We’re not just losing handwriting: written communication generally is going away.
I’ve mentioned here the little surge of emotion that comes when you recognize the writing of a loved one—or even, I suppose, the notes of a strict professor, or the scrawl of a stalker. In all cases, a lot more gets communicated by the slope of the letters, the look of the lines, than by the actual words and sentences themselves.
But imagine a world where those words and sentences themselves have gone missing. Imagine a virtual life in which everyone simply talks to each other, and any subtle hints to deeper meaning must come from the oldest nonverbal cues—tone of voice and facial expression. It’s where we seem to be headed in this digital age.
Thanks to smart devices, now within arm’s reach of most First World residents, the ease of capturing audio and video has increased a hundredfold. Podcasts are how we document change or predict the future, replacing magazine articles and newspaper columns. We listen to storytelling and standup comedy instead of going to the library to check out books to read. We’ve been suddenly thrust into a golden era of TV.
Never mind the loss of longhand—typing on a traditional keyboard has given way to hammering out txts and mssgs with just two thumbs. With autocorrect, who needs to learn how to spell? Heck, witness the sudden proliferation of emoji. Is it inconceivable that written literacy will, over not a very long time, diminish and fade?
Maybe I’m being pessimistic—after all, my very livelihood depends on the written word—but consider the spread of this: “tl;dr.”
Short of an apocalyptic global catastrophe, I can think of no event that might reverse this slow extinction of reading and writing. Only if the grid goes down will we have to revert to lighting our own lamps, and making our own lampblack ink, sharpening our own quills, and pounding our own pulp into paper. I suppose that might be seen as a silver lining.
“I cannot conceive of any harnessed force so powerful. Although no mention was made of the actual damage done by this one bomb, its potential effect is tremendous. It may well shorten the war to weeks or days—and it may well have been the death rattle of this round green earth.”
Well, here we are more than 70 years later, and no planetary cataclysm has occurred. So it might be up to our human eye for art and history to preserve our lovely alphabets—the beauty of calligraphy, the magic of an ancient inscribed scroll. Current type design trends, in fact, seem full of fanciful scripts.
Nope, I cannot abandon hope. I can’t conceive of life without the written word.
» Does the loss of cursive mean social devolution?
» Or have computers effectively taken the place of the pen?
» Have you ever noticed how your handwriting has changed over time? (Mine has.)
» Another argument why teaching handwriting to kids is a good thing.
» What do François Mitterrand and Steve Jobs have in common?
» More moving evidence of the timeless power of handwriting.
It all began with my fascination with old maps. Long before I’d even designed my first font, in fact, my parents had given me a collection of printed maps of Texas from the 1500s to the 1900s called Contours of Discovery.
I marveled at the hand-lettered legends and place names and how they differed over the centuries—and years later modeled Terra Ignota after the lettering on one of these prints, Amerique Septentrionale, by French cartographer Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville.
To date, I’ve released five typefaces inspired by maps and charts from the 17th through 19th centuries, most recently my first-ever serif text-type family, Geographica. My plan was to offer two kindred fonts—a script and a hand—that simulate the penmanship on Geographica’s source materials, the mid-1700s maps of English engravers Emanuel Bowen and Thomas Jefferys.
And in rounding out the character set for the first of these, Geographica Script, I stumbled on a fascinating phenomenon I’d never heard of: trade cards. In particular, British and Colonial American trade cards from the 1700s that, like cartographic prints from the period, demonstrated ornate 18th century penmanship.
The precursors of modern business cards, trade cards were designed, engraved, and printed for tradesmen, service providers, and salespeople to distribute to potential customers as introductions to (or advertisements for) their particular businesses. Not only were these cards covered in fancy, graceful round hand, but they usually also featured opulent floral designs and period illustrations of products and popular symbols—like anchors, crowns, doves, and lions rampant.
