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.
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.
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 Ironically, it seems, easy new imaging technology is managing to preserve—perhaps even popularize—that old outdated longhand.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.
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.
» 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?
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.”