Ability to decipher cursive required for research

August 23, 2013|Linda Irvin-Craig

As someone who suffered through grade-school penmanship exercises, the recent discussion about discontinuing the teaching of cursive writing in our schools evoked mixed emotions. Those interminable oval tracings and slanted up-and-down squiggles filled pages of lined notebook paper and produced hand cramps long remembered.

Yet, as a devotee of history, I can attest that not knowing how to decipher the scribes of yesteryear would block comprehensive access to original documents. Local research could be stymied and full appreciation of important written creations such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, through which this country was founded, would be lost.

Of course, there are numerous transcribed copies of these papers, but they lose some of the magic without the grace and dignity of the hand-affixed signatures. Plus, how would you know if someone had inserted or changed a word in the transcription that altered the meaning of what those long-ago patriots debated, compromised on and finally decided to include in the finished product?  


There are enough people out there trying to tell us what the founders really meant to say that it is often important to return to the original text for comfort. Thomas Jefferson, a prolific and concise writer, has actually fallen out of favor with some pretentious interpreters because, try as they might, they can’t make his prose say something other than what it says.

It is good news to note that Washington County will retain learning the cursive alphabet and handwriting.

Hieroglyphics and other ancient language symbols have lost their audience, except for those who have made a significant effort to study them. We certainly aren’t ready to relegate our history to a prerequisite course in language to read what our country’s founders  defined as important to our longevity as a country.

On the local level, all legal documents (wills, deeds, bills of sale, mortgages, etc.) were executed in cursive for many years. Some of our local early scribes could have benefitted from the lessons of Austin Norman Palmer, whose 1932 textbook on penmanship method was still in use at the two-room schoolhouse in Big Pool I attended in the 1950s. Theodore Snyder, the principal and instructor of the upper grades, insisted on at least one drill a week. There were three grades in his classroom and this was an exercise common to all. Some of us took longer to master staying on the lines.

Curse of cursive in documents

“Who Do You Think You Are?,” the TV series, produced by Lisa Kudrow of “Friends” fame, just began its fourth season. This program takes celebrities on a trek through their ancestry by way of written records and visits to locations where those ancestors may have lived or died. All family roots research depends on finding what are called “primary records.” In addition to those listed above, genealogical detectives look at census records, hand-drawn maps, church records and, if available, record pages of old Bibles, all handwritten.

I have wondered about how one became qualified to be a census taker. Many couldn’t spell, or maybe couldn’t hear. Because most of my local ancestors stayed in the same town for generations, the inability to locate them during a census period when they were known to be there nearly confounded. I began to wonder if they had played the census dodge, which many rural households did. However, the ability to read the original records allowed me to decipher the name “Avey,” written “Ab” and then transcribed to an index as “Al.”

Typewritten records did not begin in Washington County until after 1900. There was an interim period that had some fill in-the-blank forms. So, from the chartering of the colony of Maryland in 1632, to the founding of the county in 1776 until the early 1900s, one’s primary records are all in cursive. That is also true of most business and medical records. Everything is in cursive in European records.

In the documents of the 1700s, letters and language were distinctly different. The use of a double “s” in a word could appear to be a double “f” or a combination of an “f” and an “s.” An upper case “L” might mimic an upper case “S.” The text of the legislative record of the Convention of the Province of Maryland from Sept. 6, 1776, gives the geographical boundaries of Washington County and announces the appointment of the first commissioners.  

“The convention then proceeded to take the fame into confideration, which was agreed to as follows:

WHEREAS it appears to this convention, that the erecting two new counties out of Frederick county will conduce greatly to the eafe and convenience of the people thereof;

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