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
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
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.
I am remiss for not having posted an entry here in so long. The fact of my finally finishing up the first true serif text-type family I’ve ever made is no good excuse (unlike, perhaps, my propensity to enter The Type Design Zone and not emerge for weeks at a time). Anyway, apologies.
But I have something to share today that I hope will make up for the delay: a dive deep into the quirks and peculiarities of 19th-century penmanship—or at least one man’s peculiar, quirky penmanship—that should give you an idea of how to go about deciphering old handwriting. Or at least how I do it.
Address page of the Ruggles letter.
The penmanship in question appears in a digital scan of a three-page letter (see below) sent to me by an acquaintance who has an enviable collection of historical records and documents from the days of the Republic of Texas. I’d transcribed a handwritten narrative for him already, one whose puzzles were mostly problematic words and short phrases. But this new letter—despite its bold and graceful pen strokes—caught me off guard for its first-blush illegibility. I’ve had plenty of trouble deciphering old handwriting, but at first glance I can usually get a fairly good idea of who had written a thing, or what was being written about. The scan of this letter, with its alluring greenish tinge, seemed more or less inscrutable.
Eventually, though, I managed to puzzle out every word. Here’s how.
An important clue was the destination address on the outside of the folded letter. I’d already looked at the first page, at the date and salutation, but all I could quickly read in the author’s sweeping script was a date that looked like “May 21st, 1838,” the country of origin, “Mexico,” and a town that might’ve been Guadalupe. The outside address was stamped VERA CRUZ MEXICO and had an old notation in pencil that offered two quick corrections: 1) the date was in fact 1848, and the town was Tacubaya (a far cry from Guadalupe!). Upon close inspection, the address appeared to be:
Mrs. Richd Ella M. Ruggles
Another puzzle. Was this a woman named Ella who was married to a man named Richard Ruggles? At least by now I had determined that the writer’s lowercase “a” looked like an “o” followed by an extra “i”-like stroke. And that the “d” had a very short ascender. After staring for a while I noticed a seemingly random horizontal stroke that told me her name likely wasn’t Ella after all—but Etta.
I took a peek at the last page of the letter, which the author had stylishly signed with the just his initials, “D.R.” So if this was a husband in Mexico writing a wife back in Virginia, his given name was clearly not Richard.
I pored for a while over the salutation, which—now that I could identify a few odd-shaped letters—I managed finally to work out: “My dearest Etta.” (I was now confident that was her name, from the way the cross of the “t” in “dearest” nearly missed the letter altogether, as did the cross of the double-“t” in Etta.) I soon also had the first paragraph deciphered. Not that it held a lot of clues. Further on I could read a few words and phrases, among them “prospect of peace,” “treaty,” “the 19th inst. Friday,” and what appeared to be the phrase “Chamber of Deputies.” I saw that the author made peculiar “r”s that had a sort of extra squiggle at the end, figured out that those tiny, two-line shapes were ampersands, grew accustomed to his open, unusual “I”s—and realized he was likely in Mexico because of war.
It was time to poke around online.
By searching for “Mexico,” “war,” and “1848,” I confirmed that the Mexican-American War ended in that year. A treaty was signed in February, but U.S. troops didn’t entirely evacuate until August. So I searched for “Ruggles” and “Mexican-American War”—and first on the list of results was a Wikipedia entry for Daniel Ruggles (1810–1897), a Brigadier General for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. I learned that, before that war, U.S. Lt. Col. Ruggles had served in the Texas Campaign, and later, after a long life, had died in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
A search for “Daniel Ruggles” and “Richard Etta” got me genealogical records showing that Richard Etta (or “Richardetta”) was in fact the wife of Daniel Ruggles. I learned that Etta’s maiden name was Hooe, that her middle initial stood for Mason, that she and Daniel were married in Michigan in 1841, and that she died in 1904. I even got a look at the the Ruggleses’ headstone in Virginia.
