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Archive for the ‘Graphology’ Category
A letter: intimacy by hand
Sunday, January 23rd, 2022
An envelope from my father as a young man, handwritten intimacy in a keepsake.
Envelope containing a letter home
from my father as a young man

Having received a particularly thoughtful gift over the holidays, I picked up a pen, wrote a thank-you note, put it in an envelope, and dropped it in the mail. Only afterward did I realize it was the first handwritten letter I’d produced in a long, long time. I’ve written daily for many years, but these days I do it on a laptop keyboard. Nearly everything I write is digital: email, PMs, digital documents I can print out and send by the U.S. Mail. My handwriting has badly suffered for lack of practice.

Soon after I composed that note, I read about a family who nearly lost four decades of valued personal correspondence. (The story has a happy ending. And, yet again, I got to thinking about what we’ve lost with the decline of the habit of putting pen to paper.

I’ve written here about the thrill a person gets to recognize the handwriting of a loved one on, say, an envelope. Yet in these digital, online days, cursive script is no longer a core curriculum in schools. My guess is a new generation has trouble even deciphering cursive. No doubt kids still pass notes in class, and recognizing familiar hand-printing can certainly engender an emotional response. But what percentage of us actually bother to write a letter by hand anymore, cursive or no?

Losses to mourn

An envelope for a letter written by Daniel Ruggles to his wife in 1848, handwritten intimacy.
Addressed envelope for a letter written
by Daniel Ruggles to his wife in 1848

In thinking about my thank-you note, it struck me that there’s plenty more losses to mourn—beyond simply the thrill of recognition. Chief among them: a sense of intimacy.

To write a letter, a person must first feel a sense of urgency, a desire or obligation to communicate with another person too far away to talk to, when a phone call simply will not do. Letter-writers must then choose paper and a pen, make time to sit at a desk or table or subway car, compose mental sentences, and transfer those sentences via pen to page. They must have the address of the recipient handy (maybe know it by heart), likely have to fold the paper, might even have to lick the flap of the envelope before sliding it into a mail slot. The process involves lot of decisions, and a lot of touching (the pen, the paper, the envelope). Assuming the letter reaches its recipient, the results of all those motions appear in an actual physical object—one that might even get passed down through generations. As used to happen back when we bothered to go through the motions.

Intimacy by hand

An excerpt from 1779 letter by John Paul Jones is far more intimate than a typewritten page.
Excerpt from 1779 letter
by John Paul Jones

The intimacy of an old handwritten letter, seems to me, surpasses even a photo of a lost loved one. It surpasses the intimacy of a handkerchief or tool or hairbrush belonging to a historical figure. Consider a signature— an important, personal, persistent creation by someone wielding a pen. But a letter goes further—comprises thoughts, observations, stories, communication. It might contain good or bad news, words of love or aggravation—emotions that often come right through.

The font I’m currently working on replicates the penmanship of John Paul Jones (1747–1792). Among the source material I’m consulting you’ll find a letter, dated 11 November 1779, to M.J. Luzac, editor of the Gazette de Leyde. Its first sentence:

“It gives me great Pain to see that the translation which has appeared in your Gazette of the extract of my Journal is preceeded [sic] by an Observation which leaves room to suppose that it has been my intention to augment the merits of my Own Services by diminishing those of others.”

(Despite his long, careful, polite language, clearly Jones is pissed.)

Such clear, evocative sentences written centuries ago become much improved when seen written by the hands of the original authors, on paper they’ve chosen, closed with signatures that belong only to them. You can imagine the writing table, the inkwell, the oil lamp, the sealing wax. The words rise as intimate as whispers—far more considered and precise than remarks made during casual conversation. It strengthens the feeling that you’re catching a glimpse of the contents of the writer’s mind.

Of course an even greater sense of intimacy comes from holding the letter in your hand, touching a page also touched by the letter writer, a page perhaps still containing traces of the author’s DNA.

Miscellanea

» Today happens to be National Handwriting Day. Did you know writing in cursive boosts brain development? (It’s true!)

