Handwriting Analysis in Genealogical Research

Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. 

Whileyou’ve been discovering your ancestors’ names, learning about where andwhen they lived and died, and looking at old family photos, have youever wished you could meet your forebears? Who were the people behindthe names, dates, and faces, and what were they like? Did they haveanything in common with you other than genetic makeup?

Names,dates, places, and photos give us tantalizing clues about our ancestors,but we can only guess what they were like as people. Those olddaguerreotypes make everyone look so stiff and stern, it’s hard to tellwhat kind of people they really were. Yet there is a way to meet yourancestors as people. If you are fortunate enough to have samples of yourancestors’ handwriting, you can learn about their personalities.

A History of Handwriting Analysis

Awarenessof the relationship between writing (or printing) and character isnothing new. Aristotle, Confucius, and Shakespeare all commented on therelationship between one’s character and the way one writes. Modernscientific methods have led the Library of Congress to classifyhandwriting analysis as a social science. Like medicine, it is anempirical discipline. The experience and talents of the practitionermake a big difference in the results. Just as some physicians are betterdiagnosticians, some analysts are better at discerning character.Although most practitioners use similar principles, differences in theirexperience and abilities affect their findings.

Handwriting Is Unique

Althoughsome people’s writing may look quite similar, in fact, everyone’shandwriting is unique, allowing experts to testify in court about whosewriting was really on that will. That’s because handwriting is reallybrain writing, and each of us has a unique personality. Handwriting islike an electrocardiogram of the brain that a handwriting analyst caninterpret into various personality traits and behavior patterns.

Is It Chance?

Somepeople think handwriting is simply a matter of pure habit or learning,but if that were the case, everyone trained in the same system wouldwrite in a very similar fashion.

But neither is it just randomchance that we write the way we do. Studies have shown that all of aperson’s movements, including handwriting, gait, and gestures, arerelated. There is something at the core of each of us that is reflectedin our movements, and handwriting freezes that movement so that we mayunderstand its meaning.

Businesses around the world have foundthat handwriting analysis, when done by a well-qualified analyst, isinvaluable in hiring and in personnel work. I work in a company thatspecializes in corporate handwriting analysis, and our clients, rangingfrom Fortune 500 companies to family businesses, find handwritinganalysis more helpful than psychological personality tests in personneldecision-making and team building. In France, job applications must behandwritten, and in Israel, new kibbutz members are accepted only aftertheir handwriting has been analyzed.

What Does Handwriting Reveal?

Hundredsof personality traits can be evaluated through handwriting. Traits thatsome scientists believe have at least a fifty percent genetic componentinclude aggression, anxiety, extroversion or introversion, sociability,creativity, alcoholism, impulsivity, schizophrenia, dominance,leadership ability, intelligence, and shyness.

However, there aremany things that can’t be determined from handwriting: age, gender,race, religion, financial status, values, and profession (althoughaptitudes are apparent in handwriting, people don’t always use theiraptitudes in their professional lives).

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Ofcourse, how a person learned to write affects his or her handwriting.The method of writing is called the “copybook,” after the way peoplelearned in past times to copy writing from an instructional copybook.But we all, including writing teachers, deviate from what we weretaught, even if only in subtle ways. It is precisely those subtledifferences that are the keys to analyzing handwriting.

Forexample, almost all American adults learned the Palmer or Zaner-Blosermethod of handwriting. If you did, you were taught that your upper loops(“l”s, “h”s, “k”s) should be about two-and-a-half to three times thesize of your small letters (vowels, for example).

(Palmer method)

Whatif you make your upper loops four times the height of small letters?That could indicate an interest or ability in the abstract (ideas,philosophy, religion, etc.). More precise information would depend onother factors in your writing.

Why Copybooks Are Crucial

However,what if you had discovered the fountain of youth, and had actuallylearned to write in 1847, according to the model below?

Along life would probably have made you somewhat philosophical, but ahandwriting analyst might think you even more philosophically inclinedthan you are if information about your copybook was not given. Of courseyou wouldn’t look your age, but even if you did, many handwritinganalysts would not be aware of the copybook differences and ask. That’swhy it’s important for a handwriting analyst to be aware of where andwhen a person learned to write.

From the sixteenth century untilthe nineteenth, most people learned to write from self-styled “writingmasters.” I have samples of nine copybooks from the eighteenth centuryand eleven from the nineteenth century, and that is a small sample. Evenin the late nineteenth century, writing masters remained prominent indeveloping penmanship models. Many people have heard of “Spencerian”writing, named for the American penmanship teacher Platt Rogers Spencer,who lived from 1800–1864. Quite a few of these masters developed theirown particular forms in handwriting, which they passed on to theirstudents through the copybooks they published and sold.

