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UHCL Archives and Special Collections

Information about the collections of and on planning research at the UHCL Archives and Special Collections; created/updated by Matthew M. Peek

Handwritten Historical Documents Transcription Tips

Basic Tips for Transcribing Handwritten Historical Documents (mid-1800s to 1960s)

The following are very basic guidelines and tips for transcribing handwritten historical documents from the 1800s through the 1960s. These guidelines have been compiled from other transcription guides and tips sheets by the University of Houston-Clear Lake Archives and Special Collections, specifically to be used by UHCL History Program classes for transcription assignments. These tips are structured to make it as easy as possible for those with no possible experience reading or interpreting United States historical handwritten documents. We will cite in the guidelines the sources from which we took--in many cases directly with some slight edits or additions--the instructions and tips.

Basic Guidelines [Resources 1-3]

  • Type what you see. Transcribe grammar, punctuation, and spelling as they appear in the original document.
  • Don’t worry about formatting. There is no need to indicate font style, underlined, or bold or italicized words, or to try to match the spacing/indenting of the original. All text should be left justified and typed in the order it appears in the document.
  • Transcribe all handwritten text, including margins writing and “Post Script” (P.S.) statements. Please try to transcribe all elements of the document, including typewritten text that may appear in a table or a form, etc.
  • Consider the context of the document. If you’re having trouble with a word or passage, read “around” it and think about what a likely word would be, or look for other letters and spellings in the document that are similar to help figure out the individual letters of the word.
  • Indicate if you can’t decipher a word using brackets. Brackets are Chicago Manual Style and accepted professional historical practice that something has been added by the edited/reviewer, and not by the original author.
    • If you are unsure of a word or phrase but think you know enough to hazard a guess, please use brackets around the word or phrase, followed by a question mark after the word you inserted in the brackets. This should only be done if it is your best guess
      • Examples [juniper?], [Andrew?], or [passed through the woods?]
  • If you cannot make out the word, part of the word (like a few letters), or phrase, use brackets and write the word “illegible” in the brackets in the spot there the unknown content is. You should indicate if it is an illegible word or illegible phrase. Examples:
    • “I rode the bus to the Arm[illegible]”
    • “I bought a new automobile, ma, and it’s a [illegible word].” (In this case, the car is a 1920s short-lived automobile manufacture named Elcar)
    • “Susan wrote that pa started planting the [illegible phrase] last weekend.”
  • Crossed out words. Indicate by typing [strikethrough] or [crossed out] before and after the word or text that has been crossed out.
  • Do not transcribe hyphens or spaces in words that may be line breaks in the original text. Full words will yield better search results for future researchers when the text is made digitally-searchable:
    • It was very common when a word was broken in half by the end of the line of text on the paper and the word was carried onto the next line, to use a hypen or dash mark like this: theoreti-cally
  • Special characters. Please include accents, special characters, and other diacriticals if included in the text.
  • Do your best and then move on. You don’t have to complete the entire page.  Every word transcribed helps. Just remember to save frequently and only mark the transcription as complete when the entire page has been transcribed.

Spelling, Punctuation, and Abbreviations [Resources 1-3]

  • Do not correct spelling or capitalization errors
  • Where historical names are different from current names, type the text as you see it (e.g. you may see “Benwaa” for “Benoit”; write out “Benwaa”).
    • Especially the case of military letters where soldiers in foreign countries try using local words and language terms without knowing the spellings
  • Unusual or archaic spellings may occur frequently in historical documents (and you should transcribe them as-is) but be conscious of stylized forms of letters in some calligraphic styles that could lead to misinterpretations.
    • For example, a stylized ‘r’ can look like a ‘z’ in some calligraphic styles.
    • Long S [Resource 4]
      • The Long S was written like an “f” without the crossbar, and was a tall or long variant of “s”
        • In cursive handwriting, the bottom curve of the long “s” goes to the left, while in the “f”, it goes to the right or doesn’t exist.
      • It only applied to lowercase “s”, not uppercase “S”.
      • If an “s” was at the beginning or in the middle of a word, the long “s” was used (ſurpriſe for suprise).
      • If a word included “ss”, a double long “s” was used unless the letters were at the end of a word; otherwise it was finished with a regular “s”, as in poſſeſs (possess)
      • The long “s” was not used when “s” was the last letter of the word.
      • For the 18th and first half of the 19th century in the United States, the long s was most commonly seen in letter writing.
  • Type the abbreviation as it is in the document; then if you are able, spell out the abbreviation in all capital letters in single square brackets immediately after the abbreviation.
  • Don’t worry about denoting superscript characters such as 2nd, McDonald, or “Yr”.
  • Add periods where appropriate if none are used, but do not add any other punctuation.
    • Many pre-1970s handwritten texts consist of long run-on sentences that don’t match current writing style guides. Only add periods to indicate the end of a sentence to make reading easier.
  • Preserve the use of symbols/special characters such as & and +.

