Do you have ancestors from the German-speaking world? No? Then perhaps you have genealogy or local history interests in southeastern Wisconsin or other German-settled areas of the USA? Or you’ve bumped into handwritten census images, family correspondence, or other historical documents that seem to be almost written in “normal,” readable cursive, but some—or a lot—of the letters just don’t make sense? Would you like to be able to decipher these records? Then whether your name is Smith or Schmidt, you need to learn a bit about Kurrent, the standard handwriting style of the German-speaking world from around the seventeenth- until the early twentieth-century.
And to make things more confusing, writers of German didn’t always use the Kurrent script. Sometimes they employed “English cursive,” also known as “Latin script,” similar to some of the well-known American and English writing styles of the time, and it’s not unusual to see documents created in both the USA and “the old country” that employ a mix of Kurrent and English cursive styles in the same document.
Here’s a practical example. Take a look at the following list of names, recorded in elegant cursive on page 1 of the 1855 Wisconsin State Census for Mequon, Ozaukee County:
Click on the census page to open a larger image in a new window and zoom in if you need. Take a look at the header. It’s easy enough to read the filled-in blanks for the Town of Mequon, Ozaukee County. How about the enumerator’s name at “Taken by me”? That’s Wm. Zimmermann
Some, perhaps quite a few, of those letters and names seem familiar, but some of the letters, and combinations of letters, are not so simple for the modern reader. Our enumerator did have a rather flowery “hand,” but more to the point, he freely mixed bits of his well-practiced German Kurrent script with lots of “English” cursive. See if this Kurrent chart helps:
Yes, there is a lot going on there. Lowercase and uppercase letters, and the bottom two rows of the chart outline ways to write umlauts (¨) over vowels, make joined-consonant pairs and write two forms of the double-S. And note the three typical forms of letter S: lowercase in the middle of a word (“long S”), lowercase at the end of a word (looks kind of like a “b”) and uppercase S, at the start of a word. And the chart doesn’t include the familiar lowercase “s” that resembles the lowercase “s” that is common to both German and non-German cursive.
And by the way, English cursive also used to feature several forms of the letter “S”—including the long-S. See this well-known phrase from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:
So it’s complicated, and some letters cause more difficulty than others. But with chart in hand, how many “Heads of Families” names can you now read? First on the list is our friend James Woodworth, followed by neighbor Henry Meyer.
How about the names of the 19th and 20th “Heads of Families, these two neighbors?:
The first name is early settler Jesse Hubbard (note the two forms of letter S in Jesse), followed by neighbor “Jon. M. Clark,” the man who built the Clark House. (One aside for this document: Ancestry.com indexes Clark’s middle initial here as “H.,” which seems reasonable at first glance. But if you compare the middle initial here with the first letter in “Mequon” at the top of the census page—and with the “H” at the start of “Hubbard”—I think it’s more likely that Wm. Zimmermann got it right, when he enumerated “Jon. M. Clark” in 1855.)
If you are interested in more information about reading and writing Kurrent, here are some useful links:
The FamilySearch wiki page for German Handwriting is at: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Germany_Handwriting and there is a brief Wikipedia overview here.
If you’d like to type words and names and see what they look like in Kurrent, I have used this site (in German, but generates better-looking examples)
Or in English, but with somewhat less elegant output, visit the amazing homepage of Steve Morse and scroll down to the end of the “Dealing with Foreign Characters” section and click on German Kurrent/Sütterlein Print/Cursive .
There is a long list of German names here, in Kurrent. Some of the names are shown in variations written by different hands.
There are also a number of shorter and (much) longer video tutorials on the web. For a quick look at how the letters are written, try this no-narration video at YouTube.
Viel Glück und hab Spaß! (Good luck and have fun!)
UPDATED, June 9, 2020:
I’m not sure how I forgot this, but if you are really interested in reading or writing Kurrent, I highly recommend the 28-page A Guide to Writing the old German “Kurrent” Script, by Margarete Mücke, available as a free download at her website Ms. Mücke’s explanations of the Hows and Whys of the letters and their use in Kurrent are clear and thorough. —Reed Perkins