July 23rd, 2017 by
My own peculiar hybrid of printing and cursive.

My own peculiar hybrid of printing and cursive.

We humans are lazy. We’re always looking for a shortcut, an easier method, a faster way. We aspire to achieve a sort of wizardry, the ability to change our environment with a thought, a word, a wave of our hand. Witness Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod—our wish is their command.

Trouble is, the easiest way is rarely the most rewarding. If I’d brought home a store-bought birdhouse instead of building one myself, the first flight of those fledglings wouldn’t have thrilled me so. If I planned my bicycling routes to avoid all hills, I wouldn’t have such an excellent resting heart rate. If I’d decided to stay cozy instead of hiking that hill in a snowstorm, I would’ve missed that Snowy Owl.

Recently I stumbled on a blog post whining about a growing interest in preserving the “lost art” of cursive handwriting. In this world of swift, silent keyboards, the blogger thought it crazy that anyone would want to revert to such a slow, tedious, old-fashioned mode of communication. “We have machines to do this stuff for us now,” he wrote. Of course, this blogger’s (rather ill-written) diatribe reminded me of a slew of arguments in my case for cursive. Here are three.

Detail of a handwritten letter from my ma.

Detail of a handwritten letter from my ma.

Purposefulness

Making time to put pen to paper slows your thought processes, giving you time to edit those sentences before you write them down. Without the ease of digital deletion, you tend to get more words right, first time. Because you know ahead of time that the task will take a while, you’re not so prone to speeding headlong through your composition. A dashed-off email is a completely different beast from a handwritten letter: the act of writing by hand is far more contemplative, more deliberate. You’ll find it more relaxing, too, and will be happier with the result—that is, at least, my well-considered opinion.

A page of Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

A page of Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

Personalness

Write a letter by hand, put it in an envelope, address the envelope, and send it to a friend or loved one through the U.S. Mail. You know, the way they used to do in bygone days. I guarantee your recipient will be thrilled to find an old-style letter in their pile of computer-generated snail mail—especially if this person recognizes your handwriting. And chances are good (if you’re like me, anyway) that your handwritten letter will become a keepsake, outliving even you and your friend or loved one. I have scores of handwritten letters from my mother (an epistolary champion who eschewed newfangled word processors), but only a handful from my dad (an early computer enthusiast).

Regular and “blot” styles of Austin Pen.

Regular and “blot” styles of Austin Pen.

Playfulness

If you’re still unconvinced, what better way to send private messages to your intrigue-loving kids than by teaching them to read and write in cursive? Few these days will manage to decipher your secret code. (And your kids will forever be able to read those old family keepsakes without having to consult an expert.)

Even if you don’t mind cutting corners now and then, consider this: using cursive actually takes less time than printing—now considered “handwriting” by most people who still use pens and pencils.

Update on Austin Pen

The particular penmanship I’ve been studying these days, of course, belonged to Stephen F. Austin. Slowly and surely, letter by letter, Austin Pen takes shape. And I’m excited to be creating an alternate “blot” alphabet—one that’ll replicate the look of an over-inked pen. I’m still deciding whether to add this as an OpenType stylistic alternate or a separate font. Stay tuned!


Miscellanea

» A graphologist claims to be able to tell whether you’re a Great Briton.

» Read a thoughtful, lovely tribute to the charm of a handwritten letter.

» Get a look at Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence.

» Huzzah! for the “groundswell of support” for bringing back cursive.

» Here’s news of some interesting old manuscripts discovered in New Zealand.

» I’m inevitably moved by any celebration of handwritten communication.


June 20th, 2017 by
painting of Stephen F Austin

A painting of Stephen F. Austin (courtesy Texas State Library and Archives Commission).

I am remiss for having ignored The Penman for the entirety of spring. Partly my absence had to do with—well, spring! But partly it had to do with my decision to juggle two type-design projects at once for the first time. Turns out, there’s a lot to keep track of.

Lucky for us both, one of those projects is perfect for a discussion here.

Designing Austin Pen has proved enjoyable, puzzling, challenging, satisfying. It’ll be my fourteenth historical penmanship font—and the fifth member of what I consider my Texas Heroes Collection. It’s modeled after the handwriting of famous empresario Stephen Fuller Austin (1793–1836), the “Father of Texas,” from whom the Lone Star State’s capital got its name.

Stephen F. Austin did not live long, so he didn’t leave reams of handwritten material. But he did keep a diary while imprisoned in Mexico for virtually all of 1834. Austin Pen is my interpretation of Austin’s secret scribblings in this miniature journal (now in the collection of the wonderful Dolph Briscoe Center for American History).

Cover of the Austin Prison Diary.

Cover of the Austin Prison Diary.

Unlike the source materials for the other fonts in this collection—Lamar Pen (based on the hand of Mirabeau B. Lamar), Emily Austin (modeled after the hand of Austin’s sister, Emily Austin Perry), Houston Pen (inspired by the letters of Sam Houston), and Texas Hero (which replicates the script of Thomas Jefferson Rusk)—the diary Austin smuggled into his prison cell is hardly cut-and-dried. For one thing, it had very small pages, which couldn’t have been easy to fill. For another, he had to keep the little book hidden, so he ended up writing much of it in a pencil he also managed to hide.

But perhaps most interestingly, nearly 30 years later, Austin’s nephew Moses Austin Bryan (Emily’s son by her first husband) traced over most of the fading pencil lines in ink. Bryan made this entry on a blank page in his own fine hand:

Note by Moses Austin in his uncle’s diary.

Note by Moses Austin Bryan in his uncle’s diary.

