Reading and interpreting old handwriting is a very big issue for genealogists and researchers of historical documents. As I have been indexing the 1940 Census for the past eight weeks with my wife Mary, I have come to recognize this is a hieroglyphic-deciphering problem even in such modern records of the 20th Century. For the thousands of indexers who are working on this project there are two major deficiencies which will have an impact on future genealogists who want to use our indexing results. In an effort to make this valuable record and index more readily decipherable and useable, here are some professional observations, advice and tips for those researchers.

First, the census takers in 1940 couldn’t read and write! And second, the 2012 indexers and arbitrators can’t read and write!

OK, I admit to being somewhat facetious in my statements; but I am raising a legitimate concern. Mary and I are both professional genealogists. One of our greatest desires is to create records worthy of all acceptation; in other words, to make family tree information as correct as possible so we can accurately help others in their family history research. Therefore, as is always the case in doing genealogy, we must consider both the historical context and the difficulties of deciphering and using a handwritten record such as the 1940 Census.

Comparing 1940 and 2012

This comparative problem that stretches over the past seventy two years reveals the changing technology between the two eras and the fact that the skills required for doing and reading handwriting had already begun to deteriorate by 1940; and in 2012 it is amazing that any of the current indexers can read this handwriting that was made just a few decades ago. We must remember that while typewriters were becoming the technology of the day for government office work instead of the lift and dip and blotting of quill pens used in earlier eras of government record making, the 1940 enumerators or recorders in the field were using ball point and fountain pens and the inconsistency of the handwritten word to record their census taking.  

Today we have smartphones, computers and all manner of devices that have replaced the communication-technology of yesteryear along with that old time in-depth training in the skills of penmanship. This has resulted in a growing loss of the ability to read and correctly interpret old script that is as modern as 1940. We wonder as this trend expands what will future genealogists do; will our own grandchildren even be able to read our handwritten word, and learn about their ancestors?

Resulting 2012 Indexing Problems

In 2012, as Mary and I have worked together indexing the 1940 Census, we sometimes come upon names that are so poorly recorded or misspelled that it is possible to completely miss-identify families and individuals in the process. Indexing such challenging handwriting is often a guessing game between us, the census taker, and the arbitrator, resulting in poor indexing results.

For instance, we identified a woman in 1940 whose name appeared to us as “Marthana M Cowgill.” The handwriting in her original census record was rather illegible, and the name seemed unusual, making it difficult to decipher. Because Mary and I were concerned about creating an accurate record that would enable future researchers to locate this family member, we noted that Marthana Cowgill was old enough to have been listed in the 1930 Census. We searched the index and record of that earlier enumeration and indeed, found her listed exactly as “Marthana Cowgill.” Our supposition was correct, and we recorded the transcription as such in our indexing. We found later, that the arbitrator ruled it was Mo? than no M and Marthana was lost in the 1940 Census Index.

This experience happened to us several times, where we located the individual in question through original research and the results were arbitrated otherwise. We eventually made a study of the arbitration process and realized that we were not supposed to do original research to verify the information to be included in the 1940 index. We were just to type in data as we interpreted it and to leave the final outcome to the arbitrator. And we understand why this must be so – many transcribers/indexers do not have special knowledge or skills to read old handwriting or have access to the resources and tools available to us. The goal here is do the best an indexer can do without outside research, and get it done so the 1940 US Federal Census can be made available for use.

Overcoming the Indexing Problems

Indexed census records in 2012 will have their problems, but they are going to be much easier to research than going line by line as we had to do in pre-computer 20th Century. But as professionals, we still want future genealogists to be able to create a record of their family history worthy of all acceptation. We want them to be able to locate their ancestry in these soon-to-be-made available records despite the indexing limitations. We do not want future researchers to think that just because they can’t find a particular individual, or when searching for a traditional spelling produces no results, that they are at a dead end without other research options. There are ways to overcome the indexing problems.

As I have conducted research for my clients just in the past several weeks, I have run across similar spelling deficiencies in many census indexes and their associated records from 1790 to 1930 as well as in international resources for genealogy work. My job as a professional genealogist and writer is to teach other genealogists how to deal with the problem, not to complain about it. I remember the day before census indexes and the modern computer era when I had to search a record for hours page by page, and name by name, in hopes of finding specific individuals. I am forever grateful for indexes, however flawed, that help me to discover new information to identify and document genealogy. Here is how I do it.

When I search today’s amazing computerized indexes, I recognize that the information may not be as I expect it to be. And I have to think and work outside the box of easy lookups. Where needed, I make searches for both surnames, and given names, with age limitations and area suggestions to find the best possibilities. And I use wild card searching (type in the first three letters of the name with an asterisk) as well as collateral research for other known family members.

When I am searching for a name like Massimino Siconolfi, I recognize that the census taker may not have heard the name correctly, or that he spelled it right, after hearing it; but also that the indexer who read the original census record may not have interpreted it correctly, or transcribed it the right way. Each of these deficiencies teaches us to look for variations in record sources, and we become better genealogists in doing so.  

Because I have long been a student of all things “handwritten” including doing penmanship, calligraphy and paleography and have had years of experience in reading old and varied scripts, I know the value of having this knowledge and skill of handwriting.


Therefore, it is equally important to teach handwriting to our youth. As the 21st Century moves more solidly into the era of texting, computers, and technology, these arts must be fostered in the rising generations of genealogists so the hieroglyphics of the past will readable for them; and they too, will be able to participate in doing genealogy and family history work.

Join Family Search in Indexing 1940 Census

The 1940 US Census Indexing Project has been an amazing experience for our family because it has taught us so much about America and ancestors, who are the people of history. We have experienced the turning of our hearts and have seen the hearts of others turning as together we fulfill a service for our Brothers and Sisters of 20th Century in this indexing effort. We have felt our Heavenly Father’s love and influence in our lives through this marvelous work. We are not perfect human beings, but we are promised by our Lord and Savior that as we become involved in family history work, that we will become Saviors on Mount and He will help us create a record worthy of all acceptation. We encourage everyone to partake of the blessings found through participation in this Family Search Indexing Program for the 1940 US Census Project.  

James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”. He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing US and International genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.

For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including free genealogy, LDS Family History advice and expert answers to commonly asked ancestry questions, visit Jim’s website www.Heirlines.com for free consultations and ordering custom family tree research services, and his genealogy blog ProfessionalGenealogy.com.