So when ahandwriting analyst starts to look for deviations from the “standard,”it is vital to know what that standard is. The uniformity in copybooklearning that analysts assume today was not the case before thiscentury. Although some copybooks were similar enough to contemporaryones that no special considerations need to be made, this is not usuallythe case, especially for writing learned before the end of the CivilWar.

What Analysts Examine

Apartfrom how individual letters are formed, handwriting analysts look at anenormous variety of factors. They note the pressure of the writer’shand on the pen and paper, the quality of the line of writing (sharp orpasty edges), and the rhythm or flow of writing. They measure the slantof the writing, the width of the letters, the spaces between letters,and the spaces between words and lines. The size and shape of themargins, the straightness or curvy quality of the lines of writing, andmany other factors are taken into account. Some of these factors areaffected by the copybook style, and some are not.

Furthermore,some of these characteristics are affected by the nature of the pen(quill or steel tip) and the quality of the paper. For example, theabsorbency or roughness of the paper can influence the evaluation of thepressure used and the fluidity of the writing. Contemporary analystsdon’t have to be concerned with the effects of old types of pens andpaper on the writing they analyze, so many are not aware of it. However,it can be critical in analyzing some genealogical samples.

Context Is All-Important

Thepopularization of graphology has led to magazine articles andsupermarket books reporting that if you form a letter a particular wayit means a particular thing. If you pick up a supermarket graphologybook, it may tell you that if you make your “y”s a certain way, you’resexy. That’s only one possible meaning. Good analysts never considerhandwriting features in isolation. Those “y”s could mean you’redetermined, or you like variety, or many other things, depending onother features in your writing.

Any single feature of the writingis meaningless out of context. It’s like flour in a recipe. When yousee a cake, you don’t think of flour, eggs, and sugar. Those things,taken separately, taste and feel different than they do in combination.The result in baking—and in graphology—is determined by what any singlefeature is combined with; you could get anything from a chocolate torteto papier-maché, and the equivalent in terms of personality.

Strong Flavors

Yetthere are certain aspects of handwriting that are strong influences inthemselves, and may give a noticeable flavor to personality. Forexample, which writer do you think is more likely to prefer that thingsoccur in an orderly, predictable way, to have habits and routines?

Structured examples


Which writer is more likely to give in easily?

Examples of angles and garlands


Cultural Influences

Buteven some features, such as the “strong flavors,” have to be consideredin terms of copybook learning and the cultural influences of time andplace. Did the writer develop those features because of the influence ofa unique personality, or was the writer merely adhering to conventionas best he could? In certain countries—Russia, for example—writing wasdrilled so strongly into students and conformity was so stronglyemphasized that it took quite an independent personality to show markedindividuality in handwriting (or anything else, for that matter).

Contemporaryhandwriting analysts require a “spontaneous sample.” They don’t wantwriting that is copied, but writing that occurs when the person isfocused on the content, not the form, of the writing. Handwritinganalysts don’t analyze calligraphy as handwriting. Trying to produce aparticular impression in writing, as extreme conformity does, requiresdifferent rules of analysis. It is important to recognize when thoserules are appropriate for writing from certain time periods inparticular societies.

The below figures are samples of writing from Bolivia, Germany, and United States respectively.


AnAmerican handwriting analyst might consider German writing to haveextreme deviations if the analyst was unaware that the person learned towrite in Germany before moving to the United States. (There are manyGerman copybooks from the early twentieth century, to confuse matterseven further.) The German writer might well be different from theaverage American for cultural reasons. An angular writer, with othersupporting features, would probably be a tough negotiator. Donald Trumphas incredibly angular handwriting!

    (Donald Trump’s signature)

However,an analyst couldn’t be sure if the individual was a tough negotiator ora conventional type without knowing the copybook. This is true for bothcontemporary and old handwriting.

Fortunately, there are manyindications in handwriting that do stand up across countries andcenturies. It is important that the handwriting analyst know whichfeatures can be considered individual differentiations in yourancestor’s writing; otherwise, personality traits may be attributed toyour ancestor that are really just the writing conventions of the time.

Personality and Society

Anotheraspect of culture which may be important is a knowledge of the societyin which your ancestor learned to write. One client sent me a sample ofan ancestor who had left England as a young man. The sample was a letterfrom a gold-mining camp. The man’s writing showed him to be veryindependent, quite an individualist, but not in a negative way.(Analysts can pick up indications of dishonesty, deceit, substanceabuse, and sensual overindulgence, to name just a few traits.) He lookedlike quite an entrepreneur. It was important to know that had he stayedin England, he would have appeared very different.

In theclass-conscious, conformist English society of the time, any show ofindividualism would have been regarded with horror in the social classfrom which he came. This probably would have led to indications ofstress in his handwriting, which could be misinterpreted if the analystwas ignorant of the social circumstances. Fortunately he found a perfectsetting for his abilities in the California gold rush. After receivingthe analysis, the descendant told me that he had become quiteinfluential and prosperous.

