Pages From The Past

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Can you establish a time frame for an undated document? The answer is yes, but it can be challenging. Try answering these questions:

  • What style is the handwriting? First, try to identify the handwriting style to provide a general sense of when the document was written. Don’t forget to compare the penmanship to other records possibly written by the same person.
  • Is there a watermark? Wearing gloves, hold the sheet of paper up to the light. Watermarks are set into the paper and identify the paper manufacturer. If there is one, you can then research that company at a large public library to see when that particular watermark was used.
  • What type of paper is it? Various styles of paper became fashionable at different dates, so examine the sheet of paper for color, edging and size. For example, parchment paper was not manufactured in the United States until 1885.
  • What was used to create the document? Other factors such as type of pen or pencil, ink erasure marks, and even drying sand and blotters can help you learn more about the document in your hands. Certain styles of pen nibs became popular at various times, so by comparing the undated document to another one from the same person may help you judge when it was created.
  • Does a stamp appear on the document? Postage stamps and wax seals can reveal a date for a document.
Still having trouble? Consult a professional. If establishing a date becomes important, contact the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners. The society maintains a referral list of members on its Web site <>.

Handwriting Timeline

1100s Paper first appears in Europe

1686 New England Primer used in schools

1761 Faber pencil dynasty started by Kaspar Faber

Late 1700s Autograph collecting starts as a hobby

1816 The Art of judging the Mind and Character of Men and Women from Their Handwriting by Edouard Auguste Patrice Hocquart discusses handwriting analysis

1884 First practical fountain pen invented

1888 Austin Palmer invents his famous handwriting method

1890-1945 Schools teach several different methods from Palmer, the American Book Company and Zaner-Bloser; all are characterized by free arm movements

1894 Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing published

1914 Frank Freeman’s Teaching of Handwriting introduces “scientific penmanship”

1942 American Society of Questioned Document Examiners founded

1945 Ballpoint pen transforms writing by eliminating the need for desks 1964 D’Nealian script introduced in schools

1964 D ‘Nealian script introduced in schools

From the October 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine