Lately I’ve been thinking about all we’ve been missing with the extinction of writing by hand. The conspicuous losses jump first to mind: handwritten letters in hand-addressed envelopes, sticky notes on refrigerators, a cursive greeting in a holiday card penned neatly in a familiar hand. But there’ve been lesser, unintended losses, as the digital devices we’ve rushed to adopt have brought solutions to problems we never knew we had.
Now that so many of us are connected by wires (or wirelessly), communication is virtually immediate. Apps like Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype can let us simply chat with one other—although that solution does require some scheduling. A quick email (my personal preference) can be dashed off anytime, to be read at once or later, depending. Approval can be communicated via a single emoji 👍. And we can choose these days from gazillions of memes to share more complex, subtle, and/or humorous thoughts.
Think of those littler details that once amused and surprised us: the note stuck under a windshield wiper, the words of love on a folded scrap of paper snuck into a jacket pocket, the doodled self-portrait or sketch of a cat in the margins of a handwritten letter that appears in our old-timey mailbox.
But Now We Have Phones
The iPhone hit the market a mere fourteen years ago, and already billions of us keep smartphones ever within arm’s reach. Why mess with pen and paper? Why monopolize the use of multiple fingers when you can simply use two thumbs?
What are our excuses for missing out on such things? The witchery of new technology? Lazy bones? A fixation on saving time?
Take, for instance, cursive or hand-lettered fonts that replicate real script. (Guilty as charged.) We need not even wield a writing instrument—no hand cramp, no inky fingers. Just specify a font and tap for a while on a keyboard, and you can pretend to have taken the time to respect your correspondent by composing a letter in longhand.
Oh, the irony. 😉
» Turns out handwriting does seem to lead to faster learning in kids.
» Hallmark introduces Sign & Send™, which lets users hand-write their own messages—then upload photos of those messages. (Why not just do it the old way? 🤔)
» In the olden days, some folks used handwritten postcards the way these days we use phone texts. Back when we weren’t in such a hurry.
» A handwritten message in a bottle gets delivered after nearly a century (sort of).
» Cursive instruction is still happening out there, as uplifting stories like this will attest.
» It seems the practice of writing by hand (like a lot of topics) can whip up quite the debate these days.
» Keeping a journal is good for your mental health—and handwriting that diary is even better.
» Finally, from North Country Public Radio, this story on a seminar titled “Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print.”
The other day I had a thought about handwritten keepsakes. It started as a recognition of how unique are the times we’re living through. And how, to record our story, future historians will be poring over source material—that is, contemporary accounts of what’s happening. Used to be, contemporary accounts came from folks putting pen to paper. In our modern digital world, of course, putting pen to paper doesn’t happen very often anymore.
In just my lifetime, written communication has gone from thoughtfully hand-penned (or -typed) letters dropped in the mail to quick, scattershot batches of electrons in the form of email, texts, emojis, memes. And that’s just written words. In recent years, communication has trended toward the digital, the immediate—streaming multimedia, smartphone videos, TikTok. Just now, as humanity grapples with the novelty of social-distancing during a pandemic, even good ol’ face-to-face spoken language happens online via Zoom and Skype and FaceTime.
Our very signatures—once our personal mark, our brand—are in jeopardy. (I rarely even sign checks anymore.) Nowadays, we’re most likely to find pages filled with cursive script in boxes of memorabilia, collections of old letters, books of grandmas’ recipes.
Since future generations will surely view this time with fascination and remembrance, why not take advantage of our stay-at-home predicament to create a few handwritten keepsakes?
An easy way to do this? Write a letter. Perhaps a long, mindful letter to a loved one, a letter that—if mindful enough—might well get tucked safely away and passed along to future generations. Another way might be to keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings. Even simply an account of what you’re up to, maybe a diary of your dreams. If you happen to be a birding enthusiast (as I am), make a daily list of birds.
I think, for instance, of the daily diary my father kept as a young man. While in the Army after World War II (stationed at Fort Hunt, Virginia, as part of the top secret operation code-named P.O. Box 1142), he wrote these lines on March 7, 1946, the day he and a buddy caught a ride with some ladies in a Cadillac on the way to Washington D.C.
