Practicing the Reading of American Handwriting: An Approximate Scale of Legibility

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Practicing the Reading of American Handwriting: An Approximate Scale of Legibility

This material has been placed into general categories to provide you with practice reading American handwriting. These samples aim to provide you with some experience in reading different styles, common abbreviations, and features of the different periods of time. They have been grouped according to ease of readability for your comfort and pleasure. Some additional notes have been added to help you understand some of the history and styles.


Very easy to read

1856, penmanship sample [1]
style: Spencerian
This sample is by Platt Rogers Spencer, after whom the style is named. This shaded script and style is his own, and it can be found from the 1830s, though his first book was published in 1848, in which he shows a number of styles. [2] The Spencerian styles are much more prominent in the decades that follow. Other various shaded scripts, with thin light lines and wider dark lines, can be found dating from a much earlier time in European, British, and American writing.

1893, letter [3]
style: library handwriting
angle: vertical (sometimes classed with backhand)
The style begins in 1887 and continues on until about 1925, though items can be found into the 1960s. It is used exclusively by librarians. Any script from a non-librarian that looks similar may be “vertical writing,” which dates from 1894 – 1904, with some samples found a decade or so later. Designed for legibility, “library handwriting” was introduced by Melvil Dewey to librarians in 1887. As a “vertical writing” style it is designed to have no slope at all, or to lean to the left several degrees, as this sample does. While some consider it a backhand, it is more properly classed as a vertical style.

1899, letter [4]
style: shaded base
angle: backhand
The earliest date of which I am aware for any such style is “Abbott BackHand” from the 1879 Spencer's sons New Spencerian Compendium. [5] More popular from roughly 1899 – 1905 shaded base can be found in use by a clerk as late as 1914. This example here is both vertical in angle and shaded base in style. The vertical angle may be because of the popularity of “vertical writing” at this time. This sample, was written by the great penman C. C. Canan to his friend William J. Kinsey, editor of Penman’s Art Journal, which often published samples such as this.

1912, postcard [6]
style: vertical
This is a somewhat poorly executed “vertical” writing style. It was first taught in American schools beginning in late 1893 and became very popular from 1894 –1904, after which is fell out of favor. However, the style was taught for at least another ten years in some schools.

Easy to read

1743, letter [7]
Here, the long “s” can be found. Early documents in America use some letters from Latin as well as "secretary hand," a style used in England. See examples of the letters here [8] Additionally, some irregular spelling “you’l,” “shoud,” “oppertunity” has to be dealt with. Abbreviations such as “Dr Sr” and others of a more legal nature are challenging, unless one is familiar with them. Regarding spelling in this time period, keep in mind that Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was not published until 1755 in England, [9] and it was not until 1828 that Noah Webster published his American dictionary and sought to create American spellings. [10] Webster's was only one of a number of American dictionaries.

1793, letter [11]
The long “s,” the uncrossed letter “t,” and quick handwriting are issues to contend with in this sample by Alexander Hamilton. One might assume that any book published before the writing of a document might affect the writer, but it is important to remember that books were scarce, and the habits of youth persist. However, it is true that adults did learn penmanship later in their lives, too. This book by Jenkins, published in 1791, is the first American book on penmanship that separates the different parts of the letters into their component parts [12]

1808, assignment of deed [13]
Here, the lack of distinction of the separate letters and the extra looping make this harder than it first appears.

1832, list [14]
Short notes, lists, and receipts can be difficult as they have no larger context, in some cases. Here, reading through the list allows one to return to words like “Poll” to be able to make sense of it. Here the “x” is an old variation. The use of the comma and period are interchangeable in money, and of course here, too, the space without them signals the same thing.

1839, letter [15]
style: round hand
angle: vertical
This looping “round hand” is not unusual in this era, though its vertical angle and shading set it apart. Vertical scripts are often used by clerks in banks or by lawyers, with dates ranging from the 1830s to roughly 1910. One finds here “fav” (favor) and “Ulto” (ultimo, last month), and common abbreviations. This penmanship book by Noyes is one of many books common at this time [16] One can see that the writing sample is unlike the writing in this book.

Moderate effort or minor difficulty to read

1773, letter [17]
This letter has some combined words such as “IRecd” (I received), “Ihave” (I have); abbreviations; and it also has the reversed “e” and long “s” that come from the earlier secretary handwriting.

1840, letter [18]
style: angular
angle: backhand
The angular style, shading, and lack of distinction among letters require the reader to work a bit harder on this sample.

1855, record of fugitives [19]
The angular elements, variable shading in the strokes, and indistinct letters make this difficult. Like other items with names and places, this item requires more effort to properly transcribe the exact spelling. The importance of the names and places is perhaps even more important here as this is a “record of fugitives” and the exact details have important historical and personal value.

1862, handwritten newspaper [20]
The material here is written hastily, and it presents a challenge in places. Fortunately, the material often appears in other publications and can be cross-checked.

1892, letter [21]
style: high society
This is a looping script that is easy to read in some places, yet it is vexing to the eyes in other places.

More difficult, or difficult to read

1683, certificate [22]
The reversed “e,” the more ornate quality, and the cross-outs and additions make this tedious.

1862, telegram in code [23]
This seems initially very easy to transcribe, but some letters become very hard to discern. Also, because the letters are single and without context, it is not possible to cross-check from one section to another, or to compare words to each other.

1875, letter from veteran [24]
This author is elderly and has a shaky hand, and this takes time to read.

1887, letter [25]
angle: backhand
This script is angular. Letters are not easily distinguished from among each other, and the writing is rushed and somewhat sloppy.

1906, letter [26]
style: angular high society
This script is very angular, narrowly written, and has breaks within words.

1908, letter [27]
This is angular and indistinct in its letters in a number of places.

2013, letter [28]
This is cramped, looping, and words are combined in places.

Difficult to read

1903, letter [29]
style: angular high society
The highly angular style and narrow style make this quite hard to read.

1911, letter [30]
angle: severe backhand
This is spare, angled, and presents some challenges.

1919, letter [31]
style: angular and looping high society
This combines the more difficult of angular and looping elements.

Very difficult to read

1815, letter [32]
style: cross-written
This is an image that also includes an explanation about cross-written material. In general, cross-written material is among the hardest categories to read, even when the writing is clear.

Impossible to read without computer aid or other means

c.1900-1910?, letter [33]
style: backslant
This is meant to be nearly impossible to read. The material is written by an expert penman to another expert. It is readable, but only with extreme effort and the use of a computer to alter the image.