06 February 2018

How to Read Names on Badly Written Vital Records

Imagine you're searching through a collection of old, hand-written vital records. You're winding through a reel of microfilm or clicking through a collection of images.

I'm familiar with the names in my ancestors' towns. So I can identify these names with zero hesitation.At last you find what you want: the marriage record for your 2nd great grandparents. Eureka! Now you can learn the names of two sets of your 3rd great grandparents.

You grab a magnifying glass or zoom in on the document, eager to see those new names.

But what do they say? They're almost completely illegible. You aren't sure of any of the letters!

What would you do? I've seen people share an image on Facebook, asking for opinions on a hard-to-read name. Time and again, the people who can read the name with authority are already familiar with the exact name.

That's the answer! I've been documenting vital records from all my ancestral hometowns for years.

I'm pretty fast at it. Why? Because this practice helps me decipher even the most sloppily written names in no time.

Scientists say we're able to read by recognizing the shapes of words. That's why it's easier to read this THAN IT IS TO READ THIS.

So, get familiar with the names from your ancestral hometowns. Then you'll find it easy see the difference between:
  • Chiusolo and Ciusolo
  • Anzuino and Anzovino
  • Ferella and Ferrara.
And bonus! If you're examining a small town, there was no doubt a lot of intermarrying. You may find you're related to the majority of the town! So it's worth your while to learn those names.

This image shows some examples of names that didn't slow me down for a second—once I made myself familiar with the town.


  1. Thanks DiAnn! A couple things I've learned (and you may have covered these already)...
    1. The Italian names (any foreign names) are extra hard because they have that European writing flourish and they're in another language. But once you get used to it, you're right it's easy. Often on ship manifests they abbreviate names like Antonio is Anto, Francesco is Fro, or Giuseppe is Gppe. After *I think* 1906 (?) they started putting more info on manifests like birth city, final destination city, closest relative in Italy, and who they're going to meet in their final destination (their sponsor) for example, Luigi Marucci from Baselice is going to meet his nephew Michele Marucci in Jamestown, NY. All of this paints a picture of the person and their immediate family.

    2. I love that women usually used their maiden names so on manifests it'll say something like Maria Assunta Marucci age 27 from Baselice going to meet husband Paolo Colucci in Boston. People also traveled together with family and close friends so check to see who else is on the ship with them from the same town and final destination.

    3. They usually Americanize their name after arriving so Francesco became Frank and Luigi became Louis. In my tree, if they were born in Italy, I use Italian first name with the American one in quotes, and if born in the US I use the American name. I've even seen the last name Americanized from Italian Pisciotti to Fisher, or German Koenig to King, or (for whatever reason) from Iampietro to Gampietro.

    4. If I really can't determine a word, I look for other names or words I can read that use the same letter to see how the person writing actually wrote the letter. Everyone has their own way of writing but they consistently write a letter the same way all the time.

    1. All good points. I love that Italian women keep their maiden name for life. If I'd learned that two years earlier, I would have gone back to Iamarino and stayed there!

  2. For the same reasons, I read registers from beginning to end. You get used to the handwriting of the priest and you are amazed at the end how easy it is to read the various acts. You start cursing him though when the poor man gets arthritis or becomes kind of senile (I encountered one who was in the same parish for 65 years!) because the acts become illegible "fly soup".

    It also depend on the handwriting you grew up with. It is easier for me to decipher French handwriting, so in Luxembourg for example, it is relatively easy when the registers are maintained by priests who were educated in French. It is more difficult to me to decipher, when the priest was educated in German, even though the register is still in French. The form of the letters is SO different and unfamiliar. As for everything, practice makes perfect! Annick H.

    1. Annick, yes, what a great point! Handwriting can be specific to the place. I'm definitely comfortable with Italian handwriting after so many years of study. But when I see a German document, or Polish, I wonder how people read it! The answer, if you're not from that country, is practice.