Armed with this additional background info (which helped also with the seemingly incongruous mention of “Saut on Ste Marie”) and a sense of context, I set to work transcribing Daniel Ruggles’s letter home to his wife, Richardetta. It took nearly two hours, but I got it done.
Deciphering old penmanship can be a puzzle, for sure, but a puzzle that—thanks, ironically, to the digital technology that might ultimately doom handwriting altogether—often promises a circuitous journey through interesting times gone by.
Below are the scans of the three pages of Ruggles’s letter, each followed by my transcription of that page. (Click any page image for a larger view.) I hope and expect you’ll find its contents surprising and fascinating.
The Ruggles Letter, page 1.
May 21st 1848
My Dearest Etta,
I have an opportunity to send you a line tomorrow morning early and write you, although I sent day before yesterday one with most things of importance noted.
Today however I can confirm in some measure this report in relation to the prospects of peace & it is therefore I write so soon again— as I am well aware that you are looking for every peaceful sound or show of hope as well as myself.
We have a well authenticated rumour that the Chamber of Deputies confirmed the Treaty 54 in favor to 32 against on the 19th inst. Friday last & sent it to the Senate at 8 o.c. p.m. on that day—this comes from Genl. Butler & is believable.
There is no doubt about the favorable actions of the Senate—and if our information is correct peace is certain.
The Ruggles Letter, page 2.
Every preparation has been made for the marching of our Troops towards the coast.
I shall write you now almost daily as I have means of sending letters.
There is some excitement here about a tragic affair of robbery and murder for which Lieut. B. P. Tilden of the 2d Infantry and two volunteer officers from Pennsylvania. Lieuts. Hare & Dutton, have been sentenced to be hanged on the 25th inst. This is the same Lieut. Tilden we saw at the Saut on Ste Marie.
It is said that another officer of the 2d Infy is suspected as an accomplice. The details will soon be published & ring throughout the Union like a bolt of thunder.
Here in the midst of great events these trials have not excited so much interest as was anticipated.
The particulars are voluminous & I must therefore refer you to News as they will appear in the papers. All feel sad for Tildens poor wife, & friends.
The Ruggles Letter, page 3.
Well I have nothing more to write nor have I time if I had.
Love to all the Family—kiſs Ed & Tip for me & Roy & Beſsie & all the children do write me very often.
Particular remembrances to all our friends & kind remembrances to the Servants.
Remember me in your prayers—dream of me & kiſs me in your heart.
To/ Mrs. Richard Etta M. Ruggles
[Note on the last page Riggins’s use of the old-style long-s (“ſ”) in the words “kiss” and “Bessie.”]
It all started, Trubek says, when her son began having problems in second grade—strictly because of his poor handwriting skills. So she wrote an article for Good magazine with the bold and declarative title Stop Teaching Handwriting. It drew a lot of interest.
The Gregg Method of shorthand.
And she has a point: young people of today might well go far in our technology-driven world without so much as ever touching a pen. What use is it for us to continue to embrace what was originally a strictly utilitarian skill out of some romantic sense of self, a part of our individuality?
Then again,the Freakonomics podcast goes on to tell us, research shows that students who take notes by hand recall a lot more of a lecture than those who merely transcribe what’s said via keyboard. So should we perhaps be reviving shorthand (a skill my father practiced, much to my childhood incredulity and awe)? Not so much, turns out—it’s a lot closer to straight keyboarding.
Still and all, cursive script appears to be on the way out—other than as a fine art form. Fewer people over time will be able to read engrossed old documents. Who among us these days, after all, can interpret the early hand-scribblings of, say, a Sumerian skilled at cuneiform?
Rev Robert J Palladino (at Reed College).
On the other end of the handwriting spectrum, you have a celebrated scribe like Rev. Robert J. Palladino, who died a couple weeks ago. Palladino was a Trappist monk when he began learning the skills that made him a master calligrapher who, at Reed College, influenced Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s design of the Macintosh computer. Jobs credited a Palladino calligraphy course he audited with helping inspire the whole idea of digital typography.