Writing Styles to Be Aware of

19th Century

  •  Cross-writing or Cross-hatch Style [Resource 5]
    • Especially popular in the United States from the 1830s through 1870s, with its height in the U.S. Civil War, the cross-writing style was an effort to make the most scarce paper and cost of postage, by fitting as much into a letter as possible
    • As with any letter, you write across the page, top to bottom. With cross-writing, if you get to the end of the paper and still have more to write, you would turn the paper 90 degrees and write “between the lines” in the opposite direction to the original lines.
    • Some Civil War letters used cross-writing to create hidden codes for family members, military information, and spy information. People would write words cross-hatch that intersected the traditional writing direction at specific letters, creating a new message. These can be very hard to confirm or read, as you can make a message out of any cross-hatched writing this way unless you know an individual did this practice. Then, you would just be creating content that was not there. It is important to be aware of this when reviewing these types of 19th-century letters.
    • Text written in multiple directions on a page. If text is written in multiple directions on a page, transcribe it as it would be read aloud.
  • Palmer Method of business handwriting [Resource 6]
    • The Palmer Method is a system of handwriting developed by Austin Norman Palmer in the late 19th-century. The Palmer Method was one of the most popular systems for teaching practical penmanship in America. 
    • What makes the Palmer Method unique relative to modern times is that students were taught to write with the arm as opposed to the fingers. Writing with the arm can be executed for hours without fatigue, which was necessary in a world without typewriters and computers.
    • It created clean, easy-to-read cursive handwriting that defined Progressive Era handwriting.
    • By 1960s, more emphasis put on teaching print handwriting to get kids writing sooner in their lives. The discipline which favored a masculine interpretation of writing styles as strength and arm movement fell out of favor for business purposes with the development of computers and better typewriters.

20th Century

  • World War II V-mail Letters (The text for this information was taken verbatim without edits from the National World War II Museum's website) [Resource 7]:

V-mail, short for “Victory mail,” was a particular postal system put into place during the war to drastically reduce the space needed to transport mail thus freeing up room for other valuable supplies. Although the V-mail system was only used between June 1942 and November 1945, over 1 billion items were processed through these means. Officially entitled the “Army Micro Photographic Mail Service,” War Department Pamphlet No. 21-1 describes V-mail as “an expeditious mail program which provides for quick mail service to and from soldiers overseas. A special form is used which permits the letter to be photographed in microfilm. The small film is transported and then reproduced and delivered. Use of V-mail is urged because it greatly furthers the war effort by saving shipping and airplane space.”

An important part of the V-mail system was the use of a standardized stationery which combined the letter and envelope into one piece of paper. Even without microfilming, this was a great space-saving measure. The form was a sheet specially designed by the Government Printing Office and was provided free of charge by the Post Office at the rate of two sheets per person per day. Consumers could also purchase sheets made by different sanctioned providers. All of the paper used for V-mail had to be the same size and weight so that the pages could be fed into the processing machine for microfilming. The way one wrote on the letter also played a big part in whether one would ultimately be able to read the reduced version. Users of V-mail were instructed: “Use typewriter, dark ink, or dark pencil. Faint or small writing is not suitable for photographing.” The original forms could accommodate up to 700 typed words. Despite instruction, there was still some confusion about the use of V-mail. 

The Post office, the War, and Navy Departments worked together in the complicated V-mail operation. There were three giant postal centers in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. All of the mail was funneled through these centers. Kodak trained filmers to work with the Recordak machines. The military was then responsible for transporting the reels overseas. The V-mail station overseas would print and distribute. Some centers had machines that would open and flatten the letters before filming, but most were prepared by hand. Censors would also read each letter before they were filmed. Because they were going to be filmed, the letters had to be blacked out rather than cut out should they contain any sensitive material.

The Recordak could film 40 letters per minute and 1600 letters were accommodated per roll. The clerks assigned numbers to each V-mail, which corresponded to reel numbers. Each sender station kept the original copies as backups until they were notified by the receiving station that the reel had been properly transmitted. At the receiver station, clerks reproduced each frame onto photographic paper. Because of this there was the claim that no V-mail was ever lost. This was a selling point in the use of V-mail. It was supposed to be a more secure mail system. All V-mail was sent air mail, so it was also quicker. V-mail was also free of charge for all servicemen.

V-Mail had its drawbacks. It was somewhat limiting in that only certain number of words could be used. Since the photo prints were ¼ size of the original letter, if the print was too small then the final product was unreadable. Some stores actually sold special “V-mail readers,” magnifying glasses so that readers could decipher the reduced print.

General Writing Style Notes

  • In the United States between 1800 and the 1880s, it was not uncommon to have children only have an education equivalent to a 6th to 8th grade education for the time. Many people graduate high school by age 16, with some finishing at 14 or 15 to be able to help their families on farms or in family-run businesses.
    • As such, a lot of letters, journals, and documents written by those living in rural communities with limited access to schooling, tend to write in a more colloquial or slang style.
    • Knowing where your authors are from will help you to interpret the text more correctly for transcription.
    • The same is true in the Southern U.S. up through the 1960s, where a lot of local slang or writing-as-it-is-pronounced words are used in handwritten documents.
  • Especially for letters written between 1900 and 1969, shortened references to Tin Pan Alley songs, jazz and swing/big band music and song titles, radio shows, and television shows, are common.
    • For example, someone in 1943 writes in a letter that it’s time to “begin the beguine,” “Begin the Beguine” was a popular song written by Cole Porter in 1935 and became a huge big band hit. The “beguine” is “a dance and music form, similar to a slow rhumba." [Resource 8]

Resources List

1. "Help Transcribe the Casey Family Papers" guide, Historic New England website, viewed online at

2. "CRKN Transcription Guidelines," Canadian Research Knowledge Network website, viewed online at

3. "Transcription Instructions and Tips," Nantucket Historical Association website, viewed online at

4. Jessie Kratz, "The Long S," Pieces of History blog, National Archives and Records Administration, written on December 14, 2021,

5. Jessie Kratz, "Across and Down: An Unusual Civil War Letter," Pieces of History blog, National Archives and Records Administration, written on December 22, 2021, viewed online at

6. Information taken directly from the website

7. "From the Collection: Mail Call: V-mail," December 7, 2019, National World War II Museum, viewed online at

8. "Beguine (dance)," Wikipedia, viewed online at




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