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 Or you’ve bumped into handwritten census images, family correspondence, or other historical documents that seem to be almost written in “normal,” readable cursive, but some—or a lot—of the letters just don’t make sense?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
11 thoughts on “Lesen Sie Kurrent?”
Very cool! Reading the German script has always been a challenge for me when doing professional or genealogical research. Edward Robinson, later a professor at Andover Seminary, was a student in Germany in the late 1820s. In his journal, he once described how even the Germans have a difficult time deciphering their own handwriting!
Thank you for the helpful links, I might try practicing the handwriting to better be able to read it.
You’re welcome, Ben! Yep, Kurrent can be tricky. I’ve found that there are a number of useful instructional videos on the net. Most of the good ones are in German (a few with English captions) and can be lengthy. I’ve been “learning by doing” with the script and that’s the way to go, I think. Good luck and best wishes for many happy discoveries!
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So, this is universal in all German speaking lands during this time period? Is there any connection to economic class and its use? How many people would have learn to write at all in this time period?
Good questions. Detailed information on Kurrent is hard to come by on the web, and I don’t have library access at the moment. The consensus seems to be that Kurrent has roots in the Renaissance but really comes into its own around 1800. My impression is that it remains the standard style of cursive in German handwriting from c. 1800-1910 or so. If you haven’t done so, click the links on our June 13th blog post and you can find out more about Kurrent and see many samples of original Kurrent MSS at Margarete Mücke’s website
I’m not at all sure about the economic and class issues of German education in the 19th-century. The evidence I’ve bumped into in my genealogy/history researches suggests that a very high proportion of German immigrants to the USA were at least fundamentally literate and able to write. But this is not an area of expertise for me. Perhaps some of our readers know more? Please feel free to add to the discussion in the comments.
I talked to Dr. Eric Crump, formerly a professor at the Lutheran seminary in Gettysburg about this last year. He told me that the style of handwriting that was taught changed significantly over the decades. For example, someone who learned the German script of the 1880s might have a hard time deciphering handwriting from the 1820s.
Very interesting. And I guess I’m not terribly surprised, as I assumed this varied at least a bit over time and place.
In my other life as an orchestra conductor I’ve tried to decipher the handwritten correspondence of Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries. There’s a challenge for you!
Thanks again, Ben.
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