In looking through some census records recently, I found myself constantly wondering aloud, “What on earth does that say?” and “What letter is that?”. While I have found that the feeling of pseudo-illiteracy is not an uncommon side-effect of genealogy research, I suppose I had never really found myself saying it as much or with such frustration before. I had studied a lot of languages in school growing up (verbally and written) and many times had been able to figure things out on my own. But lately I have caught myself scratching my head and squinting my eyes more than usual.
I know I’m not alone by any stretch of the imagination in these frustrations. So to offer a hand to those in the same boat, I put together all of the resources I have found about interpreting and understanding styles of old handwriting. (if you have or know of any not listed here, please feel free to post them in the comments for everyone!)
I had a hard time finding a guide to handwriting in Polish specifically. While much of what I found focused on English and German and even Finnish, these resources still had much to offer especially in terms of the evolution of handwritten letters and their shorthands. Also important to remember is that very often, spelling may have been phonetic (where words are spelled the way they sound when they are spoken) and therefore may look a little funny at first.
This is an image I found on an ancestry site. It illustrates several different versions of each letter of the alphabet in different handwritings. The individual letters were taken from an 1880 American census and put together to compare as a reference (click on it to enlarge):
The Genealogical Society of Finland offers a great resource page that discusses and illustrates different styles of handwriting (from Gothic to Humanistic) and offers charts depicting the evolution of each letter from the 16th century thru the 19th/early 20th century. Again, while the reference is Finnish and some letters may not pertain to Polish genealogy, it gives one a guide/impression to draw from when doing your own research.