The ladies asked where we were from, and when we evaded answering, the middle wanted to know the reason for such secrecy now that the war was over. Arno said something about having tried to reach General Eisenhower for an answer to that, but that he had had no luck in finding out. We rode on very pleasantly into Washington where the rain began coming down. A the capitol building the lady driving stopped to let us out, turned and dropped her own atom bomb. “What would you boys say, if I told you that you had been driving with Mrs. Eisenhower?” What followed is rather hazy, but we thanked her for the ride, caught our train, laughed over the surprising incident all the way to New York City.
I must say, reading Dad’s contemporary account of this classic family story in his familiar, legible cursive truly enlivens a moment from nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
Consider the power of handwritten keepsakes. Chances are not only will the contents of what you pen today prove memorable one future day, your own distinctive hand will, like a fingerprint, add a personal touch to history.
(I write so little by hand these days—let’s see if I can take my own advice!)
» Seems I’m not the only one who had the handwritten-notes idea.
» A related idea, in fact, might be to spend a little time with your own handwritten keepsakes from days gone by.
» A quarantine could even turn out to be the perfect chance to help your kids brush up on their handwriting skills.
» I mean, after all, writing by hand is good for the brain.
» On the other hand, all this sheltering-in-place time won’t necessarily ensure improvement of a person’s cursive penmanship skills.
» Then again, not every notable person from history had handsome handwriting—check out this guy’s illegible scrawl.
» By contrast, look at the lovely hand on the original Juneteenth order, recently discovered in the National Archives.
» Finally—have you ever heard the phrase “handwriting happiness”?
Not very long ago I announced that Austin Pen (released a year and a half ago) would be my last original font. Just kidding!
O.K., I wasn’t kidding at all at the time—but I’ve changed my mind.
What prompted my reconsideration was an out-of-the-blue query by a U.S. Navy Chief about the possibility of modeling a font after the handwriting of America’s first naval hero, John Paul Jones. He included a link to a three-page letter Jones wrote in 1779, now in the digital archives of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Not only did the letter’s author have a neat, legible, graceful hand, but somehow the idea of modeling a font after the script of an 18th-century ship’s captain—let alone the most famous naval commander of the Revolutionary War—truly piqued my fancy.
Just that last phrase should tell you something. Despite the hundreds of hours required, and all the tedium endured, designing these old pen fonts brings more than just a new addition to folks’ font menus—it sends me on an adventure back through time. I get to read the minds of people from the past as translated via ink onto paper. I get a glimpse of their personalities, not just from the words they chose but their writing style. And brush up on historical turns-of-phrase while I’m at it.
Of course I can’t help but imagine what those bygone days must’ve been like to the people wielding those pens. I put myself, however briefly, in their strange old shoes instead of these trusty sandals.
I’ve already begun the project by researching this famous Scots-born naval commander. His were vastly different times: He took to sea in his early teens, worked on merchant (even slave) ships, killed a mutinous crewman by sword, added “Jones” to his birth name to throw the authorities off his trail upon moving to Virginia, joined the Continental Navy, took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, and emerged victorious from the legendary Battle of Flamborough Head (which spawned his apocryphal “I have not yet begun to fight!”). He befriended Benjamin Franklin, dined with John and Abigail Adams on multiple occasions, preferred the title Chevalier to Commander, ended his career as an Admiral in Imperial Russia, and died in Paris at age 45.
I found an elucidating mention of Jones in a letter from Abigail Adams to her sister Betsy, dated December 3rd, 1784. Here’s a snippet set in Abigail’s eponymous font:
“We do not often See the Warriour and the Abigail thus united.” Ah, the delightful mental images handwritten letters to sisters leave you with.
It’ll take me a while to make this font, but stay tuned sometime in 2020—perhaps the 228th anniversary of the death of Chevalier Jones.
» What if the handwriting on the wall is cursive? Anything to keep from having to point to pictures on the menu.
» A 382-year-old family tree: Very old handwriting in China.
» A Tribute to the Fountain Pen: “No one writes like Abraham Lincoln anymore.”
» More recent famous people do, too: Like Meghan Markle.
» Now you, too, can learn to decipher old handwriting. (Hm, maybe I should consider teaching such a class.)