably to the Constitution of the United States, eight members of the Senate & eighteen of the houfe--" Wait, what?

 

This letter that looks like a lowercase "f" is an "s." You'll see these in handwritten and printed documents into the early part of the nineteenth century. Since the two letters look very similar, I tend to use context clues. I ask if the word or phrase makes more sense with an "f" or an "s."

 

7726745 house of representatives.jpg

 

Since our options here are "houfe of Reprefentatives" or "house of Representatives," it's pretty clear which is correct.

 

Another letter that gives me trouble is that lowercase "p." The style here is to have a much taller ascender, or vertical line, than we use on our letter "p"s nowadays. The round part (called the bowl) of the "p" may also be open at the bottom, making it look kind of like an "h."

 

We can use context clues again with the "p." Looking at the word "Representatives" above, we can see that the "p" does have the tall ascender and the open bowl. We can apply this to the rest of the document, such as in the following word:

 

7726745 opinion.jpg

 

That second letter is a tall-ascender open-bowl "p." The word is "opinion".

 

Ready to tackle this mess?

 

7726745 asap.jpg

 

Using our knowledge of the "long s" and the "p," we can see that this is a common English phrase: "as soon as possible."

 

I hope this is helpful to folks out there who are looking at historic handwriting! Anyone have other tips to share?