» A 19th-century African script offers clues to the evolution of the written word. Cool.

» Will handwriting last forever if cursive script is lost? Not necessarily.

» Speaking of thank-you notes, Betty White still had lovely, legible cursive script at age 99.

» Found handwriting: a gallery of photos of favorite handwritten messages in the modern age.

» Here’s an essay, titled “The Joy of Writing by Hand,” inspired by the author’s coming across a handwritten poem by Marilyn Monroe.

» And here’s a little something called “The Power of Penmanship,” which rather underscores my (long overdue) blog post above.

My Cursive Handwriting Sucks
Sunday, September 17th, 2017

My cursive handwriting test.

My cursive handwriting test.

A confession: my cursive handwriting sucks. I write by hand so rarely these days, and when I do, it tends to come out as a sort of stylized printing I forced on myself thirty or forty years ago. So I just tried writing a few short cursive sentences on an index card to see what it looks like.

Yeah, it sucks. In fact, I couldn’t even remember how to write a capital “T.”

Alas, I’m not alone. What got me testing out my cursive today was a recent news item about how Cambridge University educators are considering dropping their handwritten exam requirement—after more than 800 years. The problem being that the faculty is having trouble reading students’ handwriting.

18th-century penmanship from Kentucky County, Virginia.

18th-century penmanship from Kentucky County, Virginia.

“There has definitely been a downward trend,” says history lecturer Sarah Pearsall. “It is difficult for both the students and the examiners, as it is harder and harder to read these scripts.”

Bummer.

A Need for Speed

But I’ve long predicted this. Our smart digital devices are feeding our need for speed when it comes to all forms of communication. I mean, let’s face it: it takes a lot longer to write a thank-you note by hand than to tap out a text with your thumbs. Sure, taking the time to learn cursive might be good for your brain, your manual dexterity, and your memory, but first-world humans just prefer living in the fast lane these days, apparently.

The handwriting of Meriwether Lewis

The handwriting of Meriwether Lewis.

This got me wondering (not for the first time) how things might change if the grid goes down. Say a computer virus, an asteroid, a natural (or nuclear) disaster, solar flares, or Siri Personified takes us all offline in an instant. How will we communicate over long distances in such a post-apocalyptic scenario? Well, I reckon we’ll have to go back to scribbling out notes using charcoal on birch bark and handing them to a courier, who will deliver them to our remote recipient in person. And I can imagine the dismay on the face of our correspondent who can’t read a word we’ve written.

“Return to Sender. Illegible.”

Learn by Doing

Perhaps at the very least it’s worth practicing—if not your cursive—your hand-printing every now and then. Maybe by jotting down a grocery list, composing a thank-you note by hand, or authoring an actual letter, inserting it into an envelope, and dropping it in the U.S. Mail. I daresay pen makers and the U.S. Postal Service will appreciate it, as will your recipients. So long as they can read your writing.

The irony is that, during the decades of the decline of my penmanship, I’ve taught myself to decipher various styles of cursive handwriting from centuries gone by. And you can bet there’ll be someone with similar skills to help us out centuries from now:

“Siri, read me that old cursive letter.”


Miscellanea

» Cursive makes you smarter: a wonderful essay about all this stuff.

» Another articulate argument for not scrapping handwriting instruction.

» To heck with handwriting recognition: recognizing handwriting is a moving experience.

» Geneva, Ohio, honors the master penman who created Spencerian Script.

» Yes, truly exercising the brain sometimes takes a little time.

» On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, a graphologist reveals a few secrets.

» Finally, Darick “DDS” Spears has released a new hip hop album called “Penmanship.”

My Case for Cursive
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

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.


Abigail Adams American Scribe Botanical Scribe Douglass Pen Emily Austin Houston Pen

Lamar Pen Military Scribe Old Man Eloquent Remsen Script Schooner Script Texas Hero

Antiquarian Antiquarian Scribe Bonnycastle Geographica Terra Ignota

Attic Antique Bonsai Broadsheet Castine

Full Library Historical Pens Antique Texts Old Map Fonts Modern Hands

Handwritten History Bundle


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