As soon as I laid eyes on 18th century trade cards, Geographica Script got a lot more interesting: it’ll come with many such ornaments.
A number of the images I found—in collections from such places as the British Museum, the Museum of London, and Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library—were the work of English printmaker William Hogarth, an artist and cartoonist credited with pioneering western sequential art. The prolific Hogarth was a master at reproducing the iconic symbols of the period.
And the round hand itself on these varied, intricate cards added a plethora of flourishes, swashes, and embellishments. Curls and loops, fancy ampersands. (My OpenType-features cup overfloweth.) Plus, I learned a few things, such as the meaning of the ubiquitous abbreviation “NB” (nota bene, or note well) and the fact that, as long as 250 years ago, we English speakers were fond of the phrase “all sorts of.”
Geographica Script is taking longer than I’d imagined, but I’m anxious to find out how it’s received. (There’ll even be a unicorn!) I dare not predict a release date, but keep your eyes peeled.
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A few trade card links:
» Do this: take five minutes to listen to this TED talk by Lakshmi Pratury on letter-writing. (Just do it.)
» Here’s a transcript of the Ted Radio Hour podcast about Laskhmi Pratury’s talk (and a link to the podcast).
» Civil War amputees helped by left-handed penmanship contests…
» …and Geneva, Ohio, students participate in a Spencerian handwriting contest.
» The power of cursive penmanship in the 21st century, in response to…
» …Anne Trubek’s opinion in the New York Times (that handwriting no longer matters).
» Japan’s prime minister wins praise for his handwriting’s “good-looking characters.”
Immediately upon awakening this morning, August 1, I spoke the words “rabbit rabbit” to my dog. I can’t remember how I learned of this superstition—that uttering those two words first thing on the first of any month will assure you good luck for all its days—but I’ve remembered to do it nearly every month for years.
Of course I don’t believe it’s a guarantee of luck. It’s more of a memory test. Deep down I’m more of a rational sort of guy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in magic—there are miracles everywhere. But they come in the form of the births of baby animals, the cries of northern loons, the emergence of plants from seed, or the rare and evocative aroma of petrichor. I don’t do pseudoscience, though. You won’t find tinfoil headwear on my hat rack.
The pseudoscience of graphology—a.k.a., handwriting analysis—has been around a good while. Supposedly a trained graphologist can, from simply studying handwriting samples, describe personalities, diagnose mental (or physical) illnesses, even tell the sex of a pregnant writer’s child. No. Nope. Uh-uh. That stuff’s just parlor games.
But having closely studied scores of the letters and journals and diaries of famous (and not-so-famous) people of the past, I do see in penmanship evidence of mood, of age, of temperament. There’s a connection between handwriting and personality. A thoughtful soul might write more neatly. A wallflower might write small. Older hands will tremble more. A hothead might write messily, an egoist large.
Below, for your consideration, is my brief appraisal of the penmanship of a dozen people whom, for one or another reason, I’ve come to know—and whose personalities and handwriting seem to agree. (Click on any image for a larger view.)
Obscure military clerk
Two hundred forty-one years ago, a tiny fraction of the planet’s population knew how to write, and many who did made a living at it—as did the scribe who kept records for the British military at a time of unrest in the American colonies. This particular clerk (whose hand gave rise to Military Scribe) was painstaking, scrupulous, neat, exacting. I imagine a man who spent a lot of time alone at a desk in The Penmanship Zone. Smart, disciplined, tidy. A person who was frugal with ink and paper, and who embraced the mission at hand: of keeping a legible accounting of important matters for future reading.
From historical records we know that Timothy Matlack was a Quaker, an abolitionist, a judge, a soldier—and a master penman whose careful roundhand engrossed perhaps the most famous American document (and inspired American Scribe). He was hired to do the job, a job he clearly took seriously. From his straight, clean, legible script, its compact letterspacing and narrow linespacing, I imagine a serious person, a thoughtful person, a man with strength of mind and strong convictions. Matlack died at 99 years old.
