Some of the historical figures whose penmanship I’ve replicated over the years were true heroes—like Frederick Douglass (abolitionist, statesman, orator, and inspiration for Douglass Pen). But some also had a shady side. For instance, most of those whose hands inspired my Texas Heroes Font Set owned slaves; then again both Sam Houston (Houston Pen) and Thomas J Rusk (Texas Hero), Texas’s first two U.S. Senators, opposed secession from the Union.
Bonhomme Richard, my latest, just-released old pen font, is modeled after the fine cursive script of John Paul Jones, who happens to fall into the latter category. On the one hand, he was the hero of one of the earliest and most famous U.S. naval engagements, the Battle of Flamborough Head; on the other, Jones demonstrated something of a disagreeable nature, leading to lifelong disputes, accusations, and clashes with authority.
As a Scottish youth named John Paul, Jones went to sea, sailed the Atlantic on merchant and slave ships, and worked his way up to ship’s master—albeit with an apparent affinity for violent leadership. He spent time in jail for flogging a crew member who died as a result, and later he killed a mutinous crewman with a sword. Although he claimed self-defense in the second incident, he doubted he’d get a fair trial and fled to the American colony of Virginia, where he added the last name “Jones.”
In the Colonies, thanks to his undeniable mariner’s skills, Jones soon found himself a commander in the fledgling Continental Navy. In France in 1777, appealing for the Colonial cause, Jones met (perhaps even befriended) American Commissioner Benjamin Franklin. Two years later, he took command of the Continental frigate Bonhomme Richard, named after Franklin (from Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard, the French translation of Poor Richard’s Almanack). Although his ship was lost at Flamborough Head, Jones and crew emerged victorious over the British warship HMS Serapis, commanded by Richard Pearson. When Pearson challenged Jones to surrender, he’s said to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” (It’s likely to have been something more like “I may sink, but I’m damned if I strike!”)
The next year,King Louis XVI of France honored Jones with the title “Chevalier,” likely the high point of his career.
After the war, Chevalier Jones had various commands fall through or expire until 1887, when he entered the service of Catherine the Great of Russia. But there, too, he found himself mired in controversy—including an 1889 charge of having sexually assaulted a ten-year-old girl. Although very likely guilty of the deed, he managed to avoid punishment and died in Paris three years later, at age 45.
Humanity is full of good and bad characters. But just to be clear, the old pen fonts I design don’t celebrate the characters of the historical figures who wrote that way—just their writing styles. Some folks just had very cool handwriting. And the ability to write clearly and stylishly by hand seems a dying art these days.
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!)
Last February I released Austin Pen, my 14th typeface simulating real historical handwriting—and my 33rd overall. Soon after, I decided it would be my last original type design. Making a modern font takes hundreds of hours over a span of several months. At least for me it does. Probably I’m slow, or overly painstaking, or merely perfectionistic (considering I’m never entirely satisfied with the end result).
But I’ve reached an age where I feel compelled to spend time creating other things I’d like to make while there’s still time. Which is no doubt why I haven’t polished off a new Antique Penman post since February. I apologize for that.
Thomas J. Rusk’s lament.
Just yesterday I got to looking back at Texas Hero, my very first old pen font, which I started working on pretty much exactly 25 years ago. Texas Hero was, I’m pretty sure, the first typeface designed to replicate the look of genuine old handwriting, warts and all. I was new at the font game back then, having made three eclectic faces earlier in 1993. Didn’t know what I was doing at first, and certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I recall one day hunting around for a font that looked like 18th century handwriting—and finding none. For not the first time, I decided to fill a void. My indispensable partner in this enterprise was my late ma, Jeanne R. Willson, a historical librarian who then worked at what is now the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas (my alma mater). I knew she had long studied historical letters and documents and would certainly be able to supply examples of old cursive script.
Emily Austin Perry’s hand.
And she did. I got photocopies of letters from several famous Texans (naturally) dating back to the time of the Republic. I got to see the handwriting of folks like Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, Emily Austin Perry, David Burnet (I think), and Thomas J. Rusk. All their hands were distinctly different—fancy, flowery, bold, intricate, and/or a bit messy—but one had just the balance of legibility and period authenticity: Rusk’s.
When people think of Texas heroes, they don’t usually think of Thomas Jefferson Rusk. But he served as a general at the Battle of San Jacinto, as the fledgling Republic’s first Secretary of War, and in 1846 was elected one of the new state’s first U.S. Senators (the other being Houston). He died in 1857, at age 53, by self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Frederick Douglass’s penmanship.
I remember vividly having to look extremely closely at Rusk’s handwriting, getting intimately familiar with his loops and curves, reading and rereading several of his official letters—and one sad, oft-folded lament of the death of his two-year-old namesake son. It was the first of many times I found myself both deeply moved and somehow changed by the words and penmanship of a person who’d died more than a century ago.*
And still I think often of the closeness, familiarity, and nuance we stand to lose in this era of keyboards and texting and speech-to-text. We might even end up communicating like we did before the age of literacy: verbally or visually or via smoke signal.
I hold out hope, though, that writing by hand will remain a thing—even if only a sort of calligraphic art form.