Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry: A Review

Years ago, while at the Family History Library, I was getting help reading an old record from one of the staff members. I could read just enough to decide that it was the entry I was looking for, but I couldn’t read the handwriting well enough to decipher the full entry.

I was amazed as the lady began reading out loud at a fairly normal speed – exactly what it said, word for word. I asked how she was able to read that so easily and she answered in one word: PRACTICE.

I have to agree, as most skills are developed by that one single method.

Today’s book review is of an oldie but goodie, but covers that very topic of reading old handwriting.  Since many schools no longer teach cursive, there might be more need for this book than ever before. 🙂

Kip Sperry, FASG, is a well known genealogical author. The first edition of Reading Early American Handwriting came out in 1998, with the sixth printing in 2008.

The format is straightforward:


  1. Reading Early American Handwriting
  2. Guidelines for Reading Old Documents
  3. Abbreviations and Contractions
  4. Terms
  5. Numbers and Roman Numerals
  6. Dates and the Calendar Change
  7. Sample Alphabets and Handwriting Styles
  8. Accreditation and Certification

Appendix A: Using Archives and Record Repositories
Appendix B: The Internet and Compact Discs

Documents and Transcriptions

In spite of the fact that this book was first published over twenty years ago, the only section of the book that is outdated is Appendix B, which comprises only six pages of the 289 page book. Its title alone, which mentions compact discs, is a dead giveaway.

In addition, Chapter 8, which is off-topic, is a 4-page introduction to the concept of genealogical certification. Although useful information, it seems out of place in this book. Hindsight is always 20-20, but if those two sections had been omitted, this book would stand as a classic today, with no current editing needed.

The first six chapters don’t require much discussion. All are quite short;  however, those chapters provide excellent background knowledge that is helpful to understanding the wording and dating of documents from various time periods. For example, knowing how the double dating system worked allows the transcriber to interpret dates from that time period correctly.

Chapter 7 – Sample Alphabets and Handwriting Styles – provides a quick introduction to Documents and Transcriptions, which is really the “meat” of this book. This section contains 190 pages of sample passages with an accompanying transcription on the facing page. Such a format changes this book from strictly a reference volume into workbook for the reader.

The handwriting examples begin with very large print of a handful of proper nouns, followed by stylized writings of the same words in different scripts, to full passages of old documents dating from the 1600s to the 1800s.

The handwriting ranges from simple and modern looking to less familiar cursive styles.

If you haven’t ever tried to read handwriting from the 1600s, I can tell you from experience, it is a challenge because of both non-standardized spelling and unfamiliar cursive letter formations.

This brings us full circle back to my opening statement – it takes PRACTICE and lots of it to become proficient at accurately reading old documents.

While it will take more practice than what is found in this book to accurately read unfamiliar handwriting, Sperry’s book is a great beginning to mastering the skill.

That leads me to comment on the bibliography, which is all about old handwriting. It is 27 pages long and full of additional resources to develop an understanding of historical times as they relate to handwriting. That’s another plus for this book.

Reading Early American Handwriting is an excellent reference book to keep on your genealogy book shelf. With the samples and then the answer pages provided in the last section, this book is a great way to self-teach decoding skills.

Wow! I haven’t used the words “decoding skills” since I retired from teaching reading and language arts! However, deciphering old handwriting requires good decoding skills. Just as we all learned to “decode” today’s standard written English language, we need to learn new decoding skills to figure out old style cursive writing, too.

Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry is available from the Genealogical Publishing Company for $36.00 in paperback form or $22.50 as an eBook. To be honest, the eBook is less expensive and provides the same learning experience as the paper format. I, myself, would purchase the digital format.






One thought on “Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry: A Review”

  1. Always wonderful to see well-written books that stand the test of time…and this one sounds incredibly useful for genealogists and family historians…

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