Why Age Counts

Itis important to have some idea of the age of your ancestor, as well asinformation on his or her education or profession, as this indicates howpracticed a writer he or she was likely to have been. A very polishedand fluent handwriting produced by a twelve-year-old would lead us toattribute unusual ability. The same writing by a forty-year-old wouldstill indicate a well-integrated and intelligent person, but would notbe nearly as remarkable.

George Washington learned “roundhand,” as above. Look how he changed from the copybook as he matured.

Itis important to know a writer’s age, as that influences the degree ofdifferentiation. John Quincy Adams, however, adhered closely tocopybook. He probably cared a lot about propriety and was a stickler fordoing things right.

CompareWashington’s writing with that of an ordinary citizen of the day.Washington’s looks smoother, more balanced, flowing, and coordinated.Washington had lots of writing practice, but that kind of coordinationrequires a well-integrated personality. A disturbed personality may showin an unrhythmic quality in the writing.

Samples of Washington’s handwriting


Does Your Writing Change?

Let’shope the writing on your grocery lists differs somewhat from that ofyour love letters. Your writing reflects you at the moment you wrote,and that includes your moods. Unless you are passionate aboutsupermarkets, we’d expect more emotion in the love letters. Furthermore,are you the same person today you were twenty years ago? If so, yourwriting will be essentially the same, but if you’ve changed, it will bedifferent to the degree that you’ve changed. If you are under stress,that, too, can change writing.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address and letter


Doesone writing seem more “emotional” to you? Lincoln was much moreemotional writing the Gettysburg Address, the second sample. The line ofwriting is thicker, yet pastier, with more pressure. The letter showsmuch more control in the line of writing. Although sympathetic, it wasnot written in an emotional mood.

One client sent me a letterwritten by her ancestor to the government, the last in a series he hadwritten over a span of years, trying to rectify an injustice. The lettershowed anger and temper. Fortunately I knew the circumstances of theletter. If I had had only that letter, I would have said the author wasangry when writing, but I couldn’t have said whether he was a habituallyangry person. Even more fortunately, the client had another letterwhich had been written years before under different circumstances, whichdid not show anger or temper.

This is why it is good to havemore than one sample of writing, from a different time, for anyindividual. Handwriting is a picture of the person at the moment it waswritten, and you need to see a person in a variety of circumstances toget the full range of personality. One letter will give you a portraitof the ancestor at the moment the letter was written, and of course,many aspects of personality, such as intelligence or manual dexterity,are not much affected by mood.

Your handwriting also alters withphysical infirmities (arthritis, etc.), mood, certain medications, anddegree of inebriation, but certain basic characteristics stay the same(except with true multiple personalities). That’s why it is important toknow the circumstances under which a document was written.

Artistic License

Ifyou have artistic inclinations or simply love art, you may have anintuitive reaction to handwriting. That’s because part of handwritinganalysis relies on the unconscious symbolism in handwriting. Forexample, one of my ancestors made a heart formation in certain letters.That can indicate a need or wish for love, and it was validated by otherfeatures of his writing. His wife showed extreme reserve, pride, anddignity. This gave me a clue as to why their marriage was not happy.

Youcan use your intuitive ability in another way. Simply take a dry penand trace over the writing of your ancestors. You may get a certain“feel” as you form the same strokes of writing as your ancestor did.


Inearlier times, writing was not a universal skill. People often reliedon scribes to write letters. The rich who could write sometimes usedsecretaries. Make sure that it is your ancestor’s handwriting. One wayis to look for how congruent the signature is with the writing. (Asignature of “X” is a dead giveaway.)

Should you wish to get to know your ancestors on a personal level, here are some questions to ask your handwriting analyst:

* Are you certified by a national handwriting analysis organization?

* How long have you been certified? (Five or more years is likely to give a better result. Practice does help.)

*What information do you need to take into consideration in analyzing myancestor’s handwriting? (This should include, at minimum, yourancestor’s approximate age at the time of writing—young adult, middleaged, or elderly is sufficient, if not ideal—any physical infirmities orspecial circumstances at the time of writing, the country and timeperiod when your ancestor learned to write, and, depending on the timeperiod, information about the quality of the paper.)

* Is this sample sufficient to give an in-depth analysis? If not, what kinds of things can you tell?

*What kind of report will I receive? What kind of information will itcontain? How long will it be? Will it be a presentation folder or atyped report?

If you are lucky enough to have documentshandwritten by your ancestors, you command a resource that will enableyou to gain access to some of the most personal and significant aspectsof their personalities and to attain an unprecedented degree ofcloseness to those whose lives contributed so much to your own.

For further information on learning handwriting analysis visithttp://www.hai.in

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