I, Moses Austin Bryan on this day the twenty fifth day of December Eighteen hundred and seventy one have finished tracing the pencil marks or writing of Genl. Stephen F Austin which were made by him in this book whilst he was a prisoner in the cell No 15 of the Ex. Inquisition in the City of Mexico from the 18th day of February the day he was put in the cell No 15 till he was taken out at the end of three moths [sic] by order of the President.

Given all this confusion, I thought at first I might go for a hybrid script between Bryan’s and his Uncle Austin’s. But I soon saw that Austin’s pencil scribblings were large and strange (no doubt because of the difficulty in using an early 1800s pencil on tiny pages), and Bryan’s  ink tracings were similarly peculiar—nothing at all like his fine script in the note above. I decided to focus on the original author’s hand.

Pages showing Austin’s penmanship in ink.

Pages showing Austin’s penmanship in ink.

And I’m happy to report that, on either side of its pencil entries, Austin filled out many of the diary’s pages in ink. And his penmanship on those pages, while fairly unkempt (understandably, considering the size of the book), had a strength and surety I admired. Those are the pages I used.

One last challenge sprung from the fact that Austin kept most of his diary in Spanish. Whereas this was fortunate in that it gave me samples of letterforms often missing in English (like Q and x), others (like K and w) are absent entirely from the Spanish alphabet. Further—not being fluent in Spanish—I occasionally had to puzzle over certain words and phrases to make sure exactly what characters I was looking at.

By now I’ve finished the entire lowercase alphabet, though, and I’m happy with the result. And from my desk in distant Maine, far from Mexico, I hope to finish Austin Pen by early August, when it’s time for the blueberry harvest.

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. —Henry David Thoreau

Note: Check this website occasionally for news on the second of the two fonts I’m working on.


Miscellanea

» Will thank-you notes—even signatures—soon be a thing of the past?

» Schools in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Florida want to keep on teaching penmanship.

» I really like this editorial call to keep putting pen to paper.

» Well, here’s a problem with poor penmanship I hadn’t thought of.

» Seventy-four percent of young Brits would rather get a handwritten note than an email.

» And I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Campaign for Cursive—yes, cursive is cool!


March 6th, 2017 by
A showing of Geographica Script font.

A showing of Geographica Script.

Are cries of “long live longhand!” being heard? Although I don’t dare declare it so—it’s starting to seem that reports of cursive’s demise are premature.

I am remiss, meanwhile, for not having at least dashed off a little update here on The Penman over the past few months. Instead, I had my head down, working to finish our latest font, Geographica Script, a replication of 18th century roundhand. The task of type design is, for me, a matter of sustained fixation—so many tiny tasks to complete over the course of hours, days, weeks, and (in this case) months. When it comes to font work, I just dive in and go.

Perhaps it’s because elsewhere in my life I tend to procrastinate.

Our Professor font, as it might appear on a blackboard.

Professor, our modern cursive simulation.

But the font is done, and delivered to distributors, and now’s a good time to sit back and ruminate over my odd mission to preserve and make accessible old penmanship styles. It’s a mission I question often. (Is my work in fact having the opposite effect?) But when an early licensee of Geographica Script mentioned his reason for ordering—he’s up in his 70s, has missed the days of longhand, and wants to ensure that his grandchildren can read and appreciate a cursive hand—I remembered one reason I’ve been keeping the discussion alive.

That’s when I ventured a quick scan of recent online mentions of penmanship and handwriting. Lo, there’s been a shift—and the news is encouraging.

For one thing, schools in a few U.S. states have begun requiring handwriting instruction again, instruction not required by the Common Core Standards adopted in 2010. A state rep in Ohio has recently introduced a bill to require students to be proficient in cursive by fifth grade. Arizona has similar legislation on the books already. Louisiana has also begun learn cursive from third through twelfth grade. Education officials in New York City, meantime, are distributing handbooks on handwriting instruction to schools—which have the final say on whether to teach it.

Google image search for “old letters.”

Google image search for “old letters.”

And support for a revival isn’t just coming from older folks lamenting how things used to be. A younger, online crowd is showing an interest in the “ancient” art of hand-lettering. Just google “old letters,” and you’ll get more than 300 million results, and scores of lovely images of vintage script. Ironically, it seems, easy new imaging technology is managing to preserve—perhaps even popularize—that old outdated longhand.

Current typographic trends also show a fascination with loopy cursives. Just check a graphic design site or two, and you’ll see what I mean. Never mind the science that describes cognitive benefits from manipulating pens and pencils—and their tendency to slow you down.

Of course, it’s never wise to underestimate the lament of a grandparent. Nor is it a bad idea to make sure new generations can still read their ancestors’ letters—or even becoming adept at writing that way.

Examples of Library Hand, from A Library Primer (1899).

Examples of Library Hand.

Cataloguers’ Hand

One interesting historical handwriting relic I stumbled over the other day is Library Hand, a style of lettering developed in the late 19th century expressly for card catalogs. At a four-day gathering in 1887, librarians and “cataloguers” sought to standardize what at the time were wildly varying writing styles—not all of them legible.

(“The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” this article in Atlas Obscura quotes from a New York Library School handbook.)

Both near-typewritten and “joined-hand” styles emerged from the 1887 meeting, each painstakingly, nitpickingly standardized. Eventually, of course, typewritten cards took hold—and more recently card catalogs have more or less completely vanished. Lucky for us, reproductions of Library Hand were saved.


Miscellanea

» Praise of the good ol’ handwritten letter (a powerful gesture).

» Appreciation of a good signature, and the history of penmanship.

» Another feature of handwriting (as I’ve mentioned here): it can help diagnose illness.

» Of course it can also shed light on the personality of, let’s say, the POTUS.

» Robots are even trying their mechanical hand at, well, handwriting (good luck with that).

» With longhand making something of a comeback, how will you do in this cursive quiz?