“[The Mac] was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”
In a delicious twist of irony, of course, a master with a pen helped further our mass migration over to the keyboard. But there’s something to be said for Father Palladino’s own unwired life—replete with its long periods of thoughtful silence—and his having never once used a computer in 83 years.
In keeping with my overarching theme here (i.e., handwriting as a sense of self), I’d like now to share another old handwritten document I’ve used as source material for a font I’ve designed. Below are page scans and a transcription of a two-and-a-half-page letter written 18 September 1825 by Samuel Clarke, then pastor of the Congregational Church of Princeton, Massachusetts, seeking donations for the victims of an accident at sea. Inspired by Clarke’s extremely distinctive penmanship, I designed Schooner Script back in 1996. [Note: the boat was in fact a sloop, but Sloop was a script already.]
The Schooner Script letter, page 1.
Princeton Sep. 18. 1825
It is known probably to most of you, that several of our acquaintance and friends, in coming from the State of Maine to this Town, have been exposed to the most imminent danger, and also sustained a considerable loss of property. As their danger and misfortunes have excited much sympathy; and as it is believed to be a Christian duty to do something for their relief, it may be proper, for the correct information of all, to make a short statement of the peril to which they were exposed, and the extent of their loss.
On Saturday the 10. inst, at 12.o.clock, Messrs How, Fay and Cobb with the wives of the two last, and eight other persons, sailed from Camden for Boston in the Sloop Governor. Their passage was favourable until about 8.o.clock on Saturday evening, when the Sloop was struck by another vessel which was apparently in distress, and whose fate is not known. The Sloop was so much injured by the unknown vessel, that she very soon filled with water, which, communicating with lime in the hold, caused her to take fire. Being unable, by the greatest exertion, to save the Sloop, the Captain with his men and passengers was obliged to abandon her, and consign themselves to a small Boat only thirteen feet long and about five wide. our friends were compelled so hastily to leave the Sloop, that they had no time to secure their trunks and clothing—and had they been even able to do this, the smallness of the Boat to which they fled, would not have admitted any additional weight. In this small Boat thirteen feet long, thirteen persons
The Schooner Script letter, page 2.
passed the whole of Saturday night on a boisterous, dangerous sea, some of them destitute of outer garments, and all of them in constant danger of immediate death. It is impossible for us to know, much more to describe their anxiety, their anguish. But a benevolent and merciful Providence watched over, and preserved them, when death appeared inevitable. After having been in this dangerous, distressing situation nine hours, they were discovered on the morn of the Sabbath by another Sloop which immediately came to their relief, and rescued them from impending destruction. In this Sloop they arrived in Boston on Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday were permitted to rejoice in again beholding this their native Town, and receiving the kind welcome and sincere sympathy of their acquaintance and friends.
They desire, with unfeigned gratitude, publicly to acknowledge the goodness and mercy of God which watched over and saved them in the season of extreme peril, which preserved them from the watery element, and which has again restored them to the arms of their brethren and friends—
It may be proper to state that Messrs How and Fay saved their money, with the exception of a small sum lost by Mrs. Fay—but they lost a considerable amount of property in clothing. Our young friends Mr. and Mrs. Cobb lost nearly five hundred dollars, about four hundred of which was in money, and the rest in new and valuable clothing.
There can be no doubt, Brethren, respecting our duty in relation to the misfortune of our friends. While we sympathize with them, we should also assist them in bearing the burdens which a wise Providence has seen fit to lay upon them. It has been suggested by several respectable persons that the easiest and most effectual method of rendering them assistance, would be to request a contribution in each of the religious Societies in this Town on the
The Schooner Script letter, page 3.
next Sabbath. In accordance with this suggestion a contribution will be requested in this place in the afternoon of the next Sabbath, when it is hoped that our charity will correspond with our ability and the necessities of our friends, and manifest for us that we do truly sympathize with them in their sufferings, rejoice in their preservation, and are anxious for their future comfort and happiness—
Pastor of the Congregational Church
» Lamentations continue over the decline of cursive—from pen companies, forensic scientists, and autograph collectors.