Skip to Main Content

Using and Understanding Primary Sources

Video - Reading Cursive Handwriting

If you're struggling to read a document written in old handwriting, start by watching this handy video tutorial. It will give you some tips and tricks to use when deciphering historical cursive.

Common Abbreviations

Abbreviations for first names and titles were commonly used in handwritten documents until the early 20th century. The following chart lists some of those abbreviations and the words they represent.

Chart of historical cursive handwriting abbreviationsChart of historical cursive handwriting abbreviations

Chart taken from E. Kay Kirkham, The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years (Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1973).

Along the same lines, several phrases that were frequently used in letter writing will often be abbreviated as well. It was common to sign letters with the phrase “your obedient servant,” and you will often see this abbreviated as “yr obt svt.”

Other common abbreviations are viz., which stands for the Latin term “videlicet” and is used as a synonym for “namely” or “in other words.” You may also encounter the abbreviations “inst.," "ult.," and "prox.” These stand for the Latin terms “instante mense, ultimo mense, and proximo mense” and they mean “this month, last month, and next month.” If the document you’re transcribing includes a phrase like “Yours of the 14th inst. at hand,” that means the writer is responding to a letter they received from the addressee on the 14th of the current month.

Practice Reading Old Handwriting

The Center for Southeast North Carolina Archives and History has created five online quizzes that will help you practice cursive handwriting. Check them out below!

If you want more practice, you may find these other online quizzes and tutorials helpful:

Online Resources and Tools

These online tools and resources can help you decipher difficult handwritten words and provide more information on historical handwriting practices.