Recently I stumbled upon Snail Mail My Email, the website for artist Ivan Cash’s online community art project whereby hundreds of volunteers transcribe the email messages of strangers into handwritten letters, which then get dropped in the mail. A novel, fun-sounding idea, to be sure—especially once you realize that most of the letters get the sort of eye-catching embellishments you might find on a greeting card. But what struck me first was its slugline: “Handwritten Letters in a Digital World.”
The idea left me, confusingly, both encouraged and aghast.
My mother helped with Texas Hero.
Granted, there’s no little irony in the fact that I’m batting out these very words on the keyboard of a MacBook Pro—let alone the fact that I rarely ever send a handwritten letter these days. But if you’re a sighted person of a certain age, you’re sure to hold fast in your memory a small library of familiar handwriting samples.
Off the top of my head I can think of at least a dozen people whose penmanship I’d recognize in an instant: my parents, my siblings, my daughter, a grandfather and an aunt, two ex-wives, a couple old coworkers, a few good friends. And that’s not even counting more than a dozen others whose handwriting I’ve preserved in digital form—e.g., Abigail, Viktorie, and Marydale.
But what do you get when you open a letter in a stranger’s handwriting? There’s no flash of recognition at first glance at the hand-addressed envelope. No flutter in your gut as a face comes to mind. No proof that someone known and loved has reached out to you.
Envelope from my father as a young man.
It’s an art project, I get it. But the encounter reminded me that no more will I see envelopes freshly addressed by certain familiar pens—that of my dear mother, for instance, not even in her jiggly, Parkinson’s-induced scrawl. I can at least still revisit scores of her letters I’ve got in safe keeping. Although the flash of recognition lacks fresh brightness, it’s the work of her hand.
The power of familiar script is described with particular poignancy by Virginia resident Elsa Ann Heller, who was surprised to recognize her grandmother’s handwriting on a seventy-year-old postcard decorating a local restaurant:
“I know that sounds pretty old-fashioned, but that is how I know her. Her handwriting is written on my heart.”
Ornament from Geographica, coming soon.
Then again I’m not the only one who’s neglected his penmanship lately. Some time after Heather du Plessis-Allan, a presenter with a New Zealand current affairs TV show, broke a story exposing a loophole that let her buy a gun online without a permit, police showed up with a search warrant looking for handwriting samples. In the wake of the search—which suggests whoever ordered the gun might face punishment for breaking the law—she realized she barely handwrites anything anymore.
“Nowadays, everything is done on my laptop, tablet or cellphone. Even the grocery list. I email that to myself on the way to the supermarket.”
Detail of S. F. Austin’s journal.
Me, meantime? Well, I’m currently working on my first modern serif typeface ever—although it’s based on historical materials. In particular, I’m consulting the maps published by eighteenth-century English engraver Thomas Jefferys, known at the time as the “Geographer for King George III.” The neat lettering on Jefferys’s maps inspired me to give real type design a go for once.
But never fear, because after I finish Geographica, I’ll be making another old penmanship font modeled after the hand of Texas pioneer Stephen F. Austin (in his journal from a Mexican prison, circa 1834–35). And after that I’ve got a pretty cool modern handwriting font planned. Stay tuned!
» It seems letter-writing clubs are a thing, and the Wonder Fair Letter Writing Club looks like a good one.
» A frightening prospect: machines have been passing the Turing Test—of handwriting.
» An art exhibit called “Good Penmanship” bids penmanship adieu.