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  Reading Help for Documents at This Site

As with other technologies, the written and printed word has changed through history. What was commonplace two centuries ago may look strange to modern readers. When you read the documents on this site, you will notice some puzzling practices. You will also notice that writing styles varied, just as they do today.

In American and British English in Martha's time...

  • There were no typewriters or computers, so personal writing was handwritten. Commercial writing was handwritten or typeset on a press.
  • Uppercase letters began nouns as well as sentences.
  • The lower case s was written in elongated form, resembling an f:
    • at the beginnings of words, as in several.
    • in the middle of words, as in estate.
    • when written twice together, as in dress and lesson. Two ss can resemble a p.
  • Writers used superscript--small, elevated letters--to indicate abbreviations, as in Colo. North. Some writers underlined the superscript, as in Mrs Foster. Some writers gave no indication at all when they shortened words, as in Esq North.
  • Spelling was not standardized and often varied even within a document. If spelling appears erratic or confusing, try reading out loud. Often writers spelled words the way they sounded.
  • Some writers spelled "the" ye or ye, although they pronounced the word as we do today. This spelling derived from the Old English rune for the "th" sound.
  • In some hands, the following letters can be mistaken for each other:
    • K, P, and R
    • J and T
    • L and S
  • Documents with many pages often printed the first word of each page at the bottom of the previous page.
  • Writing with a quill pen yielded a varied line width that depended on the writer's skill, the quality of the ink and quill, and the degree of wear on the quill point. It was not uncommon for ink to blotch, run, and blur.
  • Over time, ink fades and paper yellows, affecting a document's legibility. For this reason, the quality of the documents on this site will vary.

When deciphering a handwritten document, it is useful to create a reference sheet of the way the writer formed each letter in the alphabet.

For a more detailed discussion of eighteenth-century writing, see How to Read Eighteenth-Century Writing in the History Toolkit.


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