Although our first second lady and second first lady had no formal education, her mother (a Massachusetts Quincy) homeschooled her on reading, writing, and ’rithmatic. From her voluminous writings (mostly in the form of letters to her husband, John), it’s clear Abigail Adams was highly intelligent, curious, engaged, insightful, and philosophical. I.e., she was a brilliant thinker, correspondent, confidante. She also had to take care of business back home while her husband was off doing political things. Mrs. Adams’s untidy, disconnected cursive (immortalized in our Abigail Adams font) was clearly dashed off in a hurry, which—along with her creative spelling (not uncommon in those days)—actually makes a lot of sense: here was someone with a message to get across, never mind insignificant details. Her hand suggests a doer, a talker, a communicator, one not so concerned about style as content.
John Quincy Adams
Abigail’s son, John—the sixth U.S. president—was an orator, a diplomat, from youth a traveler (who spoke numerous languages), a politician, a negotiator, an abolitionist, and a famous diarist. For nearly 70 years he kept a daily diary. You can flip virtually through its pages at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s highly engaging website, where right away you’ll notice Adams’s upright, bold, legible, loopy hand (Old Man Eloquent is our interpretation). I imagine John Quincy got some of his communication skills from his mother, but his handwriting seems far more disciplined, more plodding, more firm, more straight-and-narrow. I see some obsessiveness there (nearly 70 years, every day?), and a very slight slant. I see fairness, equality, conscientiousness, formality, and an almost classical attention to detail.
Years ago I found a three-page letter in a local antique shop, a letter written by the pastor of the Congregational Church in Princeton, Massachusetts, appealing for donations for a family whose belongings were lost at sea. (The graceful script, in fact, compelled me to make Schooner Script.) I know of Samuel Clarke, the pastor, only from this single bit of history, now going on 200 years old—but from his handwriting’s consistent slant, its long descenders, its curly loops and airy linespacing, I gather Samuel was careful (i.e., full of care), generous, a little formal, perhaps, but also full of grace and attentive to decorum. I envision sermons partly down-to-earth and partly lofty, with a flourish or two. I can almost hear the music of the choir.
Hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, first president of Texas, and one of the new state’s inaugural U.S. senators, Sam Houston is one of those larger-than-life characters from history. His handwriting, too, was large (see Houston Pen), with ample space between its lines and characters. Houston seems also to have written swiftly but with a certain grace and aplomb—in keeping with the self-assured leader that he was. (He’s the only person who served as governor of two states, Tennessee and Texas.) His script is forceful, declarative, almost principled. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that he was a friend (and blood brother) of America’s natives when many of his fellow Texans wanted to drive them out of the territory—or that, in vain, he opposed secession, while Texas joined the CSA. And it might be said he also wielded a noble pen.
Thomas Jefferson Rusk
I modeled Texas Hero, our first historical penmanship font, after the handwriting of Thomas J. Rusk, unquestionably a heroic early Texan. I chose his hand because it was typical of the period, comparatively legible, not too fancy or plain. Similarly, Rusk himself seemed regular, dependable, and sober. He moved his family from South Carolina to Mexican Texas, joined his fellow settlers in opposing Mexican hostility, fought bravely under Houston at San Jacinto. Rusk served as the new republic’s first Secretary of War, got more votes than Houston as one of the new state’s first two senators, carried on through various personal losses until the end—when illness and his wife’s death drove him to suicide. A good font, a good man.
Mirabeau B. Lamar
Perhaps the most popular face in our “Texas Heroes” collection, Lamar Pen is an interpretation of the stylish hand of a man with a stylish name, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar. Lamar grew up in Georgia as a reader and writer, a poet and newspaper man. He entered politics at an early age—but then lost his wife and brother, and set off to see the world to assuage his grief, arriving in Texas just in time to join Houston and Rusk at San Jacinto. He, too, fought bravely (famously even coming to the rescue of Rusk) and ended up first vice president under Houston. From there things went south, though, as he and Houston clashed on several matters: he ordered attacks against the Cherokee and Comanche, resulting in the massacre of women and children, and opposed the annexation of Texas by the United States. I read in Lamar’s strong, if stylish, hand a man both bossy and emotional, full of righteousness, used to getting his way—albeit someone who also valued higher education. (He is credited for alloting land for school development statewide.)
Emily Austin Perry
As you might gather from her eponymous font, Emily Margaret Austin Bryan Perry—sole heir of her brother Stephen F. Austin—was a brave, determined, spunky, busy pioneer woman. She was also one of the richest women in Texas, and plenty adept at managing her ample fortunes (never mind that men had to sign all contracts, and it’d be generations until women won the right to vote). From her small, distinctive script, which made good use of the margins of a page, you might gather she was frugal, thrifty, and meticulous. Spelling didn’t matter as much as accuracy and clarity. Traveling with her daughter, Mrs. Perry wrote many a missive home to Peach Point Plantation, essentially passing along fresh gossip and listing chores she wanted done. But she was reportedly a beloved matriarch to family and servants (i.e., slaves). And it’s not hard to find in her chatty scrawl a mother hen.
Orator, statesman, abolitionist, Frederick Douglass stands among the most distinguished of Americans. His gift of words, of communicating grand ideas and fostering great social change, is surpassed by few. As you might gather from his handwriting (simulated in Douglass Pen)—a neat, balanced, legible, utilitarian hand. You can see from the even spacing, from the letterforms dense but clear, that here was a person who placed importance on each sentence. The pace of the writing seems even, not rushed, but steady—stately, even. The script seems fair and controlled, neither tentative nor dashed off in anger. Here was someone who placed value on the written word (as he also did photography), and who expected his own to be read and heard and thought about. As they are still, nearly two centuries after he was born a slave on the Chesapeake Bay.
A. Leslie Willson
Much closer in time—just 70 years ago—a young man named Leslie Willson kept a daily diary. Maybe not as obsessively as John Quincy Adams, but nearly so. His legible Palmer Method cursive has a consistent slant, with open loops and pointy “p”s. Even if you ignore the words, you can see a sort of artistic evenness in this handwriting style; there’s a clear attention to stroke and placement. The script easy to read and pleasant to look at—important factors when your mission is communication. It’s what you might call “nice handwriting.” This man was a nice man and a communicator. A writer, a poet, a teacher, a translator—and one who wrote pretty much exactly the same on into his 80s. I know, because Leslie Willson was my father. (Dad thought it a hoot that I modeled Professor after his hand.)
Finally, here’s a sample of the handwriting of my mother, then in her late 60s. Mom was an inveterate letter writer, a correspondent extraordinaire. (John and Abigail Adams were among her heroes.) In fact, her handwriting looks a little larger than usual here: she filled pages of smallish stationery with compact lines of her distinctive curly script, although these seemed to loosen up as she grew older. They used to be straighter, too—you can see the sort of ups and downs of age. Mom’s handwriting, while meticulous, is not as legible as my dad’s. (I remember as a kid being unable to read her signature.) But it seems to be that way to encourage study, to ask for a commitment of time and attention. Perhaps written by a quiet-voiced person with a lot of big things to show and tell and say. The script, perhaps, of a historical librarian. (And my mother was a very good one.) I have no plans to make a font of it—perhaps because I love this handwriting most of all.
» The Nuclear Regulatory Commission gets rid of a 54-year-old handwriting rule…
» …but handwriting ain’t history yet—witness a Bengaluru-based calligraphist’s love of the pen.
» If computers have ruined your handwriting—can it be saved?
» Not everyone hates the idea of writing by hand. (“That’s neat. I’d like to try that someday.”)
» How about calligraphy and crumpets? Handwriting and wine?